Tuesday, April 07, 2009

"Pilgrimage" to Historic Blues and Country Music Sites, in the South, and in Detroit

By Dave Armstrong (4-7-09)

As an avid fan of Delta Blues and classic early country music, I am very interested in an upcoming trip we'll be making to the South, partly devoted to visiting places and gravesites and obscure little corners of Americana, connected with musical history. If one were to make a crooked square, with the four corners being Montgomery, Alabama, Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee, this would take in a great deal of the musical folk heritage of America; especially in terms of blues and country music. And this is precisely the area we'll be heading to in a few weeks (before it gets too hot down there!).

For an enthusiastic musical collector like myself, it was great to grow up in Detroit, a city with an extraordinary musical heritage; especially to grow up in the 1960s, at the height of the Motown R&B / pop explosion of hit songs. Every Detroiter who cares anything about music at all must make a "pilgrimage" to the "Hitsville USA" studio on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. I've been there twice, and it was a thrilling experience to stand in the studio where so much great music was made. Rhythm and Blues ("R & B"), which was sort of a hybrid of blues and jazz, became popular in the 1940s. It branched out into rock and roll and doo-wop in the 1950s and soul and funk music in the 1960s. And that is where Motown comes in. It is in direct line with the blues if one goes far enough back, to trace its roots.

Sadly, may of the Motown greats have passed on, and many are buried in Detroit or its vicinity. On 28 March 2009, my wife Judy and I ventured to Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit, which is located right at Woodward and 8 Mile, on the very northern end of the city, across from the Michigan State Fairground (where I went to see Johnny Cash in 1969: my first concert ever: one that included Carl Perkins and "Mother" Maybelle Carter and the Statler Brothers). Little did I know then, how much musical history I was witnessing.

In section 3 right outside of the office, one finds the gravesite of David Ruffin: lead singer of the Temptations from 1965-1968, the plot for Levi Stubbs, the recently deceased lead singer of the Four Tops, the grave of Renaldo "Obie" Benson (also of the Four Tops), and that of Ronald Winans, of the famed Detroit Gospel group of the same name. In section 40, at the opposite end of the cemetery, is the very nice gravesite of Lawrence Payton, who was in the Four Tops as well. Oddly enough, in the office I met a woman who is the niece of both Payton and Benson. Some of the Four Tops attended Cass Technical High School (as did Diana Ross): my own alma mater: recently voted the best public school in the country two years in a row.

In section 37, in the northwest portion, is the gravesite of James Jamerson, who was one of the Funk Brothers Motown session band, and for my money, the best bassist of all time. Ronnie White of the Miracles is buried here, too, but we were unable to find his site, due to being given the wrong information (another person of the same name).

Other Motown figures buried in metro Detroit are Florence Ballard of the Supremes (Detroit Memorial Park in Warren) and Paul Williams of the Temptations (Lincoln Memorial Park in Clinton Township). Detroit native and cousin of Levi Stubbs, Jackie Wilson, who was not in the Motown stable, but an equally talented R & B singer, is buried in Westlawn Cemetery in Wayne.

The most famous bluesman who was concentrated in Detroit was John Lee Hooker, who migrated here from Mississippi in 1948 and started playing the clubs on Hastings Street or "Black Bottom": the African-American entertainment section of the town on the lower east side (where the Chrysler Freeway or I-75 and the Lafayette Park residential development are now located). The parish I've attended since 1991, St. Joseph's, is in the same area (as is the famous Eastern Market). I used to work at the medical library for Wayne State, which was at the north end of the old neighborhood.

I once saw John Lee Hooker perform in downtown Detroit, in an open air concert. It's the only time (regrettably) that I saw one of the actual delta bluesmen in concert. I've listened to a lot of blues for over thirty years, but never went to many blues concerts, for some reason, excepting seeing Peter "Madcat" Ruth: arguably the greatest living blues harp virtuoso (that's what I play, too: you can listen to some of my old-time bluesy online recordings), several times at the Ann Arbor Art Fair and another concert in Detroit. In recent years he was in a band with my brother-in-law.

