Monday, February 27, 2017

Belton Sutherland Project

An Unmarked Biography of Belton Sutherland 
Produced by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund​

Clarion Ledger, Oct 15, 1983.

This short film offers new details about the life of a largely undocumented musician from Madison County, Mississippi named Belton Sutherland, who recorded for Worth Long and Alan Lomax in 1978 for the documentary film, The Land Where the Blues Began. We have located his burial records and hope to erect a marker for this fiercely iconoclastic artist, whose clever lyrics and true tone grabs any listener almost immediately.

Belton Sutherland was born on February 14, 1911--the same year as the legendary Robert Johnson. His parents, William and Hallie Sutherland, already had eight children, and they would have four more after Belton, making a total of thirteen. He lost his mother shortly before his eighth birthday, and he had married and moved to Holmes County by the age of eighteen. By the late 1930s, however, he came back to Madison County, got arrested for forging a $25 check, and served eight months of a two year prison sentence before the remainder got suspended by the governor.
Clarion Ledger, Mar 10, 1937.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Granite Headstone Veneered in Black Dedicated at Little Zion??

Granite Headstone Veneered in Black 
Dedicated at Little Zion??
By Bob Darden - 2001

A crowd of 45 people gathered Thursday at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Money Road to celebrate the erection of a headstone marking the grave of blues great Robert Johnson.

"I think it is going to be real good for the church and the community. This guy was popular,” admitted Sylvester Hoover, chairman of Little Zion's Deacon Board.

The exact location of Johnson’s grave has been a source of disagreement over the years, and the marker probably won’t change a lot of people’s minds about the location of the musician’s final resting place.  

It wasn’t until last year that Little Zion member Rosie Eskridge told blues historian Steve LaVere of Greenwood and the Commonwealth that she remembered that her husband, Tom, was in charge of Johnson's burial Aug. 16, 1938. Gaylon Wardlow of Pensacola, Fla., who describes himself as a “blues investigator,” said with other little-known Eskridge's version fits details of the Johnson case.

Wardlow said he uncovered Johnson's death certificate in 1968. Although the document did not list a doctor, it did list that information about Johnson was provided to the coroner by Jim Moore. Wardlow said Moore had been a worker on Luther Wade's plantation at the time of Johnson's death. The plantation was directly across the Tallahatchie River from Little Zion church, he said.  Wardlow said he picked the Commonwealth's story off the Associated Press wire and wanted to pursue it further.

Two months ago, Wardlow said, he came to Greenwood to interview Eskridge. "She told me she knew Jim Moore.  It fit.”

Eskridge attended Thursday’s ceremony but did not speak with reporters. Wardlow said Eskridge confirmed another detail disclosed on the back of Johnson's death certificate that Johnson was buried in a homemade coffin supplied by the county.  "She didn't know about the back side of the death certificate," which contained the details about the coffin and Moore.

Some confusion was created when the death certificate listed Johnson's burial as taking place in "Zion Church” Cemetery and not Little Zion, he said. Little Zion's Hoover said he knew little about Johnson and his influence on the world of music. "I went to school here, and they didn't teach me nothing about this guy," he said. "I'm glad he's here. He's in the right place."

Wardlow said he believes Johnson was the victim of syphilis and not foul play when he died at the age of 26. One popular story is that Johnson was poisoned by the jealous operator of a juke joint. "Robert Johnson knew he was going to die from complications of syphilis. He had the bad eye," Wardlow said. Wardlow also said the story that Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for supernatural musical talent is a myth. "Robert Johnson did not sell his soul to the devil at the crossroads," he said. When Johnson died, he "went to a spiritual heaven, not with Satan and the devil," Wardlow said. Wardlow said he provided the $684 granite headstone veneered in black. Although an inscription hasn't been made on the marker, Wardlow said he had a few ideas. He’ll probably write 'Legendary Mississippi Bluesman' or 'Most Influential Bluesman of All Time. May He Be in the Heavenly Way,"' he said.

The Rev. McArthur McKinley, pastor of Little Zion, said the celebration of the marker was appropriate. "I'm glad we finally found him.  We'll take it from here," he said. 

"Take it" is right.  The next week, they took it right out of there, allegedly planning to erect a taller marker.

The Greenwood Commonwealth, Aug 27, 2001.

