Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Sleepy John Estes was More than Music

[Originally published by Delores Ballard as "A Blind Bluesman's Music: A Heart Of Soul--Sleepy John's Been Places But Only His Songs Matter," Jackson (TN) Sun, November 17, 1974.

Sleepy John Estes at his home in Haywood County, TN

Blues. Soft, sad-sweet blues, nail-you-to-the-wall blues...two old men, a guitar, with four strings and a Hohner Marine Band harmonica. 

The afternoon wind, rising, chilling, tears the blue notes into fragments, blows them away over the sagging porch of Sleepy John Estes' dilapidated shack.

TOO CHILLED to frolic, an assortment of children build themselves a cocoon of old overcoats in the thin sunlight beyond the shadow of the house where Sleepy John is wailing and Hammy Nixon is beating the rundown heel of his shoe into the hard-packed earth: 

"I met Corinna 'way cross the sea 
I met Corinna 'way cross the sea 
She didn't write me no letter
She didn't care for me."

Their voices cross over, blend, harmonize. Sleepy John carries it alone while Hammy fishes a kazoo from his pocket and hums a saucy, horn-like sound through it. Then the harmonica again. Always, their voices are together. John's high and Hammy's low, when they reach the chorus.

There is nothing in this Haywood County afternoon setting to indicate that Sleepy John Estes, blind of eye and bony of limb, making music on an over-the-hill guitar, is an internationally famous blues singer. 

The house is a hovel. smelling bad and inadequately heated, overrun with children. A lone car, standing in front, has four flat tires and one door is propped open. A three-year-old is using it as a playhouse. The yard is a catch-all for refuse. 

"He makes good money," says a Brownsville friend of Sleepy John Estes, "but he lives in filth. People go wild over him everywhere else, but here...well, the young people get a little disgusted with him because he won't try to better himself."

SLEEPY JOHN, at 74, is the proverbial prophet without honor in his own home. He's little else in local estimation save a poor old black man who won't change his ways. 

But at the Newport Jazz Festival, or on the campus of a middlewestern university, or in Norway, John and his "harp-man" Hammy Nixon are a sensation — genuine, gutsy, low-down dirty bluesmakers, two of a remaining few, a vanishing breed. 

Sleepy John has come a long way to nowhere. From his beginnings as a musician with a streetcorner jug band to his present paradoxical state of nobody at home, star away from home, he has been an integral part of American blues. Hammy Nixon has been with him most of the way. 

"I was real young, around 11 years old, an' John came up and played at one of the ole picnics they used to have, you know...I was tryin' to blow harp a little and he wanted me to help him. Went to Memphis an Arkansas and he finally got me on tour. Then we went to hoboin'... hoboin' on them freight trains, and was that a life! We had a lot of fun — he could see, then..." 

John is hazy about the loss of his sight, thinks it began deteriorating after he was hit in the eye with a piece of glass "back when there was nothin' to do for it but bathe it in saltwater and go home." 

He went completely blind about 1959. 


"I started in music about eight years old...place called Lauderdale County, near Ripley. I listened to music and thought I'd make me some. So I took an old seegar box and the broomwire off the broom...there was this fellow across the field that knew how to bring a guitar-sound from the string. and he learned me how to tune it. 

"Since I got so I couldn't see, why. I still hear it in my head. I make up the sounds in my head then I make 'em on the guitar until they match up."

Grizzled and skinny. John wears a shabby tweed coat, a battered plush black hat. When he sings, they become symbols. The ugly clothes, the ugly house, the cold winter wind, all blur together in the haunting indigo of John's soul-wail: 

"I thought my baby loved to lay in bed with me, 
But now I don't know where my baby be." 

John and Hammy are between flights. Five weeks ago they came home from Norway. Now, they're booked for Tokyo. 

"We leave Monday," Hammy says, "to stop over in Chicago and play an anniversary celebration for a friend of ours. Man, he was low when he found him, sleepin' on the concrete floor. Now he owns four record stores and has so much he can't keep up with it all. Seems like everybody we started with has come to the top of the well — they're all in the money but us. 

"Anyhow, after that stopover in Chicago, we're goin' on to Jay-pan ( Japan )." 