Most historians of the blues regularly mention two figures as the "fathers" of the Delta Blues: Charley Patton and Eddie "Son" House (hear his original Death Letter Blues from 1942). Patton died in 1934, but House lived till 1988. Apparently, he spent his last years in Detroit, because he is buried here in Mount Hazel Cemetery, on Lahser, south of 7 Mile (see a Google Map of exactly where this is). We visited House's and Jackie Wilson's gravesites, on 1 April 2009, as a preliminary for our southern trip. Blues singer Sippie Wallace is also buried in Detroit, at Trinity Cemetery (5210 Mt. Elliott St., a few blocks north of E. Warren: see Google Map). Originally from Houston, she had lived in Detroit, starting in 1929.

The "pilgrimage" actually began about twelve years ago or so, when we visited southwestern Virginia and stopped in Hiltons (formerly Maces Spring), Virginia, and the Carter Family Fold and Museum: the latter in the building that was the country store operated by A.P. Carter in his post-musical years. We had the great pleasure of meeting the late Janette Carter, who was the daughter of Carter Family members A.P. Carter and Sara Carter. The third member was Maybelle Carter, whose daughter was June Carter: later married to Johnny Cash. Historians of country music believe that the "modern" genre began in 1927 in Bristol, Tennesee, where the Carter Family were first recorded on the 2nd of August in the building for the Taylor Hat Company, by Ralph Peer. Jimmie Rodgers was recorded in the same location on 4 August 1927.


Our blues and country "pilgrimage" this year will begin again in Montgomery, Alabama, the hometown (after 1937, when he was 14) of the greatest country singer of them all: Hank Williams: who had been born in Mount Olive, and lived in Georgiana, Fountain, and Greenville before he resided in Montgomery. I even have an Alabama connection. My mother's father (Clyde Kirby, who died in January 1969, when I was 10) was born in Scottsboro, in the hilly northeastern region of the state, in 1891. We'll visit that site, too. My paternal grandparents were from Ontario, Canada, and my maternal grandmother grew up in Detroit.

Hank Williams' home at age 14 was a boarding house at 114 S. Perry St., in Montgomery (see the Google city map). It's not far from the river, between Interstate 85 and Hwy 108. Hank first performed a live show on the radio in 1937 at the Empire Theater (later the Davis Theater: see photo) on Montgomery Street, just a few blocks away.

By an odd coincidence, 18 years later it was the exact spot where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, thus beginning the famous bus boycott and the start of the Civil Rights Movement in America: spearheaded by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. I met Rosa Parks in the mid-80s (she lived in Detroit after 1957, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, mentioned above), and my family and I have sat in the famous bus, in the same seat (it is at Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, about two miles from our home). The site of the old theater is now a museum devoted to Rosa Parks (the Empire having been torn down some years ago). Dr. King's family lived from 1954 to 1960 in a house at 309 S. Jackson (see Yahoo Map)

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (see exact location), where Dr. King was pastor, is just a few blocks away, too. The state capitol building (where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as President of the Confederacy in 1861) is a stone's throw from the church, at the end of the street. Hank Williams returned to Montgomery a few days before his untimely death, and played his last show ever (by another remarkable coincidence) on the same street where his career began, just one block away: at the Elite Cafe (now Nobles) on 129 Montgomery Street.

He had been staying in his mother's boarding house on 318 or 324 N. McDonough Street: close to the one where he lived in 1937. This is the house he left from, when he departed on his automobile journey that would end with his death in the back seat of the powder blue Cadillac. His body was brought back there to lie in state a few days before his funeral, held at the Montgomery Municipal Auditorium, in this same general neighborhood, on N. Perry Street, between Madison and Monroe (see a map for the location). It was attended by some 20,000 people.