A headstone was finally placed in the early months of 2002.  Whereas Gayle Dean Wardlow had graciously agreed to pay for the first marker as well as contribute to the supposedly massive second marker, Steve LaVere ended up footing the bill for his specialty marker, which contained the highly questionable handwritten letter supposedly written by Robert Johnson. LaVere, however, never allowed anyone to examine the letter to verify its authenticity.  Thus, still today, it remains highly dubious.  Not only that, but his purchase of the marker gave him and the Johnson estate a fair amount of discretion as to how or if the church might maintain its own cemetery.  He was not above filing a lawsuit against the church, which created much tension within the congregation.  Instead of unifying the church by supporting the pastor, who was put in a very precarious situation by supporting the installation of a bluesman's grave marker, LaVere instead thwarted his efforts to prove the marker would be a boon to the church.

The Greenwood Commonwealth, Feb 22, 2004.

Before the Blue Front

Before the Blue Front: 
Community Action Association (CAA) Sponsors Basic Education
By Photo-journalist Ken Smith - in the Yazoo (MS) Herald, March 1973

Jimmy Holmes checks the paper of his 88-year-old
student, Mrs. Ollie Little, who didn’t “miss a class" 
in an effort to upgrade her third-grade education.
The Community Action Association building in Bentonia was once a small store. It isn’t very big and facilities are sparse, but on Wednesday evenings there is a hum of activity and mood of earnest determination.

From the street it’s likely one could not correctly ascertain the number of people crammed between the walls, because there is a definite lack of automobiles in the few parking spaces in front. The people, nearly 30 most nights, do not own cars or much of anything else. They are the poor and illiterate folk who lived in Bentonia, who never got a chance for much education in Yazoo County before the 1970s.

With the help of a 24-year-old native son, the students, ranging in age from 22 to 88, are doing something about their plight.

Jimmy Holmes, a senior at Jackson State College, is leading them and from all accounts, they are most willing to follow.  An athletic looking young man--and well he should be for his major is physical education--Holmes sports a slight mustache and an Afro.  “Hopefully,” writes photo-journalist Ken Smith, “he is the ‘new breed’ of black leadership.”  He is a teacher and his 30 pupils have an average of only seven years of schooling.

Holmes dedicates his free time to helping the people of his community find a path from the darkness of ignorance. He called it teaching the “three R’s,” but technically the course was “basic education.”  Assisting him in this project were the center operators, Willie Mae Johnson and Vidine Hilderbrand.  

The students included Mattie Roberts, Ollie Little, Geneva Owens, Iola Gregory, Vernilla Wilson, Jerry Dean, Ira Hudson, Mattie Wilson, Cloritha Wilson, Georgia Hudson, Cliff Berry, Luretha Mason, Alberta Mason, Eva Margiu, Johnnie Walker, Fate Hammond, Christine Demus, Alfreda Shaffer, Lizzie Lee Hammond, Elvia Henderson, Matter Courthous, Vertistine Hubbard, Isaiah Johnson, Leslie Hudson, Flora B. Griffin, C.M. Harrelson, Josie Lee Anderson, Alma Williams and Ella Luckett.

One of these students, Mrs. Ollie Little, is 88 years old, “but she never misses a class” said Mrs. Johnson. The students have a thirst for knowledge, for the education they missed, Walking a few blocks—or a few miles—to get to the one room school house isn't too much, and they are grateful for the opportunity.

The Yazoo Herald, Mar 15, 1973.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Legend of Blues Artist Sam Myers

Music Makes Money for Man Afflicted with Cataracts
By Denise Estes - 1980

Sam Myers has been in the entertainment business for a long time. He has worked hard and invested a lot of time to make something of his talents. At 44, he may not have reached the biggest of the big times, but, to him, "everyday brings a change when you're climbing up the ladder."

"I had a great struggle when I started out," he said. "Opportunities didn't come on a silver platter. You had to really put some hard work and time into it. I've been stranded in a lot of places trying to make a buck to get back home. But you've got to get that experience to really know how it is," said Myers, a local blues singer and musician.

Myers, who has suffered a cataract condition since age 14 that makes him almost blind, started in music at 10. As early as 14, he was spending his summers away from school on stage with established Chicago musicians and looking for work.

Although born in Mobile, Ala., he considers himself a Jacksonian be-cause he attended Piney Woods as a youngster. Piney Woods where he first became interested in music, was once located in Mobile, but later moved to Jackson.

"One day while at school I heard a band playing," he said. "I asked Jonas Brown, who, even though I didn't know at the time, had been placed with me to find out my interests, where the music was coming from. He told me that it was the band playing and asked me if I wanted to go and watch. I said yes, and from there I went off into music. It was some-thing that really inspired me to stay in school," he said.

In the meantime, Brown, now a minister in Jackson, went back to tell the principal of Piney Woods that he had finally found out what Myers was interested in, said Myers.

