Saturday, May 27, 2017

Belton Sutherland's Unmarked Grave

Copyright Gary Tennant
Copyright Gary Tennant
I have compiled all the previously unknown information about Belton Sutherland, who several musicians have lamented about not knowing any historical information on this fiercely iconoclastic blues artist.  For example:

Several members of have expressed their sadness over the lack of information available about Belton Sutherland.  One member, for example, states, "I wish there was more info out there on Belton Sutherland."  Another contributor admits, "He is filmed performing two fine songs in Canton, Mississippi, but nothing else is said about him. His songs are quite good. Wish there was more of him."  Yet another contends that he may have only “recorded three songs, but they were powerful."  Michael Cardenas asserts that the Land Where the Blues Began is a "Crucial DVD and Belton steals it."  One of the newer members of the site writes, "I don't know how 'obscure' this bluesman is, but...[h]e only recorded 3 songs with Alan Lomax & all 3 were very raw, incredibly powerful songs. He looks & sounds like a man who has lived the blues his entire life."

An Unmarked Biography of Belton Sutherland
by T. DeWayne Moore

Belton Sutherland was born on February 14, 1911--the same year as Robert Johnson came into the world of Jim Crow, Mississippi.  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 M.B. Church.  In fact, Belton lost his mother shortly before his eighth birthday, and her grave is located behind the church.  His mother's grave was marked following her death with a modest, yet very respectful, headstone.  While he loses his mother before a census enumerator ever writes his name in the 1920 Census, he would grow up quick as a motherless child, get married to woman named Louise, and move to Holmes County by the time his name name is again put to parchment for the federal government in 1930.  

Clarion Ledger, March 10, 1937.
It remains unclear what events transpire over the next seven years, but in the late 1930s, Belton had moved back to Madison County, where he gets arrested for forging a $25 check.  The judge sentenced him to two years on the state prison farm at Parchman.  After serving only eight months, however, the remainder of his sentence got suspended by the governor.  Not yet thirty years-old but the future show-stealer already knew how it feels to be a motherless child and to get convicted of forgery despite one census enumerator noting that he never had the opportunity to pickup reading and writing, at least not in his young life.

He stayed close to his home in Camden after his fortuitous release from prison, and he settled down to farming as well.  He also played music on a semi-regular basis with Clyde Maxwell, of Canton, a versatile musician who played both fiddle and guitar.  Largely unknown to the outside world, he was a mountain in his own neck of the woods and folklorist Worth Long had recognized his spellbinding performance ability during his many travels in the deep South during the 1960s and 1970s for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).   Long and other SNCC workers spent a great deal of time organizing in Madison County with local movement leaders such as C.O. Chinn and Annie Devine.  Long did not forget him or Maxwell when he returned to Mississippi in 1970s--first as a consultant for the Festival of American Folklife--and  as a consultant for folklorist Alan Lomax, who, having been absent from the scene for almost two decades, sought advice on locating talented individuals to participate in the documentary, The Land Where the Blues Began.  

The amazing performances of Belton Sutherland would be the only recorded evidence of his greatness. Only local people had the pleasure of enjoying his company and music during his more than seventy years on this earth.   Though his on-screen sometimes playing partner Clyde Maxwell would make the trip to Washington County in October to perform at the inaugural Delta Blues Festival, for unknown reasons the field-hollering and guitar-playing blues shouter from Madison County did not come with him.  I located his funeral notice in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger (attached).  Sutherland ascended on October 7, 1983, and the local blues belter was buried by People's Funeral Home, of Jackson.  He was laid to rest near his mother's grave in the cemetery behind St. John Missionary Baptist Church.

On March 30, 2017, I received am email from Canton native Joe Austin, who agreed to drive over and walk the cemetery.  Though another graveyard bloodhound had walked the burial ground already and turned up nothing for Belton, the light was shining down on this day.  He wrote:  "Success!  I did a bit of searching and found St. John's Missionary Church..and drove out to the site.  I walked the graveyard until I found Mr. Sutherland's plot, took some photos and visited with him for a bit as well.  I told him about you and the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund and played “I Got Trouble” for him while letting him know his music lives on, even to this day.  And although it's an overcast and dark, rainy day, it was so...joyous!  I can't fully describe it, but it was so deeply gratifying to me on so many levels. Thank you. Seriously, thank you for allowing me to help in your research."  Attached to the email was a photograph of the blues singer's temporary marker that the funeral home placed atop his grave.

We recently met the pastor, Rev. Luckett,  at the church, walked over to the gravesite, and explained our mission at the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, and as much about the blues singer and all the forgotten bluesmen of his era, as well as anything else they'd let us talk about.   Rev. Luckett remembered him playing guitar, but he was completely unaware of his immense talent.  We played the videos for him (with Belton, we're sure, resting in peace and grinning right next to us). He was blown away. All smiles. Rev. Luckett was so proud, he exclaimed, “I got a bluesman in my graveyard!”  They're excited and humbled about this revelation and we assured Pastor Luckett we'd keep him in the loop on the project goals and current events as they unfold.

We advised that he remove the metal plaque marking the grave so no one would remove it for them.  We plan to donate it to a museum, but for right now we are soliciting donations to erect a marker inline with those of his other family members through a GoFundMe account - 

We have some postcards with his temporary marker on them that we have been sending out to anyone who contributes.  This campaign is very unique in that only musicians and folks who really know about the blues even know Sutherland.  I hope you enjoyed the story.  Thank you...

Belton Sutherland

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