Charley Patton’s Grave: More than a Memorial in Holly Ridge
|Courtesy of Jim O'Neal 1991|
This article was featured in Mississippi Folklife on April 2, 2018.
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By T. DeWayne Moore
Tom Fogerty, the rhythm guitarist for Creedence Clearwater Revival, died of respiratory failure due to tuberculosis on September 6, 1990. He was only 48 years-old. Following the untimely passing of his brother, John Fogerty started to hear a little voice in his head, which repeated the phrase, “Go to Mississippi.” It was one of the darkest moments in his life, because the two brothers had not spoken to each other in many years due to the dramatic lawsuits over copyrights to the hit songs of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Admittedly “devastated” in the aftermath of his brother’s untimely death, Fogerty was also “very confused” and described his state of mind as that of a “tasered-cat.” “I kept getting this strong feeling and not understanding it," he later told one journalist. It was in the depths of depression that he developed an incessant urge to “dig up his blues roots.”
The troubled musician, therefore, packed a suitcase, grabbed his boom box, and embarked on an expedition to the Magnolia state. Fogerty took several photographs of the alleged unmarked grave of 1930s blues legend Robert Johnson in the cemetery next to Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist (MB) Church outside Morgan City, but the film got overexposed and not a single picture turned out. So he decided to go back to the church, but this time two guys were standing in the graveyard. Not wanting to upset a sacred moment, he decided to keep on cruising the backroads. After a half mile, however, he thought, “Wait a minute. That’s a black church…, but those are two white guys standing there. They're not there seeing relatives. They're tourists like me!”
Fogerty immediately turned the vehicle around and went back to the cemetery, where he met a kindred spirit, New Jersey guitar dealer Skip Henderson. In the late 1980s, another friend in the vintage guitar market, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, had suggested that he visit Clarksdale librarian Sid Graves at the Delta Blues Museum, a modest institution that had languished in obscurity since 1979. Taking his advice, Henderson caught a flight to Memphis and met a musician friend of Gibbons’ by the name of Nancy Apple, who, much like Virgil in the Divine Comedy, served as his guide down Highway 61. The New Jersey blues enthusiast was certainly struck by the state’s rural flatness and natural beauty. He was also disturbed. Scarcely able to come to grips with the depressing level of poverty in the Delta, he tried to locate some of the graves of blues singers on his depressing sojourn. Most of them were not marked, however, and some of his heroes were buried in abandoned or awful places. He had come to Mississippi and, as one Mississippian put, “he had been swallowed up.” Thus, in 1989, with the help of a local attorney recommended by Sid Graves, Henderson founded the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund to return some of the economic benefits from the region's musical traditions back to the Delta.
Since both Henderson and Fogerty lamented the tragic fact that many seminal blues musicians remained buried in unmarked graves, the popular songwriter provided financial assistance so that the organization to remedy the problem. Freelance music writer Hank Bordowitz, in the first major biography on the band, Bad Moon Rising, argued that the forgotten state of rural, black graveyards in Mississippi brought the two impassioned forces together for the preservation of rural cemeteries and the commemoration of blues musicians. The burial grounds of blues legends, indeed, became their own “particular Field of Dreams.”
“[He had] said, ‘Carry me right away from this house to the church and from the church to the cemetery.’ He died that Saturday, and we buried him that Sunday, ‘cause he didn’t want to go to a undertaker. That Saturday night they had a big wake for him. A lot of his boys who sang with him was right there too. I’ll never forget the last song they sung, ‘I’ll Meet You in the Sweet Bye and Bye.’ They sung that so pretty and played the music, you know. Couldn’t nobody cry. Everybody was just thinking how a person could change around right quick, you know. Changed right quick and then preached Revelation, the thirteenth chapter of Revelation. It says, ‘Let your light shine that men may see your good work and glorify our Father which art in heaven.’ I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘Did you hear that? My light been shining on each side. I let it shine for the young; I let it shine for the old.’ Said, ‘Count my Christian records and count my swinging records. Just count ‘em. They even!’ And you know he was just smiling, just tickled to death. Looked like he was happy when he was going.”