"At first," said Myers, "I kept saying to myself 'I'm going to run away from this place.' but after becoming interested in music. I never wanted to leave the school when my mother would come to get me."

During school he learned to play the drums, trumpet and trombone. He played with the marching band, swing band and sang with the choir.

"The swinging band was really something then." he said.

Myers, who recently returned from a tour of Europe has been performing around Jackson for the past 20 years. His fans are always' yelling. "Sing it Sam." And those that hear him for the first time after an ear of Sam's smooth blues, become loyal fans.

In Northeast Jackson, he has per-formed at the Lamar Emporium, George Street Upstairs, C.W. Goodnight and recently performed at the Sheraton's Pyramid Lounge.

Myers has written three albums and two singles. His three albums are on the T.J. Records label out of San Francisco. One of the singles was done on an ACE label and the other on the FIRE label of New York.

In 1957, he recorded a single. "Sleeping in the Ground" and "My Love is Here to Stay" under the ACE label. In 1959, he recorded, "You Don't Have To Go" and "Sad, Sad Lonesome Day," a single under the FIRE label.

While playing at Richard's Playhouse on Farish Street one night in 1978, an agent from T.J. Associates offered him a five-year contract with the company.

"It sounded good to me so I signed," said Myers.

Under his present contract he has recorded three albums, "Down Home Mississippi," his biggest seller, "Sam Myers Sings the Blues." and his latest release "The Worlds Wonder."

Myers has been in and out of recording studios and has traveled with popular musicians since he got into the music business. He has played and recorded with Muddy Water and other Chicago_ musicians.

"At that time it was hard for me to get off into nightclubs as a solo performer,” he said.

A lot of musicians have influenced Myers music. He has worked with Jimmy Smith an organist. and Charles Brown. a blues and jazz musician, both great artists of the 40s. "They influenced me to hang in there.' He also has also worked with Elmore James, a famous jazz guitarist and was also inspired by the music of trumpet player Broff Davis of Jackson State University, he said.

After retiring from the road for a while, Myers started working full-time in a factory at the Mississippi Industry for the Blind and has worked there for the past 14 years.

“But,” he said, “up until then I had always been able to make a living in the music business."

Outside of entertaining, the work at the Industries for the Blind was the only other job he has ever had.

"In fact, it was the first time ever having a Social Security card," he said.

For 10 of his years at his new job, Myers was out of the music business, but he never got it out of his blood.

He said, “It wasn't fun living out of a suitcase, doing one-righters, but when the guys (musicians) would come to town and I'd chat with them and ask them how it had been going and they'd tell me it was 'OK man' or when they'd get on the bus and leave. I’d get homesick.”

Mamie "Galore" Davis Memorial Dedication

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Capturing Black Culture on Film

Capturing Black Culture on Film
By Bill Nichols - 1982

Roland Freeman is driven by dreams that can hide in the guise of demons.

Just watch him as he talks. He coils and uncoils in his chair, tenses his body or tosses back his head in a horselaugh, all depending on the mood of the moment, as a stream of ideas flow forth, racking his body like the pains of labor.

He's a man driven by a vision of history.

Southern Roads/City Pavements, the exhibit of this acclaimed photographer's work on display at the Old Capitol Museum, offers a major clue toward understanding Freeman's artistic obsession. It's the latest compilation of work from an artist/documentarian who intends nothing less than crystallizing the black experience within a lens frame before it is buried like a relic of a lost civilization.

That dream pushes this young black photographer all over the world in search of black culture. Southern Roads/City Pavements pairs pictures shot in 13 counties in southwest Mississippi with photos of urban New York, Baltimore and Chicago, and Freeman is certain of the similarities, the shared tradition, even of the most dissimilar places.

He's developed an eye for the black soul. But it wasn't always that way.

Freeman was born some 44 years ago in Baltimore in the midst of the Depression and lived the street life to the fullest until he was 13, when he was sent to live on a Maryland tobacco farm. It was there he learned the love for the land that is so evident in his pictures of rural farmers.

He grew up some more, joined the Air Force, won a Brownie camera in a crap game and became interested in a growing American civil rights movement. One march led to another until Aug. 28, 1963.

The march on Washington occurred that day and would forever more change Freeman's life.

"I was so choked up watching that march that I knew I wanted to say something," Freeman said. Photography quickly revealed itself as his voice.

The Poor People's Campaign March
"Most people starting photography don't know what they want to say," Freeman said, reminiscing about his start. "I knew from the beginning." He studied the work of Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava, tried and experimented for about five years and in 1968 found himself documenting the Poor People's Campaign march from Marks to Washington, D.C.