John and Hammy haven't come to the top of the well, but they remember good times...in Memphis. when famous soul-singer Bessie Smith and her sister Mamie and blues singer Memphis Minnie "were all there together, an' we had a good time!"

"AN' WE'VE TRAVELED some. All the places I've been, I guess Frankford (Frankfurt), Germany was best. The people an' food an' everything suited me better...seemed mo' like home." 

Travel and appearing with Howlin Wolf and B .B. King and Bobby Blue Bland, however, are not what it's all about for Sleepy John. It's music. 

"Music...seems like it takes effect on me. When I'm alone, it's company to me. An' when I make music for other people. it makes me feel better." 

The Depression put an end to John's recording aspirations; Hammy Nixon's birth was never recorded so he can't even draw his Social Security. Yet here they are, about to board a plane and fly to Tokyo and sing "Tater-diggin' Man" and "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead. You Rascal You" to the applause of large crowds. 

Blues. Raunchy, shoot-from-the-hip blues that betides woe to the enemy and the fickle-hearted woman:

"Gonna give my baby a 20 dollar bill, 
Gonna give my baby a 20 dollar bill, 
If that don't get her, 
I know my shotgun will." 

The afternoon wind shivers across the porch where Hammy has the three-year-old cuddled under his coat. A grey-striped kitten picks its dainty way through the pile of debris near the door, sniffing hopefully for an edible, finds none. It is time for old men to be by the fire. Sleepy John Estes calls to a boy who takes his arm and leads him toward the house. 

Sleepy John steps heavily onto the slanting, sagging porch. feels the hoards give under his weight. "Got to move" he says. But everyone else knows he doesn't really care.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Starkloff Saved St. Louis during the Pandemic of 1918

St. Louis Post Dispatch - July 9, 2006

The 1918 flu is the subject of "The Great Influenza," an award-winning history written by John M. Barry and published in 1994. 

Although the book mentions St. Louis only in passing, Barry said in a recent phone interview, "St. Louis was a very interesting place in 1918. Now it's being studied to see what we can learn - whether the city had aggressive leadership or just plain luck." 

Luck? William Stanhope of St. Louis University's School of Public Health says St. Louis was lucky, but not in the sense that the Spanish Flu merely brushed against the city in random fashion. 

'This city was incredibly lucky," says Stanhope, whose research has delved deeply into the city's flu response. The reason for St. Louis' luck: "It had a hard-nosed health commissioner - and it had a mayor with the guts to back up the health commissioner." 

Friday, March 27, 2020

Rochester Blues Artist: Joe Beard

Joe Beard
A club in Chicago. A jam session. It's 1967, maybe '68, and Joe Beard is playing a John Lee Hooker song, "Sallie Mae."

"There was a guy standing at the bottom of the stairs," Beard says. "He had one of his arms in a cast. Watching every note I hit. And after I'm done playing, he comes up and says to me, 'Where did you learn to play like that? You play that better than John Lee Hooker.' I said, 'I learned it from John Lee Hooker.'

"And he says to me, I am John Lee Hooker.'"

A lot of guitarists probably learned a few licks by listening to John Lee Hooker records, but Hooker didn't turn up at their shows. Beard is a cool blues star in that cosmos. The music, and the historic musicians who created it, have been drawn to his modest gravitational pull.

There was B. B. King, before Beard himself ever thought to pick up a guitar.

And Albert King. "Albert King liked nobody," Beard says. "Nobody could deal with Albert King. He and I were best of friends.''

And Little Milton, "he didn't socialize well with people," Beard says. Except Beard.

And, "Bobby 'Blue' Bland, every time he was in the area, I'm the guy he wanted to open the show for him."

And Buddy Guy. Beard toured with Guy and Junior Wells a lot. When Guy played Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre at last year's Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, Beard was hanging out backstage. Guy called him out, and they played Gambler's Blues together. "He wanted me to do more," Beard says. "But I didn't want to."

