Belton Sutherland


T. DeWayne Moore - MZMF director
Joe Austin, project investigator




The Association for Cultural Equity (ACE)—a charitable organization founded by folklorist Alan Lomax to explore and preserve the world's expressive traditions with humanistic commitment and scientific engagement—posted four and a half minutes of largely unseen footage to the internet on December 16, 2010. It featured a guitar player singing an improvised blues number on a porch in Madison County, Mississippi. Shot by John Bishop, Worth Long, and Lomax at the farm of Clyde Maxwell on September 3, 1978, the rolling rhythm of his guitar and the atmospheric accompaniment of the crickets projected a pure release of emotion to the creator, introducing Belton Sutherland, in all his foot-tapping and cigarette-smoking glory, to folks across the globe. He played a classic Kay archtop guitar tuned down almost two whole steps to around C#, which puts him a minor third low of standard tuning; other than that, all folks could say for sure, and they did so repeatedly, was that he was “the real thing.” According to the counter beneath the video, almost 1.5 million people have watched it to date. ACE released two more solo blues performances, one a cappella field holler, and one duet with the fiddle accompaniment, almost none of which made it into the original release of the Lomax documentary, The Land Where the Blues Began. In fact, Sutherland appears only for about a minute and ten seconds during the entire film. In the introduction and the main body of the film, he hollers out, “Kill that old grey mule; burn down the white man's barn,” and then he disappears for thirty years.


The Grave of Belton Sutherland
Referring to arguably the most fierce, exquisitely iconoclastic artist that barely appeared in the late-seventies documentary, one contributor to a country blues message board lamented recently that after performing a few fine songs “nothing else is said about him.” A subsequent comment asserts that he may have only “recorded three songs, but they were powerful. I wish there was more of him.” One of the newer members admits, plainly, “I don’t know how ‘obscure’ this bluesman is, but...he looks & sounds like a man who has lived the blues his entire life.” While some folks who purchased the 30th anniversary DVD of The Land Where the Blues Began, which shipped in December 2009, had the pleasure of witnessing the performances of Belton Sutherland before anyone else, even those fortunate souls lacked any biographical information about the enigmatic musician. Not until 2017, when the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund—a Mississippi non-profit organized in 1989 to memorialize musicians interred in rural cemeteries without grave markers and provide financial support to African American church communities—initiated a campaign to locate and mark the grave of Belton Sutherland, would any information come to light at all. 


Belton Sutherland was born on February 14, 1911—the same year as the King of the Delta Blues Singers, Robert Johnson. His parents, William and Mattie Sutherland, already had eight children, and they would have four more after Belton, making a total of thirteen. The Sutherland family worked as sharecroppers in the small hamlet of Camden, Mississippi, not too far from St. John Missionary Baptist (MB) Church. A minister, farmer, and member of their extended family, Reverend Cage Sutherland, had been born in the wake of the Civil War, and he managed to procure most of the land on which was Camden.


MORE TO COME...
The grave of William Sutherland, father to Belton
The Grave of Mattie Sutherland, mother to Belton
The Grave of Zettie Sutherland - William's second wife




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