Friday, May 15, 2020

The Most Amazing Interview About Blues Memorials You Never Read

Anne Rochell, “Marking the Blues,” SCLC: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference National Magazine 27:3 (1998): 90-95.

Rosetta Patton Brown holding a
picture of her father, Charley Patton
Duncan, Miss. — Rosetta Patton Brown wasn't there when they buried her father, Charley Patton, the first great Delta blues man, in an unmarked grave at the edge of a plantation in Holly Ridge.

“We got lost,” she recalled, still surprised 64 years later. 

It was 1934, and Brown was a teenager when her father died after a gig one night—from a heart condition—at age 43. Her mother and stepfather were driving her to the funeral when they lost their way. By the time they made it to the cemetery, the body was covered up.

"I cried so hard," says Brown, now 80 and a widow living among her children and grandchildren in Duncan, a Mississippi Delta town not far from Holly Ridge. She spits a wad of chew into a basket next to her fuzzy-slippered feet. "I wanted to see the body."

Brown didn't miss the second service honoring her father. It was in 1991, when a new headstone was placed at his grave in the corner of the old cemetery, between railroad tracks and a cotton gin.

Rock star John Fogerty didn't miss it either. Nor did Delta blues legend Pops Staples. There were cameras and speeches, and a new fancy headstone decorated with a black-and-white photograph of a young Charley Patton. The carved epitaph reads, "The Voice of the Delta: The foremost performer of early Mississippi blues whose songs became the cornerstones of American music." The stone stands out like a Cadillac in a junkyard; the graves around it are marked with names carved crudely into concrete slabs or wooden crosses, and many of them have fallen over or sunk into the soft, black soil.

The Headstone of James "Son" Thomas

The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund placed a large memorial headstone on the grave of James ‘Son’ Thomas on March 9, 1996 at the Greater St. Matthews M.B. Church in Leland, Mississippi. Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty financed the memorial. The unveiling was followed by a ceremony attended by Thomas’ large extended family and numerous local friends and musicians including Texas guitarist Rick ‘Casper’ Rawls and several other noted musicians from Austin and Memphis.

© 2019 - T. DeWayne Moore
Thomas, a gravedigger by occupation, who remained a beloved fixture in his home town of Leland, was also a renowned folk artist, sculpting figures in deathly repose as well as expressive skulls. His work has been displayed in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. (where he met and charmed then-first lady Nancy Reagan) as well as in galleries in New Orleans and Memphis. He is remembered for his musings on the subject of death, often spoken at concerts and reflected in his lyrics which appear on his headstone.

© 2019 - T. DeWayne Moore

In one article for the (Clarksdale, MS) Press-Register, a photograph from Panny Mayfield shows four of Thomas' 13 children including (from left) Raymond “Pat” Thomas, who sang and played his late father’s guitar as part of the headstone dedication service directed by Mt. Zion Memorial Fund founder Skip Henderson (pictured in upper right congratulating three of Thomas’ other sons) Johnny Thomas, Wendle Thomas, and Patrick DeWayne Thomas. Sid Graves, the founder of the Delta Blues Museum, hosted a reception following the dedication, which featured a performance by Raymond "Pat" Thomas. The owners of Hopson Plantation Commissary also hosted a blues event in honor of "Son" that benefitted the Clarksdale Care Station, a non-profit founded in 1987 "to feed the sick and shut-in" by "providing meals to needy persons" and by feeding "their souls with God's word delivered daily by local pastors."

Greater St. Matthews M.B. Church
© 2019 - T. DeWayne Moore
Both the opening act—The Remains headed by Ronnie Drew—and the multi-talents of virtuoso guitarist Terry Williams (center) contributed to the success of the music benefit at Hopson that raised an estimated $400 for the Care Station. Featuring the "sharp dressed men" of the Wesley Jefferson Band (right) in black tuxedos and red vests including (from left in the photo below) Wesley Jefferson, James "Super Chikan" Johnson, Rip Butler, and Michael James, the benefit was filmed by Graham Video.

© 2019 - T. DeWayne Moore

© 2019 - Robert B. Mortimer
On August 13, 2019, Robert B. Mortimer of Mortimer Funeral Homes in Greenville, Mississippi raised and re-attached the headstone of James Thomas to the base. He is also the custodian of several other markers erected by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund in Greenlawn Memorial Gardens. Click on the names of the artists for more information on the memorials to T-Model Ford, Eddie Cusic, and Billy Smiley.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Repeated Exhumations of Niccolo Paganini - The Violinist Who Allegedly Sold His Soul to the Devil

Originally published as "Burial of a Great Artist: Story of Paganini's Death Recalled by Recent Exhumation," Kellog's Wichita (KS) Record, Feb 8, 1896.

The late exhumation of Paganini's remains, near Parma, brings to memory all the other peregrinations they have gone through since they were first taken to the Nice cemetery in 1840—when Nice still belonged to Italy. Being refused there, however, because Paganini was not of Nice, the remains were taken to Marseilles, where they were also refused admittance. Not even Genoa, where Paganini was born would receive his body because an epidemic was then raging. A like refusal was received at Cannes.

