Mississippi is red dirt, green fields, crumbling small towns and looping muddy rivers overhung by thick forest, like mini Amazons, but if you take a step back, or one hundred steps back, Mississippi more than anything else is tombs; it is ten thousand tiny graveyards beside ten thousand tiny churches. These cemeteries are quaint but forgettable, except that some of them contain the bones of musicians more famous than most dead presidents. And these bones and the graveyards where they are buried would indeed have been forgotten, even decimated, were it not for the work of a former New Jersey vintage guitar dealer named Skip Henderson.
I meet Henderson at Satsuma Café, in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans. He is sipping mint iced tea. On his arms are tattoos of Jesus, a horseshoe and a big open-mouthed alligator. He looks like a version of the Dude, from The Big Lebowski, and talks like him too, with a certain lethargic energy and a lot of cursing. If you ask him why he cares so much about a bunch of rotting tombs, he will probably start, as he did with me, by telling you the history of Mississippi, which according to him, goes something like this:
Slavery, Reconstruction, blacks are freed but the only education available for them is through the bible and church. Behind the church is always a cemetery, where sons bury mothers and fathers and roots form, meaning churches become another way to tie black people to the land. Somewhere along the way the blues are born, eventually comes World War II. Soldiers return to Mississippi with skills but no work, International Harvester invents the mechanical cotton picker, during the 1970s and 1980s massive farm bills and irrigation improvements make for larger, more mechanized farms. Small black churches, now lost in a sea of row crops, get sold and hauled off in trucks, or are burnt to the ground. Suddenly the tombs are flanked by soybeans and forgotten. And that is where Henderson himself enters the story.
Many of the great early blues musicians died in Mississippi, buried in unmarked graves or mismarked graves, or graves marked by merely one word, such as Mississippi Joe Calicott, who performed with Garfield Akers and taught guitar to Kenny Brown and whose original grave marker was a paving stone that simply read: “Joe”. Robert Johnson, perhaps the most famous early bluesman had no grave at all. To help erect grave markers for these iconic musicians, who inspired Rock n’Roll, Country, Jazz and much else, Henderson founded the Mount Zion Memorial Fund.
“My thing was this,” he says. “You had these blues guys, my heroes, these national treasures, and a vast agricultural operation comes in and wipes out this heritage and turns it into moneymaking cropland. On top of everything else that is just morally repugnant.”
The first memorial Mount Zion erected was a historic marker for Robert Johnson, in 1991, with the support of Columbia Records. The marker was placed at the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church (hence the organization’s name), outside Morgan City, Mississippi. The ceremony was attended by over 300 people, including journalists from Billboard Magazine, Rolling Stone and Newsweek. Also among the crowd was the musician John Fogerty, who mentioned to Henderson that the grave of bluesman Charley Patton lay in disrepair not too far away, at a church in Holly Ridge, Mississippi. Henderson visited the site and with help from the cemetery’s 79 year-old caretaker, “Cootchie”, found the grave.
“Charley Patton was actually buried next to a garbage dump,” fumes Henderson. “I was so mad I started crying. Here is one of the incredible fathers of the music that I loved, with garbage on his grave.”
A few months later, John Fogerty donated the money necessary to help Mount Zion erect a headstone for Charley Patton. To date the Mount Zion Memorial Fund has funded grave markers for more than a dozen blues musicians, including Memphis Minnie, Elmore James, Sam Chatmon and Lonnie Pitchford, whose headstone at the Newport Baptist Church in Ebenezer, Mississippi has a playable one-string diddley bow mounted to the side. The most recent grave marker was laid this past May, for bluesman James “T-Model” Ford at a cemetery outside Greenville, Mississippi.
“The blues speaks of survival and courage and passion in the face of incredible poverty and depravation and exploitation,” Henderson says. “Creating these gravestones is one way to intervene in that cycle.”
How did a Philadelphia-born man raised in New Jersey make it to Mississippi in the first place?