The Farm Security Administration documentaries from the Depression fascinated this young artist. "I thought to myself, `If white people were hurting this much, hell, what were the black folks doing?' "Freeman said.

He went on to work for Life Magazine, string for the prestigious Magnum photographic service in Washington and generally become "a pretty hotshot Washington photographer," in Freeman's words.

Yet his real vocation had yet to begin. He always had been fascinated by black traditions in Baltimore, and began photographing street scenes during off-hours. "I didn't even realize what I was doing was folklore," he said as he laughed about his beginnings in the documentary trade.

The Smithsonian Institution knew better. In 1972, Freeman was asked to contribute pictures to the Smithsonian's yearly folklore festival. That association led him to a job in 1974, shooting pictures in Mississippi for the 1974 festival, and finally his own project in 1975, called the Mississippi Folklife project, which Freeman worked on with folklorist Worth Long, a man Freeman calls a brother, "one of those elusive geniuses."

All of which led Freeman down the path to Southern Roads/City Pavements, an extension of the work he began with Long in 1975. The exhibit opened in the New York international Center of Photography before coming to Jackson and New York Times photo critic Gene Thornton described his work as going, "beyond reportage to express something that is universal and lasting."

That pleased Freeman immensely, but the drive goes on. Much remains to be done. After all, this is a man who describes his creative process as "working on raw guts. I work on a lot of nervous, mad energy."

He wants to catalog a black heritage he is intensely proud of, a tradition he maintains exists in spite of the black migration from the South to the economic opportunities of the city.

A city boy by birth, Freemen loves the simplicity and honesty of farm people and that love shines forth in his work.

"What some people call hick is hipper than the people who think they're hip," he said.

The anger he felt in the civil rights period has transformed into the objectivity of the documentarian. "I'm interested in how black people have survived. We've been subject to a mass conspiracy through the Western world, yet we've managed to educate people, sustain a culture and move into mainstream American life," he said.

Southern Roads/City Pavements will remain at the Old Capitol Museum until March 14, but Roland Freeman's work will go on the rest of his life. Commercial assignments, for clients like the World Bank, pay his bills, and his documentary work keeps the energy flowing.

Freeman leaves you certain of his belief in his art. His eyes glaze, the hands swirl in an inadequate attempt to describe what only a photographer's eye can conjure.

The demons subside, the dreams are given form, molded with the press of a finger, the quiet click of a tiny shutter.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Headstone of Sonny Boy Williamson II: The Foundation of Blues Tourism Sits in Tutwiler

The Headstone of Sonny Boy Williamson II:
The Foundation of Blues Tourism Sits in Tutwiler 

The back of Williamson's Grave
In the early 1900s, the only way across the Mississippi at Helena. Ark., was a ferry run by Harold Jenkins, father of country singer Conway Twitty. The ferry closed at midnight. "which was good in my favor," says Mrs. Hill. who still runs the hotel, when they were playing juke joints in Clarksdale or nearby towns. 

"When they had to stay over, they stayed with me," she says. The musicians kept a piano on the premises, and the place rang with music.

Mrs. Hill was a good friend of Sonny Boy Williamson, a flamboyant harmonica player and singer who was featured on the popular live radio show King Biscuit Time on station KFFA in Helena. The show's sponsor, Interstate Grocery Co., manufactured Sonny Boy Corn Meal, featuring a drawing of Williamson playing his harmonica while sitting barefoot on an ear of corn.

During the 1960s, Williamson became popular with the rock generation. He played extensively in Europe and considered moving there. But, sensing that he was dying, he returned home a few months before his death in 1965. 

Mrs. Hill recalls that Williamson stopped by one Sunday afternoon and found that she was taking a nap. "Wake her up." he demanded. "I want to play some music." 

"He played in front of my window, on my porch," she recalls. "Oh he had a crowd that Sunday. It didn't take him long to draw a crowd. He went on, and a few days later he was dead." 

Williamson's body was found in the second-floor apartment he kept over a business in downtown Helena. According to King Biscuit Time announcer Sonny Payne, the downstairs business in those days was the Dreamland Cafe. If that sounds like a touch worthy of Tennessee Williams, you'll be interested to know that the late playwright once lived in Clarksdale. 

Williamson's grave is near Tutwiler, which is on U.S. 49. about 15 miles southeast of Clarksdale. No signs point the way, but it's not hard to find someone to direct you down a country road to the churchyard. Unlike in the 1980s, you won't find the musician's grave overgrown. 