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Unearthed Headstone of a Rock N' Roll Legend

© Robert Birdsong
Jackie Brenston—the singer/saxophone player who, along with Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, recorded the epic 1951 hit “Rocket 88,” the first ever No.1 hit on Chess Records, which some scholars consider one the first recorded rock ‘n roll songs—was thought to have been buried in an unmarked grave at Heavenly Rest Cemetery in the small hamlet of Lyon, just outside his hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi. According to his obituary in the Clarksdale Press Register, Brenston suffered a heart attack and died at the Kennedy V.A. Hospital in Memphis on December 15, 1979. Reverend X.L. Williams presided over his funeral at Damascus M.B. Church on December 23, 1979, and the Delta Burial Corporation, of Clarksdale, subsequently buried the World War II veteran in the military section of Heavenly Rest Cemetery.[i] Living Blues magazine editor Jim O’Neal, who conducted two interviews with Brenston in the 1970s, visited the burial site shortly thereafter and photographed his temporary grave marker—a small metal plaque displaying a card on which someone typed his death date and his name, “Mr. Jackie Brenston.” Until recently, it was believed to have been his only grave marker.

© Jim O’Neal 1979
Having recently assisted the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund in the unearthing the long lost military headstone of eminent blues fiddler Henry “Son” Simms, Clarksdale native and local historian Robert Birdsong developed a renewed sense of determination in the winter months of 2014/2015. He never thought such a discovery was possible. He had spent much of his spare time digging through county records, scrolling through old newspapers, and traipsing through overgrown cemeteries in search of the unmarked graves of his blues heroes, but his exhaustive efforts had amounted to only a single discovery—the unmarked grave of Big John Wrencher, located not far coincidentally from the headstone of Simms at Shufordville Historic Cemetery in Lyon. The seemingly impossible discovery of Simm’s headstone, indeed, transformed Birdsong’s dismay into energetic optimism, activating his expectant quest to find the supposed unmarked grave of Jackie Brenston.

Armed with biographical knowledge and a local obituary, he visited the late Myrtle Messenger, caretaker and manager of Heavenly Rest Cemetery, who directed him to the section reserved for the military. Birdsong inspected the veterans’ graves and noticed several interesting gaps in the rows of markers. Believing that some of the open spaces might be the result of markers sinking into the earth, he procured a long probe and started penetrating the ground in suspicious areas. It did not take long, much to his delight, to find an unidentified object under the surface. Utilizing his reliable shovel, Birdsong excavated the flat, metal headstone of an army private who had served in World War II. His eyes widened as he read the raised letters at the top, which spelled the name “Jack Brenston.” 

© Jim O'Neal 1979
While the birth date on the marker, August 24, 1928, corresponds with the date recorded in his army enlistment records, Brenston’s date of birth has been the subject of some debate.[ii] In a 1974 interview, Brenston told Jim O’Neal and Amy van Singel that he was born on August 24, 1927—the same date as the marker only a year earlier. His obituary in the Clarksdale Press Register, however, lists his birthdate as August 15, 1930.[iii] O’Neal suggests a potential explanation for the discrepancies in his lengthy obituary for Living Blues, in which he argues that Brenston falsified his birth date to qualify for the armed services in 1944.[iv] A survey of secondary scholarship supports O’Neal’s theory in revealing the prevalence of false information volunteered by enlistees during World War II. A deeper analysis of his military enlistment records and personal interviews, moreover, suggests his mother, Ethel Brenston, likely falsified information to enlist her problematic teenage son in the military. 

Jackie Brenston (c. 1952) 
Brenston was admittedly unruly in his youth; he ran away from home several times in the early 1940s. With the nation embroiled in the bloody carnage of World War II, the rebellious fifteen-year-old returned home from his most recent escape attempt and volunteered—much to the delight of his mother, who, Brenston recalled, had to provide guardian approval for her underage son—to enlist in the army. The military, by law, did not accept anyone under the age of seventeen, but some scholars have pointed out that “underage enlistment was relatively common” in the 1940s.[v] Brenston claimed to have served for over three years in the 82nd Airborne, but the Department of Veterans Affairs recorded his enlistment date as January 10, 1946, and his release date as December 18, 1946, which amounted to less than one year of service. Considering that scores of “underage recruits” managed to enlist “through elaborate schemes, cleverly altered documents, and with assistance from military recruiters and parents,” Ethel Brenston likely volunteered her uncontrollable son for military service, perhaps even with the help of recruiters, who knowingly falsified his enlistment records. It remains difficult to discern, however, the exact length of time Brenston spent in the military during the 1940s.[vi].

