Charley Patton

On July 20, [1991] I had the opportunity to attend a program in memory of Delta bluesman Charley Patton at the New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church at Holly Ridge, Mississippi. Patton died in Holly Ridge in 1934 and is buried in the cemetery next to the church. The ceremony was held in connection with the erection of a stone monument on Patton's burial site. I thought I'd devoted this installment of RAMBLIN' to a report on the ceremony while it was still fresh in my mind. 

There is some uncertainty over whether there was an earlier stone at the gravesite. Patton's neice and nephew both maintained that there had been one erected by Vocalion Records, perhaps from the profits from his recently release recordings in 1934. They said it contained his portrait and the words to his last spiritual recording. Howlin' Wolf in a published interview recalled visiting Patton's grave, perhaps in the 1940's or 1950's, but didn't specifically mention the presence of a gravestone. There was nothing there when I first visited the graveyard in 1967. In later years a local resident, who was present at Patton's funeral, told me that he thought the original stone may have been removed when the nearby cotton gin was expanded some years earlier and that Patton was probably buried directly under the gin's lint incinerator. This certainly would have been a bizarre "eternal flame" for the master of the Delta blues. Whether there had been an earlier stone or not, the mystery of Patton's burial spot was solved by the graveyard's caretaker, Joseph "Coochie" Howard, who was a youngster at Holly Ridge when Patton died. Howard located the spot near the far left corner of the graveyard. It wasn't too far from where the lint incinerator had been, the latter having been blown down in a storm last year. Oddly enough, this confirmed an earlier intuitive locating of the site. About ten years ago I visited the graveyard with a friend and fellow blues researcher. It was sundown, and in the distance, lightning was flashing and thunder rolling. While trampling through the graveyard, which was then overgrown with weeds, my friend took a sudden chill precisely at the spot where the grave marker now stands. He was convinced at the time that he had located the burial place of Charley Patton.

The ceremony was organized by Skip Henderson, who back in September had organized a ceremony that placed a memorial stone at the burial place of Robert Johnson. It was presided over by Reverend Ernest J. Ware, pastor of the New Jerusalem church. Prior to the ceremony on the outside of the church, Henderson sold souvenir pins for $15 each, containing a portrait of Patton and a ribbon commemorating the occasion. The proceeds from these pins will go to a fund to maintain the cemetery. Only a hundred were made, but some may be left over, as fewer than a hundred people attended the ceremony. 

The gravestone was already in place. It was very tastefully done and not significantly larger than others in the grave-yard. It was grey in an older military style with a small portrait at the top and the inscription: CHARLEY PATTON / April 1891- April 28, 1934 /"The Voice of the Delta" / The foremost performer of / early Mississippi blues / whose songs became /cornerstones of American / music. The costs of the stone were generously provided by rock star John Fogerty. 

The ceremony was attended by Roebuck Staples and Fogerty as well as a good sized media contingent. Before the ceremony, Staples, who was born in 1914 and grew up on the same Dockery's plantation where Patton lived, told me that he had learned a lot from Patton and other local bluesmen. Before moving to Chicago in the 1940's and starting a family gospel group, he played blues on what he described as a local "chitlin' circuit." Also attending the ceremony were Tom Cannon, Patton's nephew, with his wife and Rosetta Patton Brown, Patton's daughter. Ms. Brown was accompanied by a large delegation of children and grandchildren. Unfortunately, Patton's son Willie Williams of Cleveland, Mississippi, had died earlier this year.

The ceremony was traditional in style, tasteful, and oriented toward family and community rather than toward the media representatives who attended. Following an opening prayer and choir selection, a group of seven of Patton's great-grandchildren sang a piece called "Memories." It would be safe to say that their performance didn't match the musical standard of their ancestor, though it was touching nevertheless. There were brief welcoming remarks by Mayor McWilliams of Indianola, who had grown up at Holly Ridge, and the son of Tom Robertson of Holly Ridge, on whose plantation Patton and his wife lived. Robertson recalled seeing Patton playing on his father's store porch. Roebuck Staples then spoke and recalled how Charley Patton was an inspiration to so many younger musicians. He remembered seeing Patton as a boy and saying to himself, "If I ever get to be a man, I'm gonna' get me a guitar and play the blues." John Fogerty then spoke briefly and said how he learned a great deal from Staples and was also inspired by Patton's recordings and felt that he ought to do something to memorialize the man. Fogerty impressed me as a genuinely nice guy and a sincere devotee of the country blues. 

Reverend Ware then preached what amounted to a funeral sermon. He took his text from Philippians III, 12-14, and spoke about "pressing on." He noted that Charley Patton was not perfect but he did press on toward his goal and "made a way for some of us." It was an inspiring sermon and thoroughly traditional in its style and delivery. I think some of the media people and others who had come from a long distance were a bit shocked as Reverend Ware got the church to rocking. After the service, everyone went outside for picture taking and viewing the gravestone. An odd note was supplied by a small group of young musicians with acoustic instruments performing some country blues near the grave site, but they didn' t garner a great deal of attention. Apparently, they did the same thing at the Robert Johnson ceremony and seem to be making a career of playing graveyards.

There was a festival nearby in Drew that afternoon. I had stayed a bit late at Holly Ridge and arrived in Drew just after Roebuck Staples had begun his set. Much to my surprise and delight, he performed solo with only his electric guitar. The music was wonderful and redolent of the sounds of Charley Patton, Willie Brown, and the Delta blues in general. Staples was followed a little later by John Fogerty with a local pick-up group. He did a short set of three of his old Credence Clearwater Revival hits. His debt to Staples, and through him back to Patton, was obvious. Both artists were very well received by the crowd, which was a thorough cross-section of the population of this Delta town. The sound system for the small stage, which was located in the heart of downtown Drew, sounded like it had been used at a few too many concerts and record hops, providing a typical Delta raw edge to the whole affair. It was a fitting end to a memorable day in the life of the Delta blues. 

By David Evans

The headstone erected by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund in honor of Charley Patton sits in the back of the burial ground--in front of the trees in the picture above--where many of the older burials remain unmarked.  

Following the dedication, "Pops" Staples and John Fogerty, the former frontman of Creedence Clearwater Revival, performed at the Second Annual Pops Staples Blues Festival.

Rev. Ernest Ware and Cemetery Eradication

The dedication of the memorial for Charley Patton at New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church also brought out into the light a most ghoulish crime of cemetery desecration.  After the ceremony, while different folks started discussing the destruction of headstones in Mississippi, Rev. Ernest Ware exclaimed, "Not just headstones, [but] whole cemeteries...they did it to my brother."  People were shocked. Having grown "up in a town where Revolutionary War guys were buried (Rahway, N.J.), Skip Henderson admitted that he "thought cemeteries were forever," "This was mind-boggling," he admitted. "Children's graves turned into cotton and soybeans?" Click here to read more about the first legal action supported by the MZMF.

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