McMurry's Rough Draft (c. 1976)
The idea for the headstone came about in Jackson, Mississippi.  Lillian McMurry and the board of directors of Globe Music Corporation met in Jackson to discuss promotions and the music business on December 3, 1976.  Since she wanted to “to get some publicity” for its blues catalogue, McMurry made a motion “to design and purchase a headstone/memorial” to place on the grave of Sonny Boy Williamson II in Tutwiler.  She estimated that the marker and memorial service might cost as much as $1,500.  The motion was seconded and carried on a vote. On December 14, 1976, McMurry commissioned Davidson Marble & Granite Works, of Canton, to provide an upright granite monument for placement on the blues musician’s grave in Tutwiler.  It cost $654.75.  On March 5, 1977, McMurry reported to the board that the “headstone was in the process of being set as per her conversations with Davidson Marble Works.”  The board, however, decided “to do nothing definite right now about a memorial service.”

The grave is in Tutwiler because his two surviving sisters, Mary Ashford and Julia Barner, lived and died in the city.  The late blues researcher Bill Donoghue erected a marker in their honor following their deaths in the 1990s.

Tutwiler is a fitting place for a great bluesman's final resting place because it's also the place where W.C. Handy claimed to have had his first encounter with the blues, around the turn of the century. 

SBW II's Sister's Graves
Handy, who orchestrated and popularized the folk music of his people and created such standards as St. Louis Blues, was a classically trained musician who had expressed little interest in the work songs and field hollers he'd heard. But he later recalled that his interest was piqued when. on a visit to play at a Tutwiler hotel. he was introduced to the weirdest music I'd ever heard." 

During a long night of waiting for a late train in the Tutwiler station, a ragged-looking man sat beside him and began playing a guitar. sliding a knife up and down the strings to produce a moaning, voice-like sound. Picking out a complex rhythm, he sang. repeating a line about "going where the Southern cross the Dog." a reference to the intersection of two railroads in Moorhead, Miss. Handy incorporated that line into his Yellow Dog Blues. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, tourists often made unsuccessful attempts to find the grave of the legendary harmonica player, and the gas station attendant often steered them to the small Whitfield Baptist Church. 

Beside it, in what looked like nothing more than weeds from the road, was the headstone with Williamson's picture cut into it. The grave was decidedly off the beaten track, but others had made the trek too. Fans often left harmonicas, guitar picks, even a pint of whiskey on the headstone. 

"It's this diamond of headstone, yet it's overgrown with weeds," said Joe Zochowski, host of Nothing But the Blues on WFYI-FM (90.1) in Indianapolis. "You have to look for it, to tramp through the weeds and cut through the briars and the B.S. to get to the heart of it. But people are willing to do it because they care that much about the music. That's a metaphor for the blues to me." 

The Charleston (MS) Sun Sentinel, Nov 29, 1990.
The 1st Annual Tutwiler Blues Festival 

The first Tutwiler Blues Festival was held in late November 1990 in the town's Railroad Park. Mayor Gary Shepherd and the city sponsored the fundraising event and proceeds from donations were supposed to help memorialize Sonny Boy Williamson II, the well-known blues musician who grew up in Tutwiler and was buried in a nearby plantation cemetery.

"We plan to buy a bronze plaque to go in the park in his honor and to put up road signs on the highway showing how to get to the place he is buried," said Shepherd. 

The headliner was none other than will be T.J. Wheeler of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the famous breeding ground of farmers who sold their souls to the devil and got an honest defense from an attorney named Daniel Webster - "The Devil and Daniel Webster" (1937).  In an attempt to undo the legacy of these weak-minded farmers from his home state (that's a joke about soul-sellers), Wheeler traveled the country performing and delivering his anti-drug message of "hope, not dope." (not a joke, just a good man)

The mayor said the blues artist plans to make an appearance in several local Tallahatchie County schools while in the area.  As a part of Saturday's activities, the Tutwiler Lions Club had the sight van in the town to screen festival-goers for eye diseases such as glaucoma. Lions members also manned the concession stand to provide refreshments. 

"I'm hoping it'll be a big success," said Shepherd. "I'm looking for several thousand people to show up." He said he expects blues followers from out-of-town. The mayor noted that the festival, if successful, could become an annual event in the town.  In the end, $100 was raised for the Sonny Boy Blues Society, which maintained the site for a while.  Some folks gave lip service to disinterment and reburial in Helena, but the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund obtained a grant for local nuns, who maintained the property into the new millennium.

Payne Chapel Marker Dedication--Last Performance of Johnny Shines

In late 1990, Living Blues magazine published an article suggesting, among other things, that Johnson was buried at Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Quito--about 2 miles from Mt. Zion MB Church--Morgan City. One woman, at least, remembered it that way. Known as Queen Elizabeth, Ms. Elizabeth Thomas claimed she was once Robert Johnson's girlfriend and she recalls his burial at Payne Chapel. She even pointed out the gravesite--about 30 yards from the white-frame church, near an old tree stump. "It's my gut feeling that it's at Payne," exclaimed Peter Lee, editor of Living Blues, "but I could never prove it. Who knew for sure?"

