Charley Patton’s Grave: More than a Memorial in Holly Ridge

Charley Patton’s Grave: More than a Memorial in Holly Ridge

Charley Patton's niece, Bessie Turner, offered perhaps the most detailed recollection of his death on the morning of April 28, 1934 and his burial at Longswitch Cemetery, less than a mile from his last home at Holly Ridge:

“[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 an 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.

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 far left 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.

 

Charley Patton's cameo from a 1929 Paramount Records Promo. Courtesy of Jim O'Neal.

In the early 1990s, Mt. Zion Memorial Fund founder, Skip Henderson 1  was not aware of the intuitive locating of the gravesite when he whipped into Holly Ridge with Jim O’Neal, founder of Living Blues magazine. The two men visited the store almost adjacent to New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist (MB) Church, and they 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, Howard 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.

 

Joseph "Coochie" Howard recalled where the blues legend had been laid to rest back in 1934. Photo by Jim O'Neal 1991.

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 had always produced a healthy amount of waste.  Convenience and ignorance, perhaps, led to one part of the cemetery--specifically the unmarked grave of Charley Patton--becoming 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 Henderson's 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 turned around 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, including Rosetta Patton Brown, her daughter Martha Brown and granddaughter Kechia Brown, were in proud attendance at the second service honoring her father.  Henderson and Jim O’Neal publicized and invited people to the event. Still hoping more relatives or acquaintances might show up, O’Neal went through phone books from all the surrounding counties and sent a note with an invitation to everyone inside with the last name Patton.

 

Rev. Ernest Ware delivers the eulogy with the descendants of Charley Patton, including his daughter Rosetta Patton Brown (far right). Photo by Jim O'Neal 1991.

The dedication ceremony took place on the blazing hot afternoon of July 20, 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, grew up west of Drew and 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.”

 

Roebuck "Pops" Staples performs at the 2nd Annual Pops Staples Blues Festival in Drew, Mississippi. Photo by Jim O'Neal 1991.

Less than a hundred people attended the private memorial service at New Jerusalem MB Church, which Henderson organized with the critical assistance of Jim O’Neal.  Oriented towards family and community as opposed to the media, the ceremony was discerning, yet tasteful, opening with a prayer and choir selection in traditional fashion.  Patton’s great-grandchildren stood before a tapestry of the Last Supper and delivered a touching rendition of the song “Memories Are All I Have Left.”  Indianola mayor Tommy McWilliams, who grew up at Holly Ridge, provided opening remarks and 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.” 

 

(Left to right) Rosetta Patton Brown, daughter of Charley Patton, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, John Fogerty, and Skip Henderson at the dedication. Photo by Jim O'Neal 1991.

Patton's gravesite sits on land alongside a cotton gin 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.  Inside the concrete block church, Billy Robertson recalled the days when he and Staples were growing up and worked for fifty 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.”  Roebuck Staples was the next Patton admirer who stepped to the front of the church, and he acknowledged that much of his early material originated in the blues style popularized by Patton. He remembered watching him perform and saying to himself, “If I ever get to be a man, I’m gonna get me a guitar and play the blues.”  In the book Deep Blues by Robert Palmer, Staples admits, “He really was a great man.” 

 

Billy Robertson speaks inside New Jerusalem Baptist Church in 1991. Photo by Jim O'Neal.

Memphis University professor and ethnomusicologist David Evans spoke about the life and career of the master guitarist and composer.  Born near Bolton, Mississippi in the late nineteenth century, 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 travelled 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's performances and recordings served as an early inspiration for recording artists who came after him, such as Robert Johnson and Chester “Howlin' Wolf” Burnett. “He was probably” the first “star” of the Delta blues, 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.”

Recognizing this burial ground and taking all subsequent steps to restore, preserve, and maintain abandoned African American cemeteries is a concrete, inspiring way of repudiating, rejecting, and attempting to overcome the residual manifestations of racism in America.

