KTBA Nomination for Bill Pichette

Bill Pichette and DeWayne Moore at Rose Hill Cemetery, 
their own particular field of dreams.
Keeping the Blues Alive Award Nomination 

Bill Pichette

Since moving to Memphis in 2014, Bill Pichette has endeavored to learn more and more about the current generation of Memphis musicians, and he has proven one of the most enthusiastic and dependable individuals who has ever dedicated himself to the preservation of the graves of Memphis blues artists. After reading an article announcing the dedication of the headstone of Memphis blues legend Frank Stokes in the Memphis Flyer, he attended the ceremony in Hollywood Cemetery, which served as the genesis of his amazing work that makes him a deserving recipient of an award for Keeping the Blues Alive.

Pichette and his trusty companion 
searching for graves in a forested burial ground

At the dedication of the Stokes marker, Bill met several passionate blues enthusiasts and musicians, such as Eric Hughes, a local stalwart of the blues scene, Joe Kowalski, an avid collector of original 78-rpm records, and the grandson of Frank Stokes, Nathaniel Kent, who is also a Memphis musician. I think it’s safe to say that meeting these energetic and humble local artists and enthusiasts impelled the recent transplant to begin attending and documenting musical performances at Memphis venues, such as the Levitt Shell and the Center for Southern Folklore, among others. Through his encounter with legendary blues artist manager and photographer Dick Waterman, he also learned to respect the originators of the music and their descendants in the African American community. Over the next three years, he listened to the experienced individuals he met and took their advice to heart, eventually coming to embody the phrase, “Research is Respect.”

He also started his popular website, The Little Pitcher Project, to take us all along with him on his journey of discovery, promote the music of local artists, share his personal experiences with the blues, and write down the lessons he learned from them each weekend. During his numerous investigations, he discovered the blues both physically and mentally in Memphis, and he also came to understand his own heretofore unknown capacity for creativity. The Little Pitcher Project stands as bold evidence of his personal mission to promote the blues and tell the stories about the music, culture, and history he found in Memphis through his observations, photography, and the people he met along the way.

Pichette and Memphis promoter Al Capone
Photo: Judy Peiser
I am most proud, however, of his willingness to serve as the Memphis affiliate to the Mt Zion Memorial Fund, a serious research and historic preservation group founded in 1989 and dedicated to memorializing the abandoned graves and maintaining the cemeteries in which the most seminal blues artists, including T-Model Ford, Eddie Cusic, Charley Patton, Memphis Minnie, Fred McDowell, Joe Callicott, Gus Cannon, Elmore James, and many more, were laid to rest. As the director of the MZMF, I informed him about the decrepit state of rural African American cemeteries, specifically how the urban Hollywood Cemetery, where Frank Stokes and fellow Memphis legend Furry Lewis were buried, was an abandoned and endangered cemetery. He took it upon himself to care about these burial grounds, to care about not only the artists but the people whom the artists cared about too. 

Eric Hughes performing at 
Frank Stokes' headstone dedication
Photo: Bill Pichette.

He seriously engaged with the mission of the MZMF in early 2017, after I was contacted by another nominee for a Keeping the Blues Alive Award, Arlo Leach, who had previously installed a marker in the city for Will Shade, of the Memphis Jug Band. Leach wanted the MZMF to help him locate and memorialize Shade’s longtime playing partner, Charlie Burse. I asked Bill to begin the long research process and locate his unmarked grave in Rose Hill Cemetery. Over the course of the following year, he located the Burse plot and the headstone of Charlie’s mother, Emma Burse. He also discovered that the burial records for the cemetery had been lost in the late 1970s, but he did not stop upon learning about this fact. Bill managed to track down the current caretakers of the cemetery and develop a relationship with them to ensure the future maintenance of the burial ground. In September 2018, he also coordinated the beautification of Rose Hill Cemetery with Grace-St. Luke's Episcopal, Cane Creek Missionary Baptist Church, as well as other South Memphis/Hamilton area churches and the Boy Scouts. He understands that our work is about much more than throwing down a cheap stone marker in an abandoned cemetery. He understands that research is respect, and he recognizes the importance of Lemon Jefferson’s oft-repeated lyric, “Please see that my grave is kept clean.” Quite simply, it is what sets him apart from so many other enthusiasts of the blues.

"Our work isn’t some hollow gesture to honor the blues. 
The music is very important, to be sure, but it's only 
the soundtrack. The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund serves as a 
legal conduit to provide financial and technical support 
to black church communities and cemeteries in the 
Mississippi Delta. We save rural cemeteries by any means 
necessary--whether its erecting memorials to musicians, 
engaging legal remedies, or filling the vast silences in 
important historical landscapes.

It's about saving the soul of Mississippi."

MZMF Mission - Director T. DeWayne Moore

In conclusion, whenever I have asked him to handle other situations that have arisen regarding the graves of blues musicians, he has never complained and gone above and beyond his charge. He learned of the missing headstone of Will Shade, located the broken marker in a county storage garage, oversaw the installation of Shade’s new marker, and carried the original stone to the blues museum controlled by the Blues Foundation so that it can remain on display in the city he has adopted as his own, a place that has become his own crucible of musical and cultural education. I do not know of any other person residing in Memphis who has dedicated himself more seriously to this important and neglected aspect of blues preservation, and I know of no one else more deserving of an award for Keeping the Blues Alive than Bill Pichette. 

You can visit his website for The Little Pitcher Project HERE


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