After unearthing and placing the small, flat military marker of Brenston back on top of his grave, Birdsong realized it was especially vulnerable to souvenir-seeking tourists, many of whom flocked to Clarksdale each year to visit local clubs, attend festivals, and visit historic sites. He, therefore, contacted Coahoma County Coroner Scotty Meredith, who operates a local monument company and previously donated the headstone for Big John Wrencher, and talked him into mounting the military marker on top of a granite base. Never thought to have existed, the military headstone of Jackie Brenston now sits securely atop his grave in Heavenly Rest Cemetery. The burial ground, which awaits its turn to receive a historical marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail, also contains the unmarked grave of saxophone player Raymond Hill, who performed alongside Brenston in Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm.

© Robert Birdsong

i] “Jackie Brenston Burial Sunday,” Clarksdale (MS) Press-Register, Dec 21, 1979, 2A.

[ii] Jackie Brenston, interview by Jim and Amy O’Neal, November 11, 1974, “Subject File: Jackie Brenston,” Blues Archive, University of Mississippi.

[iii] “Jackie Brenston Burial Sunday,” Clarksdale (MS) Press-Register, Dec 21, 1979, 2A.

[iv] Jim O’Neal, “Jackie Brenston,” Living Blues 45/46 (Spring 1980): 18.

[v] See Melinda L. Pash, In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans Who Fought the Korean War (New York: NYU Press, 2012), 230 note 4; and Colin Campbell, “For Some Veterans, Underage Enlistment is Point of Pride,” The Baltimore (MD) Sun, Nov 10, 2013, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2013-11-10/news/bs-md-underage-veterans-20131110_1_drill-instructor-enlistment-bronze-star [accessed March 29, 2015].

[vi] Joshua Ryan Pollarine, “Children at War: Underage Americans Illegally Fighting the Second World War,” thesis, The University of Montana, 2008, p.2.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

I Shook Hands with Nathan Beauregard

By Dave Wood
(originally published as "Twisted Spine Tom Straightens Out" in Sailor's Delight November 3, 1982)

It was Friday afternoon in Mortician's Crotch, Alabama, (there is no Mortician's Crotch, Alabama) so of course, it was raining fish (it has never actually rained fish anywhere and never will, thus evidencing that this story is fiction). The sun hung low and a little to the left. On Main street an old man was picking his teeth. 

"Gimme the green set in the pickle jar behind the safety razor", he told the pawnbroker. 

He handed over a dollar and, due to the fact that the teeth were a half a dozen sizes too big left the store with a broad and beautiful smile upon his face; As he started to cross the street he heard and saw a car approaching. It was a black Ford sedan with New York plates, Dixie cups and flying saucers. At the wheel sat a young man with steel-rimmed glasses, a chin a little obscured by what may have been steam or the promise of a beard, and a faded blue sweatshirt which bore the legend “I SHOOK HANDS WITH NATHAN BEAUREGARD - MEHPHIS 1968 " 

As the car drew level with the old man it stopped and the young driver leaned out of the open window and spoke. 

Excuse me,” he said, “I’m looking for a blues singer.” 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The First Blues Memorial in Mississippi - 1976

The Clarksdale (MS) Press Register July 29, 1976.
By Ken Faulkner

On the morning of July 28, 1976, a small group of residents in Tutwiler gathered at the park where the town railroad station once stood to honor an event that changed the course of the life of the American composer W.C. Handy. By his own account, Tutwiler was the place where he discovered "the blues." As part of the national Bicentennial Celebration, the National Music Council selected 200 national music landmarks. Tutwiler was selected as one of those sites. In a brief ceremony, a couple of white women--the president of the Mississippi Federation of Music and the Mississippi coordinator of the Bicentennial Parade of American Music--presented a plaque to the white mayor of the town of Tutwiler to commemorate the event. 

I know the Yellow Dog District like a book 
Indeed I know the route that Rider took 
Ev'ry cross-tie, bayou, burg an' bog 
Way down where the Southern cross' the Dog 

"One night at Tutwiler, as I nodded in the railroad station while waiting for a train that had been delayed nine hours, life suddenly took me by the shoulders and wakened me with a start. A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while t slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly."

"Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog." 

Thus W.C. Handy describes the moment when he first became aware of the value of the Negro folk music which he later adapted and popularized as "The Blues." Prior to that moment, Handy had been a band director and composer of the more traditional types of music popular around the turn of the century — waltzes, two-steps, etc. 