In what one observer thought amounted to a funeral sermon, 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.”  Drawing from Philippians III, 12-14, Rev. Ware exclaimed that “when Charley Patton was playing blues, he was pressing toward the mark. Let the mark be Jesus Christ.”  One observer believed that the inspiring sermon had shocked some of the media folks and others who had travelled from far off to attend, as the pastor’s traditional style and delivery had the whole church rocking.  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 resurrection morning” when the twelve gates of the city swing open. “Charley Patton,” the preacher concluded from the pulpit, “made the way for us.”

John Fogerty was impressive in his sincerity. “I was personally influenced by Howlin’ Wolf,” he admitted, 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.” Fogerty likened his songs to the Dead Sea Scrolls.  It was through 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.”

 

John Fogerty talks to congregants of New Jerusalem MB Church. Photo by Jim O'Neal 1991.

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 share croppers alike, the most successful Delta recording star of his time…This recognition for Charley Patton is long overdue. After all, he was the first star of the Delta blues, and to many he was the Shakespeare of the blues.”  The New Jerusalem MB Church choir sang a couple of lovely hymns, “You Gave Me One More Sunny Day” and “Amazing Grace,” which 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.

 

Skip Henderson watches the installation of the marker by two employees of Greenville Monument Company. Photo courtesy of Jim O'Neal.

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 is a concrete, inspiring way of repudiating, rejecting, and attempting to overcome the residual manifestations of racism in America.  The current state of many segregated, black cemeteries remains dire in Mississippi and the rest of the South, and the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund continues its work still today maintaining the abandoned cemeteries in which some of their markers stand.  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.

 

The installation of the marker by two unidentified employees of Greenville Monument Company. Photo by Jim O'Neal 1991.

To commission the stone, Henderson contacted the proprietor of the Greenville Monuments Company, H. 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 perhaps the most influential musician to come from the Delta.  It features the cameo of Patton from his early recording days, and Jim O’Neal wrote several different inscriptions, two of which Henderson pieced together for the final inscription: “The foremost performer of early Mississippi blues whose songs became cornerstones of American music.” 

After the ceremony came the second annual Pop Staples Festival in the nearby hamlet of Drew—the locus of a blues tradition identified by David Evans in his 1982 book Big Road Blues.  John Fogerty delivered an unannounced and short, yet raucous, set of his Creedence Clearwater Revival hits with a local pick-up group which demonstrated his debt to musicians such as Patton.  Staples was noticeably overwhelmed with the warm reception he received from locals and admirers who came downtown to meet him and shake his hand.  He took the stage and thanked his hometown for naming a park and a festival in his honor.  “I'm just so happy and honored that this was done in my name,” he exclaimed, “This means so much to me.”  He proudly noticed that the town had “improved so much in human relations” since his childhood. “Look at the way I and others are being treated here today,” he exclaimed, “It's wonderful.” Located in the heart of downtown Drew, the small stage and the well-worn sound system provided a “typical Delta raw edge” to the electric guitar of Staples, who delivered a high-end solo performance.  “Wonderful and redolent of the sounds of Charley Patton…and the Delta blues in general,” as one satisfied observer concluded, “it was a fitting end to a memorable day.”

www.mtzionmemorialfund.org

Newspapers:

“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.

Other sources:

“Joseph Howard,” 1930 US Census Place: Beat 3, Sunflower, Mississippi; Roll: 1166; Page: 20A; Enumeration District: 0013; Image: 802.0; FHL microfilm: 2340901.

David Evans, “…..Ramblin’,” Blues Revue Quarterly 2 (October, 1991): 6. 

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.

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Footnotes

  1. ^ In 1989 Henderson founded the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund to return some of the economic benefits from the region's musical traditions back to the Delta.

T. DeWayne Moore

T. DeWayne Moore

Having received his master’s degree in Public History from Middle Tennessee State University, DeWayne has spearheaded the renewed efforts of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund since 2010. He will complete his doctorate in History at the University of Mississippi in May 2018. His dissertation exposes the silences in historical scholarship pertaining to the black freedom struggle, the blues, and blues tourism in Greenville, Mississippi by detailing the careers of Africa American activists and cultural brokers as well as the events from which blues tourism emerged in the 1970s.