Hank Williams' gravesite is a few miles away at the Oakwood Annex Cemetery on Upper Watumpka Road (see exact location and several photographs). The Hank Williams Museum can be found at 118 Commerce St., and the famous Chris' Hot Dogs, Hanks' favorite place to eat, is at 138 Dexter Ave., near the capitol building. Also, jazz and pop singer great Nat "King" Cole was born and lived for the first four years of his life at 1524 St. John Street: directly to the east of Alabama State University (see Google Map).

Melvin Franklin of the Temptations, was born in Montgomery in 1942, while fellow Temp Eddie Kendricks was born in Union Springs, about 30 miles southeast of Montgomery, in 1939, and moved with his family to Birmingham in the 40s, where he met group member Paul Williams, who was born there in 1939.

Leaving Montgomery, we'll take the famous route (Hwy 80) of the Selma to Montgomery march on 7 March 1965 ("Bloody Sunday"), the first of three, where the protesters of segregation were met by the police on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma. Following Hwy 80 west across the state to Mississippi, and then heading onto Interstate 20, we arrive at Meridian, Mississippi, birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers: "the singing brakeman" and "blue yodeler." Well, that is usually the location given for his birthplace. There is good reason to believe, however, that he was actually born in Geiger, Alabama, some 40 miles north and 20 miles east of Meridian (see Google map).

Other famous musicians who were born in Alabama include Wilson Pickett (Prattville, near Montgomery), Nat "King" Cole (Montgomery), Percy Sledge (Leighton, in the northwest), Lionel Richie (Tuskegee, east central section), The Delmore Brothers (Elkmont, on the northern border), W.C. Handy ("Father of the Blues": Florence, in the northwest), Sonny James (Hackleburg, in the northwest), Louvin Brothers (Section, in the northeast), Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, session band of the famed studio (see a photograph) in Sheffield, near Muscle Shoals, Sam Phillips, founder of the famed Sun Studios in Memphis (Florence), Martha Reeves (Eufala, southeast; grew up in Detroit), Dinah Washington (Tuscaloosa), Hank Ballard (Bessemer, suburb of Birmingham; grew up in Detroit), Emmylou Harris (Birmingham), and Eddie Levert (lead singer of the O'Jays, Bessemer),

At any rate, wherever Rodgers was born, the Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Museum is located in Meridian, and he is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery nearby (see photo of gravestone and specific directions to it from Interstate 20). David Ruffin of the Temptations was also born in Meridian in 1941. Directly north, quite a ways up Hwy 45 and Hwy Alt 45 is West Point, birthplace of blues legend (and one of my favorites) Howlin' Wolf (Chester Burnett). Big Joe Williams was born in Crawford, twenty or so miles south of West Point, while about 40 miles further north is Tupelo, birthplace of Elvis Presley (see a photo of the house). Otis Rush was born in Philadelphia, 39 miles northwest (country singer Marty Stuart is from the same town).

The blues "pilgrimage" continues by heading west on Hwy 20. Halfway to Jackson is Forest, birthplace of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. Jackson was the birthplace of Otis Spann: the great blues pianist, and also Charlie McCoy and jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. About 37 miles south on Hwy 55 is Hazlehurst, birthplace of Robert Johnson: the greatest bluesman of all. About the same distance further down the same road lies McComb, birthplace of the late Bo Diddley (whom we saw at the free Concert of Colors in Detroit a few years ago; we've also seen Little Richard and Ray Charles there). Also about 60 miles south of Jackson, on Hwy 27, lies Monticello, birthplace of J.B. Lenoir. About 35-40 miles north and a little west on Hwy 49 is Bentonia, birthplace of the fabulous blues musician Skip James. Following Hwy 433 north and east about 25 miles to Hwy 14 east a few miles, one can find the gravesite of Elmore James, at the Newport Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery, in Ebenezer (see photo). He was born in Holmes County.

Continuing west from Jackson on Hwy 20, just to the south of the highway one passes the small town of Edwards. Charley Patton was born near there in 1891. This is at the southern end of the Delta, and Vicksburg is only 14 miles west. Famed blues composer and bassist Willie Dixon hails from there. Hound Dog Taylor was born in Natchez, in the southwest, below the Delta area.