“I had grandparents who were Quakers and big in the Civil Rights movement,” says Henderson. “There was nothing to disabuse me of the idea that the south was just a dark primal jungle of obesity and bad healthcare and poverty where not so long ago there had been lynchings.”
Still, like many northerners repelled by their own region’s fast-paced life, the south drew on him.
“I have always been fascinated with the south,” he says. “I always felt like I was out of place up north. You get into the New York rhythm and it is constant motion, but after a while you just don’t want to be in that tidal pool. In the south there is torpor, and that is what I was looking for, the torpor.”
But it took Henderson a while to get there. During the 1980s he lived in New York City, “I showered at the Y and hung out with people who did off-Broadway theater and lived in vans.” Then he took a soul-crushing job as a social worker in Newark, New Jersey, handling juveniles. “Child abuse, starving kids, molesting kids, selling them, hitting them,” explains Henderson. “After five years of the worst stuff I could imagine I literally thought I was going to kill myself.”
Instead he started selling vintage guitars in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and it was there that Billy Gibbons of the rock band Z.Z. Top told him to go to Mississippi and see the place where the music he loved so much had been born.
In the late 1980’s he finally went south, touring Mississippi with a friend from Memphis. “It was just incredible,” he says. “It blew my mind that you could fly two hours out of Manhattan and be in a Third World country with no electricity, no plumbing, no phone service.”
Several years later he moved to Mississippi, and the Mount Zion Memorial Fund was born. “For years,” says Henderson, “I was just this Yankee meddling with stuff, coming down here hanging out with the black people.”
Initially, local politicians and business leaders wanted nothing to do with him. For one, southerners weren’t used to Henderson’s fast-talking ways. “The deal is this,” he explains. “New York is the world of men, and the south is the natural world. The south has its cycles, the cycles of weather, the cycles of the seasons, and you don’t screw with that, you can’t hurry that, you can’t make things grow faster, the south has a natural rhythm and outsiders who try to screw with that rhythm don’t make it far.”
But even more importantly, by wanting to preserve the graves, Henderson was threatening people’s livelihoods. Cemeteries are connected to the land, and the land is sacred because the land is where food comes from, the land is where wealth comes from, the land is where the future comes from. “The land is also what you leave to your children,” he says, “and when you start messing with these cemeteries you have really hit the main artery, because now everyone wants to know who you are and what the hell you are doing.”
Not all memorials came easy. Permission to place a marker at Tommy Johnson’s gravesite, near Crystal Springs, Mississippi was denied for more than a decade, as local landowners refused to allow the blues singers’ descendants access to the cemetery. “A guy whose house is on the road to the cemetery told me, ‘I don’t want this road open because then I will have n*****s crossing in front of my house all the time,’” says Henderson. “I looked at my watch and was like, ‘What decade am I in?’”
There is a history of white people from the north coming south to Mississippi to make things better, and at times an equally strong history of Mississippians rejecting, even violently rejecting, that help. The two white northern Civil Rights workers chased down by a posse of Klansmen and shot to death during the Freedom Summer of 1964 were killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi, about 100 miles northeast of Crystal Springs.
There is also a strong tradition of white people from the north coming south to Mississippi to learn about the blues. One of them was Rochester, New York-born Steve Cheseborough. “I figured in late 20th century there was no point in going, because by now Mississippi was more or less like the rest of the U.S.,” says Cheseborough. Then, in 1990 he saw Robert Mugge’s documentary Deep Blues. “It wasn’t just the music, it was the whole scene, the buildings, the way everyone talked, it looked like I needed to take a trip down there. I went for two weeks and stayed for ten years.”
Out of that experience Cheseborough wrote a Mississippi blues travel guidebook of sorts, entitled, “Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues.” The book tours readers through tiny towns with names like Walls, Lula, Merigold, Itta Bena and Gravel Springs and is now in its third edition. When it was first published, in 2001, few people took the possibility of blues tourism very seriously.