He now is known throughout the world as the “father of the blues." Handy, who lived in Clarksdale from 1903 to 1908, then moved to Memphis and Beale Street, traveled throughout the Delta playing at both white and black dances. He is still remembered by a few people. 

Dr. T.F. Clay, at 90 one of the oldest residents of Tutwiler, remembers dancing to Handy's music as a young man. "In those days every time a new store opened they would have a dance, and Handy played at many of them. But he didn't play the blues then, he was living in Clarksdale. He didn't start the blues until he went to Memphis." 

"He would come down on the train with his band and they would play all night. He'd get maybe $40 or $50, not like today with bands getting $500 or more. Handy moved to Clarksdale and the Delta at the invitation of another black man, S.L. "Stack" Mangham, who was mail clerk at the old Planters Bank and a member of an all-black band called The Knights of Pythias. Mangham had heard about Handy from a friend and invited him to Clarksdale to direct the hand. 

"I came to know by heart every foot of the Delta, from Clarksdale to Lambert on the Dog and Yazoo City railroads. I could call every flat stop, water tower and pig path on the Peavine with my eyes closed," Handy relates in his biography, The Father of the Blues. 

Joe Campassi, who at 83 is still energetic and alert, remembers his good friend W.C. Handy quite well. Campassi knew Handy both in Memphis and Clarksdale. "He was one of the finest men I've ever known," he relates, and is proud of his copy of Handy's autobiography with a personal note from the author. 

"In those days, everybody who knew him called him "Fess." 

"We were both working at a saloon called Pee Wee's on Beale Street in Memphis when Handy wrote the Memphis Blues. But then it was called ‘Mister Crump.' We were having an election for Mayor and Handy was hired by E.H. Crump to help get in the votes All the candidates had bands, but Handy wrote this song 'Mister Crump' and Crump won the election. He later changed the name of the song to "Memphis Blues". It was the first. 

"I was young in those days, 1910, only 16, helping manage Pee Wee's saloon, and selling policy (a gambling game also known as Louisianna Lottery).- "I moved back to Clarksdale later, but Handy would still come down to play for dances, and we would get together." 

Handy later moved to New York. When he wrote his autobiography, he thought of his friend, Joe Campassi, and sent him a copy. 

Mrs. G.T. Thomas, who lives at 504 Sunflower, won't confess her age, but she remembers Handy too. She came here in 1910, after finishing at Alcorn College, to teach in the black school. She knew Stack Mangham well, and through him, met Handy. 

He lived near the old "Brickyard" on Lincoln Street, I think. He and his wife. They had a son here in Clarksdale." 

"I remember going to some of his dances," she said. "Then I married Mr. Thomas, and he was a strict Baptist, so I didn't go to dances anymore." 

Although Handy moved from the Delta and Beale Street, he never forgot the place where the course of his life changed and returned frequently to renew his friendship with the area. 

Handy was born in Florence, Alabama in 1873. He left home at 16 against his father's wishes to pursue a life as a musician. After traveling with a number of roving bands, he settled in Clarksdale from 1903 to 1908, then moved to Memphis. He later moved to New York where he helped establish a music publishing company. He died in 1958.

Friday, March 20, 2020

A One-String Memorial for Lonnie Pitchford

Lonnie Pitchford (Photo: Lauri Lawson)

On October 8th, 2000, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund dedicated the large granite headstone of Lonnie Pitchford at the Newport Baptist Church cemetery in Ebenezer, Mississippi--only a few feet from the headstone of Elmore James. Specially designed with a playable, one-string diddley bow mounted on the side--per the wishes of his family--the funding for the memorial came from John Fogerty and Rooster Blues Records. His death at an early age was a blow to the hearts of many in the Mississippi musical community and the memorial service held on a frosty fall evening was attended by dozens of family, friends, and blues fans.