Skip Henderson wasn't sure, but he planned to erect a marker at Payne Chapel as well as install a brand new PA system--donated by Harley Peavey.  He had the PA installed inside the white-frame church, but a band from Atlanta had plans of their own for the burial ground....

"Admirers Mark Blues Musician's Grave" 
by Tiffany Tyson 

Delta blues king Robert Johnson no longer lies in an unmarked grave. A group of Johnson's admirers, musicians from Atlanta, Ga., placed a marker on his reported gravesite in the cemetery at Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist (MB) Church. They were accompanied by Johnson's boyhood friend and fellow blues singer, Johnny Shines

Stevie Tombstone, lead guitarist for the Atlanta-based band the Tombstones, said, "It's a shame that there wasn't a marker there already. (Johnson) was a big influence on our music and we just decided to do it. Once we had the opportunity, we just did it. 

When Stevie says opportunity he means money. Although the Tombstones have been playing together for about six years in clubs and colleges, they just signed their first big recording contract with Relativity Records. With their first advance check from the contract the three-sometimes four-member band bought the 125 pound marker for the grave of Robert Johnson. 

The Tombstones purchased this flat stone grave marker in honor of Robert Johnson, which sits on the spot pointed out by Queen Elizabeth.
The marker is tasteful. It says simply: 
"Robert Johnson, Born -May 8, 1911, Died - August 16, 1938, Resting in the Blues."
Rick Richards of the band Georgia Satellites was also at the service. `The way I see it, if it weren't for the blues we wouldn't have a job." 

Greenwood Commonwealth, Feb 28, 1991
Shines, who lives in Tuscaloosa, Ala., said, think he should have had a headstone a long time ago. His influence meant a lot to a lot of people and I'm glad to see this finally happening." 

While there are many rumors that blues music is associated with voodoo and Robert Johnson was reported to have made a pact with the devil, Shines said that blues is the basis of all other modern music. He explained that slaves used music to get messages across the fields to each other. This lyrical communication became a way of life that is now called the blues. I have a God given talent to play the blues," he said. "If you don't use your talents they'll be taken away from you." Shines says he has proof of that. "In 1978 I quit playing the blues, and in '80 I suffered a stroke that paralyzed my left hand. I've started playing again now and my hand is coming back." 

Greenwood Commonwealth,
Feb 28, 1991
Shines played one of the most famous Robert Johnson songs, "Crossroads," at the gravesite after the stone was laid. Stevie, Richards, folklorist Charles Locke and Tombstone manager Andrew Adler stood by silently, heads bowed, listening with the reverence usually reserved for religious services. 

And it was a religious service of sorts. While Robert Johnson has had a cult following among blues enthusiasts, the myths about his associations with the devil have kept his life and death shrouded in mystery. He was buried without a funeral service and no stone was ever placed a the gravesite. The only marker there was a small pot, rumored to be a sort of collection plate. People place money in the pot to buy Johnson's soul back from the devil. At last count, someone had contributed one penny. 

But now, 53 years after he with reportedly poisoned, he has been properly laid to rest with a marker and a service befitting the man known best as 'The King of the Delta Blues." 

Shines passed away the following year,
Greenwood Commonwealth, Apr 20, 1992.

Johnson was reportedly poisoned at a have down the road from Payne Chapel church, located a few miles from lila Bena. 'there have also been reports that he was stabbed, although the cause of death is officially pneumonia.

No one in the group wanted to speculate about his deals with the devil or the varied myths about when and where he was killed.  They just wanted to remember a man they consider a friend.

The 1992 Robert Johnson Memorial Blues
Festival (Greenwood) was dedicated to Shines. 

Click HERE for more on Johnny Shines 
Shines explained Johnson's death this way. "Robert was versatile and he was way ahead of his time. That's why he had to die and that's why someone will come back and be as great as Robert Johnson was. I don't know who it will be yet, but someone will come back." 

Johnson's music is still alive and well. Columbia Records, who has been releasing Johnson's music regularly since his death, recently put out a two CD reissue set. "Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings," has gone gold. 