Taking the fabled Hwy 61 north and taking Hwy 82 east about ten miles, we come upon Charley Patton's grave (see an aerial photograph and Google map and photo of the headstone). Patton died on April 28, 1934, about seven miles east in a house at 350 Heathman Street (no longer standing) in Indianola (which was also B.B. King's and Albert King's birthplace). The street runs directly north from the center of town (see the Google map and zoom in). Jimmy Reed was born west of this area, in Washington County. Little Milton was born in Inverness, about ten miles south, and raised in Greenville, 25 miles west. Mary Wilson of the Supremes was born in Greenville also.

Following Hwy 82 east, we turn south on Hwy 7 to the little town of Quito, to, in my opinion, the second most probable of Robert Johnson's three alleged gravesites (see a short commentary about this and another page of more photos of the sites and the churches). Some think that Johnson was buried in one place and then re-interred, which adds to the confusion. This particular site is at Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church (see Google Map, photo of gravestone, additional info-page, and You Tube video).

The most likely spot, according to the growing consensus of blues historians, is Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, north of Greenwood (see Google Map, photo of tombstone, additional info-page, and You Tube video). This tombstone dates from the year 2000.

The third, less credible site, is south of Quito, near Morgan City, at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church (see Google Map and photo of monument). Part of the confusion was a result of the two "Zions' in these church names.

See an article about the circumstances surrounding Robert Johnson's death. According to David "Honeyboy" Edwards (still alive and now 93; born in the Delta town of Shaw, on Hwy 61), who was Johnson's good friend and who was with him the night he took ill (from poison or syphilis, depending on different theories), he was playing at a juke joint at the intersection of Hwy 49E and 82 in Greenwood (no longer standing). He has also pointed out the house where Robert Johnson died a few days later: 109 Young Street in Greenwood (a different house stands there now). The location can be seen in a Google map (zoom in) east of the main drag Fulton St., south of the river, near railroad tracks, and the Amtrak station. Howlin' Wolf's excellent guitarist, Hubert Sumlin (still living) was born in this town also, as was Furry Lewis. Mississippi John Hurt was born in Teoc, seven miles northeast, and is buried in St. James Cemetery in nearby Avalon (see photo).

The next stop on the blues "pilgrimage" takes us north on Hwy 49E, north of Greenwood, about 21 miles, to Hwy 8, west 16 miles to Ruleville and past it, but not as far as Cleveland (Big Bill Broonzy was born in the same county: Bolivar), to the Dockery Farms Plantation: believed by many to be the place where the blues began. B.B. King has stated: ""If you had to pick one single spot as the birthplace of the blues, you might say it all started right here." Its in the very heart of the Mississippi Delta. The Wikipedia article states:
Charley Patton and his family are believed to have moved around 1900 to the Dockery Plantation, where he came under the influence of an older musician, Henry Sloan. In turn, Patton became the central figure of a group of blues musicians including Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, and Eddie "Son" House, who played around the local area. Because of its location, central to Sunflower County’s black population of some 35,000 in 1920, the plantation became a known centre for informal musical entertainment. By the mid-1920s, the group widened to include a younger generation of musicians including Robert Johnson, Chester "Howlin’ Wolf" Burnett, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, and David "Honeyboy" Edwards.
About 70 miles due west, past the river in Arkansas, is Kingsland, where Johnny Cash was born in 1932. He was raised in Dyess, Arkansas, in the northwest part of the state, north of Memphis.

Related to Dockery is the famous "legend of the crossroads." Robert Johnson is reputed to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for astounding musical talent, at some crossroads at midnight. Some seriously believe this; others say it was just a tall tale or a hoax. It is actually just as plausible to believe that Tommy Johnson (no relation) made such a pact, since he was known for his somewhat sinister persona. But where is the "crossroads"? One credible theory of the location, deriving from the primal blues legends of Dockery, is that it was the intersection of Dockery Road and old Highway 8 (just south of the present Highway 8). Tommy Johnson was born near Terry, about 15 miles south of Jackson on Hwy 55, and lived most of his life in Crystal Springs, a few miles south. Willie Brown was born in Clarksdale. Pops Staples of Staple Singers' fame, began his life on a cotton plantation near Winona, 27 miles due east of Greenwood.