Joseph "Coochie" Howard
While his niece believed that a marker had been erected by Vocalion Records after 1934, a local resident who attended the funeral told one Patton biographer that contractors may have removed it when expanding the nearby cotton gin and that Patton’s remains were underneath the gin’s lint incinerator. In the early 1980s, with thunder rolling and lightning flashing in the distance, two researchers were trudging through the overgrown cemetery at sundown, when one of them felt a distinct chill come over his body in the left far corner of the graveyard. Standing not far at all from the lint incinerator, he was certain that he had found the unmarked grave of Patton.
|The Lint Incinerator|
In the early 1990s, Skip Henderson was not aware of the intuitive locating of the gravesite when he arrived in Holly Ridge and associated cemetery with the nearby New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist (MB) Church; thus, he tracked down the longtime cemetery caretaker, Joseph “Cootchie” Howard, who recalled where the blues legend had been laid to rest back in 1934. Having been ten-years-old at the time, he walked right out to the cemetery and pointed out the unmarked grave of Patton. Indeed, the grave was not too far from where the lint incinerator once stood, as it had been blown down in a storm the previous year. It was almost exactly where the intuitive researcher had been overcome with a chill on a stormy evening ten years prior.
Patton’s unmarked grave was also adjacent to a large mass of garbage. The massive cotton press and other machines used in the nearby cotton gin apparently required that part of the cemetery--specifically the unmarked grave of Charley Patton--become a trash dump. “I am not ashamed to admit I cried,” Henderson revealed, “Here was a man who served as a mentor to the great bluesman Robert Johnson and his grave was about twenty yards from a garbage dump. He deserved more respect than that.” It was this moment, perhaps more than any other during his time in Mississippi, which came to define the larger mission of the organization:
“Our work isn’t some hollow gesture to honor the blues. The music is very important, to be sure, but it’s only the soundtrack. The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund serves as a legal conduit to provide financial and technical support to black church communities and cemeteries in the Mississippi Delta. We save rural cemeteries by any means necessary--whether it’s erecting memorials to musicians, engaging legal remedies, or filling the vast silences in important historical landscapes. It's about saving the soul of Mississippi.”
Holly Ridge Monument Hails Charley Patton
Rosetta Patton Brown was not there when they buried her father. “We got lost,” she admitted, still bothered about it almost sixty years later. Her mother and stepfather got lost while driving, and by the time they arrived the service was over. “I cried so hard,” recalled Brown. “I wanted to see the body.” Three generations of the blues singer’s family, however, including Rosetta Patton Brown, her daughter Martha Brown and granddaughter Kechia Brown, were all in proud attendance at the second service honoring her father. The dedication ceremony took place on the blazing hot afternoon of July 20th 1991, the same weekend as the Pops Staples Festival in the nearby hamlet of Drew. Roebuck “Pops” Staples, of the famous gospel group the Staples Singers, who grew up west of Drew, attended the unveiling along with John Fogerty, who paid for the monument. Sitting up front during the church service was Joseph "Coochie" Howard (b. Oct 29, 1923; d. Oct 25, 1996), the cemetery sexton who grew up at Holly Ridge plantation and had several fond memories of the musician from his childhood. The elder sexton sat in a place of honor for having pointed out the piece of ground that held forever close the remains of “The Voice of the Delta.”