Bill Steber plays the diddley bow on the marker
© Euphus Ruth 1998
Lonnie Pitchford was born on October 8, 1955, near Lexington, Mississippi. His mother Rosie S. Pitchford had two daughters, Ersine and Brenda, and four more sons named Willie Douglas, Andrew James, Edward Charles and Roosevelt. Raised about five miles outside of Lexington, he made a one-string instrument at the age of five years old. In the liner notes to the only full-length album he ever released, All Around Man, Pitchford talks about his instrument:
"When I was five or six, I would make a one-string guitar upside the wall. I would get me some baling wire or wire from a broom that my Mom had discarded, and some old rusty nails - didn't have new ones - I had to pull them out of the old boards. Then I would pound them into the wall upside the house, wrap the wire at both ends and lay a snuff can under the bottom. Then I'd just go to playing anything that came to mind."
While playing in several bands in his teen years, he learned a host blues songs. He also enjoyed playing in church groups, which he started doing at the age of twelve. In 1971, the fourteen-year-old met folklorist and ethnomusicologist Worth Long, who recognized his talent and booked him to perform at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folk-life. His warm reception solidified the youngster's reputation and position alongside some of the living masters.

Lonnie Pitchford learned his Delta blues from Eugene Powell, of Greenville, who recorded with Bo Carter, of the Mississippi Sheiks. He also learned Delta blues from Robert Junior Lockwood, whose stepfather was Robert Johnson. When Lonnie Pitchford was thirty-six, he toured Australia, Europe, and the United States. Besides singing blues or making records, he was a gifted musical instrument maker and carpenter, alternating between the two occupations, framing houses and playing at blues festivals across the country. Lonnie Pitchford contributed one or more songs to several compilations and movie soundtracks from 1980 until his death.
  • All Around Man (Rooster CD R2629) his only solo album
  • Living Country Blues USA Vols 7, 9, 10 (1980)
  • Roots of Rhythm and Blues: A Tribute to the Robert Johnson Era (CBS 48584)
  • Deep Blues (Atlantic 82450-2)
  • National Downhome Blues Festival (Southland SCD-21)
  • The Harry Smith Connection: A Live Tribute To The Anthology Of American Folk Music (CD SF 40085)
  • Played slide guitar on one track of John Mellencamp's album Mr. Happy Go Lucky
© Bill Steber 2009

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Where is the Grave of Elizabeth Cotten?

When Elizabeth Cotten was a little girl growing up outside Chapel Hill, N.C., she used to dream about playing a guitar and having crowds of people join her in song.

She lived that dream many times.

Best known as the songwriter of "Freight Train," "Shake Sugaree," "Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie," and other classic country blues, she played at clubs and festivals from New York to Hawaii. She was an active performer well into her 90s, often appearing with her singer/songwriter granddaughter, Johnine Rankin.

Cotten's wit and storytelling skills remained sharp, though her hearing had faded and her voice had grown a bit thin.

In concert, she complained she “can't play like [she] used to," and she warmed up with an old blues guitar progression. Between songs, she pulled the long fingers of one hand through the other, complaining of the cold. But she projected a warmth that drew little children to her and compeled an audience of strangers to sing aloud the songs she taught them.

"0l' Georgia bug, ol' Georgia bug, ol' Georgia bug said so," Cotten sang, watching the crowd. "Sing, son," she prodded as a little boy joined in.

She sang "Freight Train" with a little wide-eyed, red-haired girl she called up out of the audience, then "I'm on My Way to the Promised Land," "Do Lord Remember Me," and "Tell It on the Mountain High."

She ignored the repeated requests for "Shake Sugaree."

In her later years, she left the blues to granddaughter, who sang her own songs, her grandmother's songs, and traditional folk and gospel songs in a rich, ringing voice.

"I don't sing the blues no more unless I have to," Cotten said in her later years. "When I joined a church in Chapel Hill, the deacon said I couldn't play those worldly songs and be a member of the Baptist Church ... so now I play church songs, and it's done me a world of good."

By her own account, Cotten had it hard much of her life. As the youngest child in a family of five, she worked as a domestic for 75 cents a month. She bought her first guitar for $3.75 at age 9, and wrote "Freight Train" two years later. Her parents, two of her brothers, and her sister died when she was young.

She learned to play the guitar by picking out a tune on one string and then adding to the skill. She played left-handed, but with the guitar strung for a right-handed player, so in effect she played upside down. Her rhythmic "Cotton picking" guitar style influenced many other blues and acoustic guitar players. She learned to play the banjo by listening to her older brother and sneaking practice time on his banjo when he was at work.

