Friday, September 8, 2017

T.J. Wheeler: Blues in the Schools and the Graveyard

Sonny Boy Williamson II
T.J. Wheeler's 1990 Blues in the Schools (BITS)
and the Graveyard Tour: Part I

Written by T.J. Wheeler
Edited by T. DeWayne Moore

[Author's Note: In a reversal of the status quo, the author does not identify most folks as African Americans. Except for Jake Jacobs, his personal acquaintances in the Sonny Boy Blues Society, and himself, everyone referenced is African American--unless otherwise noted.]

Since seeing the posts on the early 1990s efforts to maintain Sonny Boy Williamson's (Rice Miller) grave by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund and the overall resting place was kept clean as well as kept up,. I've been promising to pony up on my recollections of that effort. I've been partially procrastinating on doing this because it would take a while to fully explain & express not only my facts but also my feelings. So I'm going to have to do this in drips & drabs. Here is the prelude.

In the spring of 1987 my good friend and harp man Rockin' Jake Jacobs took 61 Highway (and byways) sojourn from NOLA to Memphis. We made a few stops along the way, as well as in Memphis, visiting our friend James "Son" Thomas, Wade Walton, visiting the late Bukka White's family (in Memphis) doing a gig set up by Joe Saverin on Beale and a follow-up meeting with his fledgling nonprofit org., known then as the W.C. Handy Blues Foundation. 

Neither of us felt the trip would be complete if we didn't make a stop in Tutwiler to pay our respects at Sonny Boy's gravesite. Who says you can't teach an old dawg new/old tricks about even older prejudices? After spending about 20 min. in the town graveyard (which we assumed would be the logical place to start looking for a grave) checking various graves, many of which also had pictures of the deceased inserted in the headstone, like the one in Sonny Boy's) we came to a mutual conclusion. Not only was it unlikely we'd find Sonny Boy's grave, but it was also unlikely that we'd find the graves of any African Americans.

This certainly was not my first time in the South. 

Throughout the 70s, I had made many trips including about four months in Memphis in 1974, hanging out daily between Bukka White and Furry Lewis's house. I had just about kicked myself for being so naive...racism was so embedded in so much of the South that people could not live together under the rule of Jim Crow; they couldn't even die and be put to rest in the same graveyard together.

T.J. Wheeler c. 1990
After the realization that Jim Crow segregation extended into the afterlife, our search literally and figuratively became more grassroots.

I remembered Furry Lewis’s words from well over a decade before, in response to my question for directions to Sleepy John Estes’s house in Brownsville Tennessee. “Just take that right-hand road," he informed, "and then just ask the first person you see how to get there.” Though I had my doubts at the time, I followed not only his advice but a young boy on a stingray bicycle (who was the very first person I saw) all the way to Sleepy John’s house.  With nothing to lose, we tried the same tactic in Tutwiler. It was a tall, thin elderly gentleman walking with his young grandson, hand-in-hand, down the street that first appeared.  Bingo! He knew right where it was, gave us directions and wished us luck. 

With my memory for details, however, it was only a few minutes before we were lost again. 

We pulled over and stopped at a house where we saw a family on the front porch. Stepping out of the car and up the porch, I explained our dilemma and asked if they could help. Somewhat surprisingly, while the older family members weren’t sure, a young woman said she not only knew but would be glad to show us the way.

Within a couple of minutes, we were there and trail-blazed our way through the overgrown grass, weeds, and bushes behind what appeared to be an unused, old white church (that I later found out was the old Whitfield M. B. Church.) Within a few seconds, we were standing in front of Sonny Boy’s grave. I’m sure Jake’s and my reactions emotionally and mentally, weren't unlike most others that had made the journey. It seemed just so incongruous that a man who had influenced so many musically (including fans, aficionados, scholars, amateur & part-time musicians, as well as some of the most famous & richest musician superstars in the world) would have his remains buried in such isolated and unkempt conditions.