“I don’t think the state deliberately paved over graves, but it wasn’t a priority,” says Cheseborough, who now lives in Portland, Oregon. “Think about what socioeconomic group blues come from, compared to what socioeconomic group runs the government, not only in Mississippi but anywhere else in the United States. This is not what most places want to foster as their image, and it isn’t a surprise that the blues wouldn’t be the first thing a state thinks of in attracting tourism.”
But that has all changed, partly because of Cheseborough’s book and the work of groups such as Mount Zion. The state of Mississippi has realized that music, like cotton, corn and soybeans can make money, too. In 2006, the state created the Mississippi Blues Trail, a chain of interpretive signs peppered across the state that mark recording studios, radio stations, juke joints, city streets, cotton fields and gravestones that all have significance in the history of the blues. There are more than 180 sites in total, and the list continues to grow. In 2012, Mississippi also changed its license plate symbol from a lighthouse to a guitar, and a few years earlier the state adopted a new motto: Birthplace of America’s Music.
“We are not just paying tribute to artists,” says Scott Barretta, a well-known blues historian, blues radio show host and co-writer and researcher of the Mississippi Blues Trail. “Part of it has to do with promoting tourism.”
Barretta says that most tourists are attracted to the towns and cities of the blues, and are hesitant to head deep into the countryside, where many of the cemeteries are located. Other tourists, including this death blogger, want exactly the opposite. But as I sit there with Skip Henderson at Satsuma Café, Skip still sipping his mint iced tea, I realize he is not going to give me a roadmap to the gravestones, nor do I want one.
“I could have a key with directions and little maps,” he tells me later by phone, but he doesn’t. “No! If this means something to you, just go.”
And with the lady MissKarret at my side, I do, taking Interstate 55 north, past Hazlehurst, where Robert Johnson was born, to Highway 49 north, past Yazoo City, where Gatemouth Moore, the 1940s bluesman turned gospel singer died, to Highway 7 north past Belzoni, where lived soul and blues star Denise LaSalle, who penned the 1971 R&B hit, “Trapped By a Thing Called Love”, and on at last to Morgan City, where at an easily missed turn in the road is the Mount Zion Memorial Baptist Church. The graveyard is mostly shaded by a patch of forest, but at the front, shining in the sun, stands the Mount Zion Memorial Fund’s marker for Robert Johnson.
“His blues addressed generations he would never know,” reads the handsome stone, “and made poetry of his visions and fears.”
Butterflies swoop in the light, and as we stroll toward the shadowy rear of the cemetery a flock of large dark birds bolt up from the undergrowth.
“Did you see that?” MissKarret asks me. I didn’t, but I heard it.
This is actually one of three Mississippi cemeteries with markers to the great early bluesman, even though Henderson admits Robert Johnson’s bones probably aren’t at this one. A few miles down the road we pass a cluster of shacks, one of which has a sign for a diner. In the red dirt parking lot are the chefs, a pair of aproned ladies busy carrying to their car gigantic tin casserole trays for some sort of feast. Johnson’s second grave, one of them kindly tells us, is down a dirt road behind the diner.
There, at Payne Chapel Memorial Baptist Church, we find two men mowing among the tombs; one, in a red sweatshirt and dusty cap that says, “F.B.I. Jesus”—the letters stand for, Firm Belief In..—points us to Johnson’s tomb, a sparse rectangular marker festooned with guitar picks, and a bottle of Old Grand-Dad whiskey. We take some snaps, wave goodbye to the mowers and with cotton clumps blowing in the breeze ride Highway 7 north, in search of Robert Johnson’s third grave. We never find it, and it doesn’t really matter.
“This really has nothing to do with music,” says Henderson. “This has to do with respect, and if we save a cemetery from becoming row crops along the way then it’s all the sweeter. We turn the light on and the darkness recedes, and that is a good thing. That is biblical.”