Sunday, March 17, 2019

Stanley Booth, the Memphis Blues, and the Blood of the Lambs

The waves of outside interest in the blues have not been entirely harmful (a few of the old musicians made some money). Stanley Booth thought it even still could have more of a positive effect, but only if those interested in the blues care enough to temper their enthusiasm with understanding. He may have had a penchant for hyperbole, but he surely was not naive.

In the interest of belatedly paying some dues, it might be suggested that the posh Britons and atavistic hipsters might stage benefit concerts and help to fulfill the request of Lemon Jefferson----and see that the now marked and abandoned graves of the greats are kept clean---for which the blues foundations should foot the expenses, with the proceeds going to perpetual maintenance. If blues lovers wanted to do the right thing, they might go farther than throwing down some cash--and for something besides a trip to the IBC.  They might start with a little research, going deeper than the music, perhaps actually trying to understand some of the historical context so crucial to this vitally important music.  And so critical to maintaining the freedoms once so cherished.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Tom Graves at the Crossroads of Robert Johnson - 2020

Bluesman Robert Johnson died in Greenwood at age 27, but his short life continues to fascinate modern audiences. The latest in a string of books about the blues legend was Tom Graves' Crossroads: The Life and After-life of Robert Johnson (Demers Books).

Graves, a music journalist who teaches at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, divides the book into a summary of the known facts about Johnson's life, and a series of short chapters that address how modern myths about Johnson developed.  Graves addresses such topics as Johnson's early family life, personality, and musical career without the romanticism that characterizes—and distorts—so much of our modern understanding of Johnson. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Horrible Death and Unmarked Grave of Harmonicist Noah Lewis

Gus Cannon, Ashley Thompson, and Noah Lewis

Lewis was born in Henning, Tennessee, and learned to play the harmonica as a child. He moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in his early teens, where he met Gus Cannon in 1907. By that time he was already a respected original stylist on the harmonica, noted for his liquid tone and breath control, which allowed him to generate enormous volume from the instrument. By then he was also noted for his ability to play two harmonicas at once – one with his mouth and one with his nose, a trick he probably taught to Big Walter Horton, who recorded briefly as a teenager with the Memphis Jug Band some 20 years later. Lewis developed unusual levels of breath control and volume from playing in string bands and brass marching bands on the streets of Memphis.

At their meeting in 1907, Lewis introduced Cannon to the 13-year-old guitarist and singer Ashley Thompson, with whom Lewis had been playing in the streets of Ripley and Memphis for some time, and the three of them worked together over the next 20 years whenever Cannon was in Memphis and not away working medicine and tent shows. When Will Shade's Memphis Jugband recorded and became popular in the late 1920s, Cannon added a coal-oil can on a rack round his neck and renamed the trio (Cannon, Lewis and Thompson) Cannon's Jug Stompers.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Home Depot Uses Historic Cemetery As a Trash Can

When home improvement retail giant Home Depot rolled into Midtown Memphis in 2003, one of the first renovation projects it promised to enable was the maintenance of the Bettis Family Cemetery.

Neighbors near the Bettis Family Cemetery in Shelby County have come forward with concerns as trash continues to fill a very old cemetery.

WREG reported that the cemetery contains what used to be about 15 graves of members of the Bettis family, who lived in the area before Memphis was founded.

The only standing grave left is for both Tillman Bettis and his wife Sally Bettis, who died giving birth in 1826. Her grave is thought to be the oldest marked grave in the county.

A neighbor says that while the gravestones have fallen, the trash is numerous.

“I’d like to see it maintained and just see a little more pride in it because of what it is historically to the city of Memphis,” Jukes said. “It’s awesome in here, and to look like this is just sad."

Jukes said when he noticed the trash, he posted about it on the Next Door app, and he was amazed by the feedback and the people willing to help clean the site.


The Atlanta-based company plans to clean up and maintain the historic Bettis family cemetery, which it purchased as part of the Center City Shopping Center property in December 2002. Located between the retail center and the Madison Avenue Piggly Wiggly, the long-neglected burial ground is enclosed by a three-foot graffiti-filled wall and littered with drug paraphernalia and worse.

Home Depot spokesman John Simley says the company plans to clean up and maintain the cemetery, thought to be the oldest in Memphis.

"We do have at least one other store I know of on Long Island that has a small cemetery on the property and we've sort of incorporated it into our store as best we can," he says. "With the property comes a responsibility for stewardship of it, and we take care of it."

Home Depot plans to demolish the nearby former Seessel's building, which also houses a Radio Shack and Central Wigs, and build a 93,000-square-foot store. Incorporating the Bettis family cemetery into the property will be easier, Simley says, because it will be behind the building whereas the Long Island cemetery is in the middle of the parking lot.

The cemetery has attracted the attention of neighborhood leaders from nearby Evergreen and Central Gardens neighborhoods as well as historic Elmwood Cemetery executive director Fran Catmur because of its historic significance.

Tillman Bettis and his family settled in the area in 1819, one year after the Chickasaw Nation ceded West Tennessee to the federal government. That same year Sally Carr Bettis gave birth to her fifth child, the first white child born in what would become Memphis. When Sally Carr Bettis died giving birth to her ninth child in 1826, her grave became what is thought to be the first marked grave in Shelby County.

Elmwood and the two neighborhoods have investigated the possibility of relocating the interred family members to Elmwood, where other Bettis family members are buried.

Moving the graves would require approval of Bettis decedents and Chancery Court, and the legal fees would only be a small portion of the cost.

"Elmwood is willing to donate the plots there, but it's going to cost probably a minimum of $35,000 to move it because it's important enough historically that it does need to have some sort of archeological study," says Evergreen Historic District board member Carolyn Fisher.

It is unclear how many Bettis family members are buried there. Several grave stones are covered with grass and dirt and others have been stolen.

"Three gravestones are left but I know for sure there are at least nine graves there," Fisher says.

Efforts to relocate the cemetery have been stalled by lack of funds.

"There are lots and lots of people who are for this; it's just that there's no money," Fisher says.

Ultimately, it is not up to the neighborhood associations or Elmwood.

"Whoever owns that property is in the driver's seat," Catmur says.

Simley says as long as Home Depot owns the property, the cemetery will be cared for.