The Tombstones, a band from Atlanta, had signed a record deal after several years on the road.  The band used some of its advance to purchase a flat marker for Robert Johnson and dedicate it at Payne Chapel.  Johnny Shines attended the graveside service, and despite his ill health, even performed a few songs.  The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund had already planned to commission a separate cenotaph to erect at Payne Chapel,  but the Tombstones and a retired Johnny Shines did the honors themselves.  Everyone at the time felt it in their bones that his remains were at Payne Chapel.

Monday, February 20, 2017

"The Blues Don't Hurt Like They Used To"

Greenwood Commonwealth, Mar 26, 1992.

by John Butch (in the Greenwood Commonwealth December 29, 1999)

Arthneice Jones has played the blues most of his life and doesn’t expect it to live much past his generation of musicians. Truth is, said Jones, a Glendora native in his mid-50s, the younger folks don’t know the blues he knew growing up in a rural, segregated, dead-end Mississippi. And they wouldn’t want to.

Walking down Issaquena Avenue during Clarksdale’s Sunflower Blues Festival this fall, Jones looked toward the refurbished train station that will house the expanded Delta Blues Museum. He then pointed beneath the railroad trestle to the decay of what used to be the “black” downtown where President Clinton stood for his photo opportunities during his July visit.

“The blues ain’t on this side of those tracks,” Jones' said. “It’s on that side.”

Many say the blues are as dead as the legendary Robert Johnson in the Delta, killed by the mechanical cotton picker and technology, the depths of yesteryears pain soothed by todays easy comforts and universal civil rights.

Musically, it has given way to hip-hop, soul, country - nothing resembling the piteous moan of Johnson’s vocals. A few older players still teach, but more in the manner of historians keeping a traditional craft alive than as a living, evolving art form. Socially, Jones maintains, life has become too comfortable and predictable for even the most down-and-out. 

James Thomas Jr., whose father Son Thomas was one of the Delta’s more well-known latter-day bluesmen, said he sings to honor his father’s memory. Thomas hopes the next generation of African Americans rediscovers the blues and adopts it as its heritage.

“When I go play, it’s something for him and me to go promote his music--to get everybody to feel the blues,” Thomas said of his father. “Like he said, there’s a lot of ways to feel the blues. Have a good woman, she quits you, that’s the blues. Ain’t got no money, that’s the blues. You know if you’re broke you got the blues right there. I’m living a life of music I hope will mean more later on.

A $10,000 monument marking the possible burial spot of the legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson in the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church cemetery located in Morgan City. The other side has a photo of Johnson (right).

Tom Hagenaars, 33 (left) and Irene Smits, 31, both of the Netherlands, share stories about Johnson with Bert Robertson, Greenwood fire-fighter and former Morgan City. catfish farmer, and Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church pastor the Rev. James Ratliff Jr. (right). while looking through guide books in the Mt. Zion cemetery where Johnson is supposedly buried.

“He died back in 1938, and I didn't even get on this earth until 1948," said James Ratliff Jr., pastor of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where Robert Johnson is reportedly buried. Ratliff said he believes Johnson's body could be buried farther out from the church near an old oak tree in the church cemetery. “lt he was out here at all,” he said

What’s left are the memories, museums and the music. And the legacy of the musicians. In Morgan City, for instance. they come from around the world to pay homage to Robert Johnson.

Once there, visitors like Dutch couple Tom Hagenaars and Irene Smits do the things common to modern-day pilgrims who seek cultural icons where their ancestors might have sought religion. They compare notes with their travel guide. Pose for pictures with the “King of the Delta Blues Singers” monument erected in Johnson’s honor chat with the Rev. James Ratliff`Jr. of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where a $10000 stone obelisk stands on the spot where Johnson may be buried.

Hagenaars. 31, doesn’t play an instrument, Smits confided as her boyfriend circled the monument. Smits, 25, watched as Hagenaars carefully stepped over plastic flowers, beads. cigarette butts, guitar picks and other flotsam left as Johnson’s tribute - reading every word of the rich engraving. He lives for the music, she said. “lt`s because I`m a big Rolling Stones fan that we came. If you dig deeper into their music, you have to come here," Hagenaars said. He was delighted to find Love In Vain, which the Stones covered on their 1969 album Let It Bleed, at the top of the list of Johnson’s songs etched into the marker

Don‘t Get Their Due

With few exceptions - the obvious being BB. King, who has transcended the genre by recording with major stars across the rock and pop universe, and John Lee Hooker, who no longer records because of ill health -- white musicians from the Stones to Erie Clapton to the late Stevie Ray Vaughn to Johnny Lang have become the blues guitar heroes.

"Disco and rap music got the rap generation with Boom! Boom! Got the one beat to it." Thomas said.
"Lot of young whites play good blues and are really interested in it. I think the white players like it because of the feeling they have, something really fascinating – the sound. The feeling is different, but a good blues sound is good music and they like to listen to it.”