With approximately one hundred people attending the private memorial service at New Jerusalem Baptist Church, which Henderson organized with the critical assistance of Living Blues magazine founder Jim O’Neal, Memphis University professor and ethnomusicologist David Evans spoke about the life and career of the master guitarist and composer. Born in April 1891 around Bolton, Charley Patton soon moved to the plantation of Will Dockery between Cleveland and Ruleville, where he began a short but influential career as a musician. He traveled the New Orleans-Memphis-Chicago circuit as early as 1910, started recording in 1929, and died five years later of heart disease. In that brief period, Patton performances and recordings served as an early inspiration for recording artists who came after him, such as Robert Johnson and Chester “Howlin' Wolf” Barnett. “He was probably the first blues artist to become a star,” Evans argued, “He served as a role model for a whole way of life—by being independent, traveling and cutting records at a time when nobody expected men like him to go anywhere.”
Reverend Ernest Ware likened Patton to the Apostle Paul, “who was a bad man…who started out doing wrong” so “God blinded him,” which inspired a change and Paul “pressed toward the mark of high calling.” Rev. Ware exclaimed that “when Charley Patton was playing blues, he was pressing toward the mark. Let the mark be Jesus Christ.” Speaking to Patton’s great-grandchildren sitting in the front church pews, the pastor declared, “I want to say to Charley Patton, sleep on and take your rest. [He’s] been dead a long time but you'll see him again in that re-direction morning” when the twelve gates of the city swing open. “Charley Patton,” the preacher concluded from the pulpit, “made the way for us.”
“I was personally influenced by Howlin’ Wolf,” admitted Fogerty, but “when I discovered that Patton was the root of it all, I came here to Holly Ridge last year. It was then I first put a Patton tape in my boom box and when I heard his voice, it sounded like Moses. I decided then I wanted to be a part of bringing recognition to this spot." It was through MZMF founder Skip Henderson that he learned about how Patton, like the great Robert Johnson, had been buried without a headstone. “I wondered why a man so great didn't have something to mark his life on earth,” Fogerty concluded. “His influence has gone all over the world, but his name hasn't.” So inspired by the heat and emotion of that day, Fogerty later composed and recorded a song titled "110 in the Shade."
Patton's gravesite sits on land alongside a cotton gin and donated by Billy Robertson, who owned the surrounding farms on what once was Heathman plantation. What is now known as Holly Ridge Cemetery was once the old Longswitch Cemetery--named after a depot stop community on the Southern Railroad. Patton's grave is located in the back amongst the older, unmarked burials. Inside the concrete block church, Billy Robertson recalled the days when he and Staples were growing up and worked for 50 cents a day. “None of us had any money,” he admitted, “but it wasn’t all bad. There wasn’t any dope, and if you had any whiskey, you had to make it yourself. Lots of folks around here remember how Charley Patton would draw a crowd playing at the Holly Ridge Store.”
Also participating in the service was “Pops” Staples, Indianola mayor Tommy McWilliams, Skip Henderson, and a choir composed of some of Patton’s great-grandchildren. Staples acknowledged that much of his early material originated in the blues style popularized by Patton. He “was a person who inspired me to try to play guitar,” Staples admits in the book Deep Blues by Robert Palmer, “He really was a great man.” Indianola Mayor Tommy McWilliams spoke of local history. He recalled “Uncle Shine who drove a white mule,” the civil rights movement, hard times, suffering, and segregation--each of which was indeed a different "part of the blues.” The New Jerusalem M.B. Church choir sang a couple of lovely hymns, “You Gave Me One More Sunny Day” and “Amazing Grace.” Patton's great-grandchildren stood before a tapestry of the Last Supper and sang, “Memories Are All I Have Left.” The concluding hymn inspired the congregation to hold hands. After they passed around the collection plates, the group adjourned and walked to the cemetery on the west side of the Holly Ridge Gin where a newly installed grave marker had been planted in memory of Patton.
The underlying motive of erecting the grave marker was not only to raise awareness in Mississippi about the significance of Patton and the blues as the roots of contemporary popular music. Recognizing this burial ground and taking all subsequent steps to restore, preserve, and maintain abandoned African American cemeteries has been a way of repudiating, rejecting, and overcoming the residual manifestations of racism in America. The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund continues its work still today maintaining cemeteries and marking the graves of blues musicians in Mississippi. By seeking out endangered historical sites and installing “permanent” testaments to the significant achievements of African Americans, particularly in regards to the cultural impact on popular music, the monuments of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund stand in bold contrast to other, more prominently displayed symbols of the Lost Cause.