The token, seemingly, prerequisite gestures, of an old harmonica or two, a little change, an empty liquor bottle were “sacraments” left behind by pilgrims who had come before us. I wondered if the discovery had left them feeling as impotent and useless as I did. Rockin’ Jake pulled out a harp and performed, which in retrospect seemed somewhat fortuitous, a rendition of Sonny Boy’s classic “Help Me.”  With an acute awareness of the irony, we both laughed as he played and sang.  He was decked out in an ensemble of Old Navy shorts, tee, and sunglasses.

In 1986, John Allison--son of Mose--visits the overgrown grave of SBW II.

As far as clothing goes in the springtime heat and ninety-percent humidity of the day, however, less was definitely more.

When we were getting ready to leave, our guide, whose name was Josephine, asked us if we needed a secretary, receptionist for our business back in New Hampshire. Obviously, she confused us with people with real jobs and actual means….and a possible way out of the poverty in Tutwiler. Compared to her own situation I could, in many senses of the term, see where she was coming from. That only left me feeling that much more powerless.

T.J. Wheeler c. 2010
Within a year from that sojourn, Rockin Jake moved to New Orleans and was carving out his niche as a harp player and bandleader. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, I continued my work as a Bluessicianeer leading my own band Tj Wheeler & the Smokers, doing regional BITS (Blues in the School) programs in New England, and doing my activist work with the activist/educational nonprofit org., I’d found in 1985, along with Black History researcher Valerie Cunningham, the Blues Bank Collective.

Part of that activism led me to do a few gigs with Rev. Jesse Jackson when he made his first run for the presidency.[note 1, p1]   The appearances consisted of performing a series of short opening sets at various rallies around the state of New Hampshire. Whether it was at a church, a school gym, a homeless shelter, or a mass rally in a public square, Rev. Jackson got even the live free or die residents of New Hampshire so fired up and "politically sanctified" that you would swear it was Sunday service in a Missionary Baptist (M.B) Church. You would have had to be a robot not to get swept up in the emotionally-charged, multi-repeating call-and-response shouts that Rev. Jackson initiated with the crowd: 

Keep (keep) Hope (hope) Alive (alive)!

During one of the shouts, I had a realization; even though they had been born out of the hardest of times, the Blues was the music of hope--among other things, of course. As far back as my mind allows, I could not ever recall having read about that concomitant relationship being put in such plain, truth-telling language. 

The optimism of that epiphany seemed at first counter-analogous to the Blues…or at least the "I’m bad like Jesse James" style of masculinist imagery. The notion had stayed with me, and the more I reflected on it the more it felt right. After all, what is more, audacious and badass, in the face of overwhelming odds against your very humanity and freedom, than firmly believing that there is a "soul force" [NOTE 1, page 2] embedded so deep and affirming inside you that no matter how much you are inundated that you will overcome? Sound like religion?

Well, whatever gets you through the night...

Within a week or so I was writing to the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation for a partial grant to do what would be my first National BITS tour, which I named "Hope, Heroes & the Blues." Being aware that, if granted, the majority of that tour would be in the Southland, there was no doubt in my mind that it would lead me back to a place of legend, a holy site of pilgrimage for so many, a place divorced from reality in the mind of the enthusiast, a place that soon would bring my own myths and paeans crashing down, a place far from where my education began, yet crucial to it moving forward.... 

To read part 2, click HERE

[1] Jesse Jackson experienced a cold reception at the 1984 Delta Blues Festival, which boasted an attendance level of 35,000. First, the festival director Malcolm Walls forwarded a "we want to keep politics out of it" agenda in hopes of not upsetting all the tourists in the conservative Reagon era. His brief talk on the stage concerned unity within the Democratic Party.  Due to the spike in attendance, a major influx of cash, and his generally benign demeanor, Walls tried his hardest not to upset the avowed former segregationists who bolted the Democratic Party out of disgust for concepts of "unity" "equality" and the "brotherhood of man." He soon, nevertheless, received an immersive baptism into the hard-right ranks of the evangelical conservative tantrums and boycotts of the festival, perhaps much earlier than they were going to do it anyway.

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