"He didn't have to show me nothin' 'cause I heard it day and night,” she admitted. "I was always breakin' the strings. I'd play it till the string said pwang, then I'd hang it hack up on the nail and hide under the bed."

Morristown Daily Record, June 30, 1987
After a move to Washington, she went to work for the musical Seeger family. She had been working in a department store when she met Ruth Crawford Seeger, and left to help with housework and care for the young Pete and brother Mike (both became well-known folk singers). She also helped raise her own five grandchildren.

It was with the Seegers in the early 1960s that Cotten picked up her guitar and began performing again, eventually joining the Seegers in concert.

Early in 1984, Cotten, who moved to Syracuse, was named National Heritage Fellow along with 16 other traditional folk artists. 

She claimed that her favorite song was "On My Way to the Promised Land," an old spiritual, “cause I'm on my way.” She ended her concerts with “God Be' With You Till We Meet Again.”

Her body was cremated after she passed in 1987.

Tutwiler: The Paradox of the Delta - 1979

By Murphy Givens - 1979
Photos by Jimmy Dempsey & Bill Ferris

Like they say, the Delta is the Delta. Period. People who try to explain it are oblivious to all that it is, and was.

THIS SMALL Delta town lies on the map an index finger north of Jackson and a ring-finger's length south of Memphis. It is the railroad junction where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog. The town sits pretty much in the center of the Mississippi Delta, which is as much a state of mind as a geographically defined place. People tell you the Delta is, well, the Delta, as if to say that is all the explanation needed, or as if the Delta is beyond description. One of the best quotes comes from David Cohn. which is often mistakenly attributed to William Faulkner. The Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.”

It owes its official allegiance to Jackson, but it is north toward Memphis that the Delta looks. It is Memphis where the Delta Blues were “hearsed and rehearsed” giving the country a new style of music unlike anything else in the world. And it is to Memphis, first, where the Delta poor escape, trading the hot dusty fields for the steamy city asphalt.

But the Blues came straight from the dusty fields and the Saturday night juke-joints of the Delta, and it was in the small town of Tutwiler where W.C. Handy, known as the originator of the unique ballad form, first heard this haunting music.

In his book The Father of the Blues, Handy says: "One night at Tutwiler, as I nodded in the railroad station while waiting for a train that had been delayed nine hours, life suddenly took me by the shoulders and wakened me with a start.

"A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags: his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar... The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. “Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog.”

THAT IS ONE of two reasons for the visit to Tutwiler. There is a footnote to Handy's Tutwiler experience in a Mississippi historical brochure of a decade ago, and it shows a picture of man named Lee Kizart, called "a current Blues singer in Tutwiler."

I wanted to talk to Kizart about the Blues. And secondly, after living in Mississippi for eight years, it was time to test my toes in the Delta. There is just too much sung and written about it. One has to see for himself what all the commotion is about.

© Jimmy Dempsey August 26, 1979 Jackson Clarion Ledger
When visiting Jerry Clower in Yazoo City, he stopped his Cadillac at the top of a modest hill and pointed north. That is the Delta, and this is the last hill for...awhile." It is said that no two hills are exactly alike, but every-where on earth plains are one and the same. Texas and Oklahoma are no different from the Pampas in South America. Flat land is flat land. But that is not true of the Delta. It has that sameness, true, but it also has an infinite variety if one looks close enough.

The Delta is a great field of green plants — cotton and soybean — with dirt roads straight as plumb lines running at perpendicular angles off Highway 49, through the fields.

The monotony of all that flatness is broken by deserted brown-shingled tenant houses, sitting in the middle of the fields. They once housed share-croppers who have long since fled to the cities. It has been many years now that the weary backs gave way to the bright new machines — startling green cotton pickers that can swallow eight rows of cotton at a time, moving down the rows faster than 50 field hands.

Looking at the ungothic shacks, I remembered some-thing in a story about a letter found in an old abandoned home, something written from one sister to another that said, "We are not like to ever see each other again.”