To commission the stone, Henderson contacted the proprietor of the Greenville Monuments Company, Thorne Crosby IV, whose grandfather had once published the Greenville Times (later the Delta Democrat Times) a hundred years ago. Much like newspaper editor Hodding Carter, Crosby was “not a liberal but a Golden Ruler,” who eagerly assisted the commemoration effort by ordering the grave marker of arguably the most influential musician in American history. It features the cameo of Patton from his early recording days and an inscription: “The foremost performer of early Mississippi blues whose songs became cornerstones of American music.”
Skip Henderson told the crowd at his grave that Patton “roamed the Delta like a lion; a master guitarist and composer, a widely known celebrity sought after by wealthy landowners and sharecroppers alike, the most successful Delta recording star of his time.” The early 1990s developments, such as Indianola-native B.B. King opening a blues club on Beale Street in Memphis, struck a nerve inside Henderson. “Sixty years after Patton's death,” he exclaimed, “I want to do anything I can do to bring the origin of the blues back to the Delta and away from the commercialization of Memphis and Beale Street.” “Don't let anyone tell you that Memphis or Beale Street is where the blues began,” Henderson concluded. “It was right here in the middle of the Delta. This recognition for Charley Patton is long overdue. After all, he was the first blues star, and to many, he was the Shakespeare of the blues.”
“RJ Memorial Fund Founder Preserves ‘Holy Ground’ Landmarks,” Clarksdale (MS) Press Register, Nov 24, 1990, 2B.
Panny Mayfield, “Henderson Dedicates Again,” (Clarksdale, MS) Press-Register, July 17, 1991.
Panny Mayfield, “A Tribute to Patton, ‘The Voice of the Delta,” (Clarksdale, MS) Press-Register, July 23, 1991.
H. Thorne Crosby IV, “How’s That Again,” (Greenville, MS) Delta Democrat Times, May 24, 2010.
Shep Montgomery, “Pop star Pays Debt to Blues Pioneer,” (Greenville, MS) Delta Democrat Times, July 21, 1991.
“New Marker Honors Patton,” Hattiesburg (MS) American, July 23, 1991.
“Memorial to Charley Patton,” (Indianola, MS) Enterprise Tocsin, July 11, 1991.
Doreen Muzzi, “Staples Park Fest Saturday in Drew,” (Indianola, MS) Enterprise Tocsin, July 18, 1991.
“Holly Ridge Monument Hails Charley Patton,” (Indianola, MS) Enterprise Tocsin, July 25, 1991.
“Pop Staples Festival was Day of Musical Fun,” (Indianola, MS) Enterprise Tocsin, July 25, 1991.
Charlotte Graham, “New Jersey native Leads Preservation Fight,” (Jackson, MS) Clarion-Ledger, July 18, 1993.
“Memorial Honors Blues Composer,” (Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger, July 23, 1991.
“Rock Guitarist Tom Fogerty dies at age 48,” (Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger, Dep 15, 1990.
“Blues Spirit Puts Fogerty into Music-Making Mood,” The (Nashville) Tennessean, Sep, 21, 1997, p.7.
“Joseph Howard,” 1930 US Census Place: Beat 3, Sunflower, Mississippi; Roll: 1166; Page: 20A; Enumeration District: 0013; Image: 802.0; FHL microfilm: 2340901.
Bessie Turner interviewed by David Evans and Bob Vinisky, Greenville, Mississippi, March 10, 1979.
Ann Waldron, Hodding Carter: The Reconstruction of a Racist (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1993).
Hank Bordowitz, Bad Moon Rising: The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1998).
Robert Palmer, Deep Blues (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 61.
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.