Wade Walton. 76, a Clarksdale barber for 55 years. signed his first blues recording contract in 1958. He said many of the white players like Vaughn and the local bands that circulate through Southern blues festivals have the music. But they don’t have the personal experience to make it original. “The way we lived was a lot of it. When they come to town, they had a curfew, 12 o’clock. That was for black people,” he said “I’ve been mistreated in this town. The police, they was all white then, used to go upside my head with a blackjack.”

Walton said he began wearing his trademark barber’s coat as a form of identification, hoping police would recognize him and leave him alone: “The blues come from that kind of stuff. Hard times. Good times. No money. The blues come from that. I wouldn’t think a lot of the kids understand. A lot don’t pay attention to it. They don’t seem to get into the blues.”

An Early Lesson

Marco Stewart, a Clarksdale native, learned about the blues sitting in Walton’s barber chair as a kid. The older man played harmonica and the strop, beating out time as he sharpened his razor on the thick leather.

A successful West Coast rap and R&B producer, Stewart is attempting to showcase some of the old blues artists as well as expose the Delta to other live music through Mingles Sports Bar & Coffee House. The first of what he hopes will become a Delta franchise has opened in Clarksdale’s train depot, which he’d like to see turned into a miniature Beale Street.

Stewart said he plays around with the blues but never plays it. It does, he said, influence his musical style as a producer. "lt takes listening to someone who created it and was around it years and years. You never get the full understanding of it in a week or two weeks: it`s impossible. That’s why you’ve got to have so much respect for old blues," Stewart said.

“I don’t see that much of it anymore. Not that that’s bad, but you can’t take away from what was real. Years ago, in the '50s and ’60s. it was real. Now, basically, we’re just copycats. We’re trying to copy the style, trying to copy Muddy Waters and Ike Turner. If we want to keep that tradition alive, it takes time, practice and dedication. You really have to be sincere with it.” 

To countless thousands of visitors from around the world, the Delta, with its vast cotton fields, cypress swamps and rich, flat land, is the blues. This is the land that spawned King and Hooker. Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. Son House and, of course, the man whose grave Hagenaars came to see. 

It can be argued that without Mississippi’s bluesmen, seminal British rock bands like the Stones, the Yardbirds, Cream and Led Zeppelin never would have existed. Their albums carry songwriting credits by Mississippi-born bluesmen, many of whom left to form the core of the Chicago blues scene. 

Ratliff had never heard of Johnson until 1991, when a New Jersey music preservationist approached his congregation with the idea of placing a monument in the cemetery where Johnson was rumored to be buried. That’s after the Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Quito. a couple of miles north on Mississippi 3, which also may be Johnson’s burial ground, turned down the opportunity. Johnson. as history tells it, was poisoned by a jealous woman after performing in a Quito honkytonk.

“Some of the older people don`t think the blues ought to have no connection with religion,” said Payne Chapel church deacon Richard Johnson, no relation. And certainly not with Robert Johnson, whom legend has it sold his soul to the devil at a Delta crossroads.

Mount Zion had no such qualms regarding Johnson, Ratliff said. “He died in 1938, and I didn’t even get on this earth until 1948,” he said. “I’ve always been open-minded. Blues don’t have nothing to do with salvation. If you believe in Jesus, that’s all you need to do. There’s no harm in him out there.”

Ratliff believes Johnson’s body was probably buried by an old oak tree in the Mount Zion cemetery. “if he was out here at all." The Payne Chapel contingent, who have since lain a small headstone with Johnson’s name on it in their cemetery, have the word of one of Johnson’s old girlfriends “before she got too old and started forgetting.” Richard Johnson said.

The dispute is friendly enough. Both churches get their share of visitors.

International Language

Bert Robertson. a Greenwood firefighter and former Morgan City catfish farmer had never heard of Johnson either until the tourists began coming in. Though Robertson has met visitors from all over the world two bewildered Japanese tourists encountered in the Morgan City post office rank among the most memorable.

Robertson speaks no Japanese. Their English wasn’t much better. After failing to understand “Where grabe?" - repeated loudly a number of times apparently to overcome the language barrier. Robertson said one of the tourists tried another phrase. Only later, Robertson said, did he figure out it was air attempt at "blues singer."
Frustrated. one finally began playing an air guitar. “I said, `Oh, Robert Johnson. Come with me. I`ll show you where he is.` " Robertson said, laughing at the memory. “They came all this way and couldn’t even speak English. They flew from Japan to Los Angeles and drove a car to Morgan City to see this. “It happens all the time."