The Amazing Discovery of a Blues Legend's Headstone

Henry "Son" Simms and McKinley "Muddy Waters" Morganfield at Stovall, MS in 1941
Henry “Son” Simms—the Delta blues fiddler and guitarist who recorded with the eminent Charley Patton in 1930 and McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield in the early 1940s—was thought to have been buried in an unmarked grave at Bell Grove Baptist Church Cemetery in Clarksdale, Mississippi. According to Gayle Dean Wardlow, who interviewed former associates and relatives of the blues fiddler, Simms experienced “acute bladder problems” in the late 1950s, and he went through “surgery on three occasions,” the last of which he did not survive. The World War I veteran from Anguilla and Delta blues fiddler died at the Memphis VA Hospital on December 23, 1958.[i] His death certificate reveals that Memphis funeral directors R.S. Lewis & Sons prepared the body of Simms for travel so that his wife of more than a decade, Lizzie Simms, could remove his body for burial in Clarksdale.[ii] The document lists no “name of cemetery or crematory,” but recent discoveries reveal that it was, in fact, not Bell Grove Baptist Church Cemetery.

Skip Henderson, board chairman and founder of the Mount Zion Memorial Fund (MZMF), a non-profit corporation dedicated to the preservation of African American cemeteries in Mississippi since 1989, had first suggested the idea of erecting a marker for the fiddle player over a decade ago. It was not until recently, however, that the group began to conduct some research in preparation for erecting a headstone on the unmarked grave of Simms. T. DeWayne Moore, the recently appointed executive director of the MZMF, located a headstone application for military veterans filed by Lizzie Simms in January 1959, which requested that a flat, white marble marker be placed on her husband’s grave at “Shoevillie [sic] Cemetery” in Lyon, Mississippi, a small community outside of Clarksdale. According to the application, the federal government ordered the headstone from Columbus Marble Works, of Columbus, Mississippi, and shipped it to Charles C. Stringer, owner of Stringer Funeral Home at 119 Fourth Street in Clarksdale.[iii]

Two other names appear on the headstone application: Henry Hudson, who signed his name and appears to have filled out the document, and Nanettie Harris, the cemetery sexton, official, or superintendent. The Clarksdale city directory lists Hudson’s occupation, in various years, as postal carrier, driver for the post office, and messenger. He was, therefore, most likely an acquaintance of Lizzie Simms who helped her complete the application and, perhaps, possessed the means to transport the headstone upon delivery. Shufordville Cemetery official Nanettie Harris had worked as a teacher at Lyon School in the late 1940s and early 1950s. She later worked as a maid at the Brandon Clinic while living at 207 Hopson Street in Lyon.[iv] It was Harris who apparently authorized the installation of Simms’ headstone.

MZMF director T. DeWayne Moore located the military
headstone application of Henry Simms
Moore sent a copy of the headstone application to Euphus Ruth Jr., a Greenville-based photographer, tapophile and MZMF board member, who set out to locate the long hidden and neglected grave marker of Simms. He contacted Coahoma County blues enthusiast and local historian Robert Birdsong, some of whose descendants were buried in Lyon at historic Shufordville Cemetery. Believing it the burial ground referred to in Simms’ headstone application, the two men visited the large cemetery on March 28. Ruth walked around in the black section of the graveyard looking for markers from the late 1950s, and he located an upright, white marble headstone bearing the name “Hemry [sic] Simms.” It had sunk into the ground over the past fifty years so much so that only the name remained visible. Birdsong, therefore, retrieved a shovel and removed the dirt from around it, revealing his status as an army private during World War I and his correct birth and death dates—August 22, 1890 to December 23, 1958. All the information on the marker corresponds with that given on the application as well as his death certificate—except, of course, for the misspelling of his first name.

Robert Birdsong unearths the headstone of Henry Simms
© Euphus Ruth

To get to the headstone of Simms, head west on Shufordville Road and turn left after passing the sign for Shufordville Historical Cemetery. Park at the gate and follow the road to the right, leading to the back side of the graveyard. Locate the mausoleum of Dr. P.W. Hill and walk an estimated forty yards from the rear of the mausoleum towards the fence. Facing the fence sits the white marble military grave marker of Delta blues fiddler Henry “Son” Simms.


[i] Gayle Dean Wardlow, “Henry ‘Son’ Simms,” 78 Quarterly 9 (1995): 11-18.

[ii]“Henry Simms,” Tennessee, Death Records, 1908-1958 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

[iii] “Henry Simms,” U.S., Headstone Applications for Military Veterans," Ancestry.com, 2012.

[iv] 1946, 1951, and 1953 Clarksdale, Mississippi City Directories.