Shall I tell you why it so hard to find a resting place for his bones? It was a common belief that Paganini had sold his soul to the devil, who would take it immediately after the poor man died! So, for five years, the body was left on the rocks of San Ferreol, where it might be still had not the duchess of Parma insisted on having it buried in the Villa Guime. In 1855, the coffin had to be changed, and in 1876 the body was again removed, this time to the cemetery of Parma. Then, however, all the people in Parma crowded the riverside, down which the body was carried by night, to the light of hundreds of torches. Baron Attilius Paganini, a grandson of the violinist, was also present. Once more, in 1893, the vault was opened, and the features of the great man were again seen. And now again the vault has been opened for repairs. A friend writes and says that the face is still perfectly preserved. The lower part of the body is mere bone; the face, however, is as perfect as ever, and has been photographed. Baron Achilles, Paganini's son (now an old man), has caused the body to be placed in another coffin, and this time a large piece of glass has been placed in the coffin. Thus any artist visiting Parma may now see the features of Paganini by asking Baron Achilles' permission. 

I am told that much of the music which bears Paganini's name was never written by him at all. His real compositions, however, are now going to be published, and they will be a surprise to artists on account of their mechanical difficulties, which will be a perfect test of ability to many of our modern violinists—great as they may be. He used to practice exercises by the hour together with a weight tied to his right arm. Then after this weight was removed his playing sounded as if it were a complete orchestra playing. There are some old people who still remember hearing him practice in this way. Whilst practicing he would also walk up and down the room, rarely looking at the music on the desk. From his youth he always had the preference for one bow. It never left him_ It was very long and was mended over and over again. It always lies on the chimney piece of the Green room in the Villa Gaione. It stands in a gold column, protected by a crystal shade, and on it is a paper telling what it is.

Aberdeen Journal and General Advertiser for the North of Scotland, Jun 17, 1893.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Piedmont Picking: Blues Not Doleful In Etta Baker's Hands

By BRUCE HENDERSON - The Charlotte Observer, December 27, 1988

"I dream music. I hear chords in my sleep." — Etta Baker 

"I say they (the blues) make me feel good. It's supposed to be based on somebody's sadness, but aren't you glad it's somebody else's and not yours?" - Etta Baker

They call the music she coaxes from her six-string acoustic guitar the Piedmont blues, but to Etta Baker it is the language of joy and remembrance. 

It sounds that way, too, as she lightly picks out the melody of "Dew Drops," the first tune she can remember her daddy playing more than 70 years ago in the Caldwell County foothills. 

"A-many mornings I've been awakened by my daddy's banjo, and the smell of ham cooking and apples frying," she said last week. "And it was impossible to lay in bed when I smelled all that good food, and my daddy playing. 

"It's just been a wonderful life, as far back as I can remember." 

Folklorists regard Baker, at 75, as one of the finest guitarists in the two-finger picking style that characterizes the Piedmont blues. On Jan. 18 in Raleigh, she and seven other masters of traditional arts will be honored as the first recipients of the N.C. Folk Heritage Award from the N.C. Arts Council, worth $2,000 apiece. 

After 23 years of work at a Morganton textile mill, she now performs at festivals nationwide, including JazzCharlotte. 

Baker has no formal music training, nor can she read music. But, she said from her small frame house under a spreading magnolia tree, "I dream music. I hear chords in my sleep." 

Born in the Johns River community of Caldwell County, where her father hunted and farmed for a living, she grew up near Richmond as the last of eight children. The family, which later returned to North Carolina, had black, Cherokee and Irish and musical — bloodlines. 

Boone Reid, her father, played banjo, fiddle, and guitar: her mother played harmonica and Jew's harp. Her brothers and sister also played the eclectic mix of traditional mountain tunes and popular music in their racially mixed community, at corn shuckings and house parties where music was sometimes made all night. 

"I've seen my daddy dance, and he was a tall man, but so light on his feet that you could barely hear him on the floor," she said. 

Before age 3, she was plucking out notes on a small guitar as it lay flat across her lap. It was during the family's time in Virginia that she first heard "the most sweetest music" — the blues. 

"I've had people ask me how the blues make me feel, and I say they make me feel good," she said. "It's supposed to be based on somebody's sadness, but aren't you glad it's somebody else's and not yours?" 

She's known now for her inventive performances and the delicate picking style she developed. 

"I make myself play every day about one hour and 45 minutes," she said. "If I make a sound that doesn't sound just right, I'll do it all over again. I just want to get to the point where I can tell myself, 'Etta, you can play.' 

"But I'm not there yet. I'm working on it, though." 

Baker was first recorded in 1956 for the influential album "Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians" and two years later left the mill for music. 

She sometimes plays with her sister, guitarist Cora Phillips, as they did during the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tenn. The pair won the N.C. Folklore Society's Brown-Hudson Award for contributions to folk arts that year. 

It was at the fair that she composed her lively "Knoxville Rag," the result of those chords that come to her in bed. 

Her nine children, of whom eight survive, continue the family's musical tradition on piano and guitar. Daughter Darlene often accompanies her on festival trips, she said, while Dorothy has a beautiful singing voice. Baker rarely sings. 

As she tends her garden and her zebra finches at home, the music of Boone Reid haunts her still. She got a banjo a year ago and a fiddle this month and is teaching herself to play them, too. 

"I lay. in bed sometimes," she said, "and think back to how Daddy made it sound."