Taking Hwy 49W north from Ruleville, we pass the famous Parchman Farm Penitentiary. Several blues figures spent time there, including Bukka White (born near Houston in the northeast part of the state) and Son House. After a few more miles, comes the town of Tutwiler, where W.C. Handy was inspired by an unidentified blues singer from out of the fields, while sitting at the train station in 1903 ("the weirdest music I had ever heard"). Sonny Boy Williamson (born in Glendora, about 15 miles southeast), is buried near here (see extensive directions and photo). As for other blues harp players, James Cotton, hails from Tunica, in the northwest area of the Delta, and Big Walter Horton, from Horn Lake, just south of Memphis.

From Tutwiler it is off to the famous blues town of Clarksdale. John Lee Hooker was born south of the town. Son House was born in Riverton, two miles away. The fabulous pop and soul singer Sam Cooke was born in town, at 2303 7th Street; cross street Illinois (see Google Map). Junior Parker and Ike Turner came from here as well. Bessie Smith died here on September 26, 1937 at the Riverside Hotel, 615 Sunflower Ave, after a car accident (see Google Map). The Delta Blues Museum is also here (see Google Map). Muddy Waters was born on the Stovall Plantation, about eight miles northwest of town (see Google Map). And country singer Conway Twitty was born in Friars Pt., about 18 miles northwest, on the river, as was blues drummer Sam Carr.

Moving further north, Mississippi Fred McDowell was born near Memphis and settled in Como, in the northeast section of the Delta. He is buried at Hammond Hill Baptist Church, on Hwy 310, two major streets west of Hwy 51 (see map and photo of headstone). Country singer Charley Pride is from Sledge, about 30 miles northeast of Clarksdale on Hwy 3. Charlie Feathers, of rockabilly fame, was from Holly Springs, 45 miles southeast of Memphis.

Crossing over the border to Memphis, the "pilgrimage" includes several eminently notable sites. In the downtown area lies the famous Beale Street (see Google Map). W.C. Handy wrote the first successful blues song St. Louis Blues in a bar on this street in 1912, and Memphis has long been a center for the blues. From the Wikipedia article:
From the 1920s to the 1940s, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Memphis Minnie, B. B. King, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon and other blues and jazz legends played on Beale Street and helped develop the style known as Memphis Blues.
Just a block away from the eastern end of Beale Street is Sam Phillips' legendary Sun Studio, on 706 Union Ave. (see Google Map). Here, many argue, rock and roll began, with Elvis' recording of Arthur Crudup's 1946 song, That's all Right, Mama, in July 1954. Johnny Cash (Folsom Prison Blues, Cry, Cry, Cry, I Walk the Line, etc.), Carl Perkins, (Blue Suede Shoes), and Jerry Lee Lewis (Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On, Great Balls of Fire) made their early classic recordings here in the 50s.

Then we head off to 926 East McLemore Avenue in South Memphis (see Google Map: zoom in several times), to the equally legendary and renowned Stax Studio site: "Soulsville U.S.A." (a replica of the old building, torn down in 1989): the home base of Stax Records. From Sun and Stax Studios came of my very favorite all-time songs. In this studio (and also in the associated Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in northern Alabama), the classic mid-60s soul or "Memphis soul" recordings of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave (Soul Man: my very favorite record) the Staple Singers, Booker T. & the MGs, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Joe Tex, King Curtis, and Aretha Franklin were made. And of course, one will want to see Graceland, Elvis' famous residence, a bit further south in the city: (see Google Map). I say "see," as I would never go inside such a tourist trap.

Also of historical note in Memphis, is Mason Temple (see Google Map), not far north from Stax Studio, where Martin Luther King gave his last speech (see a transcript or hear an audio recording of the speech), the night before he was murdered. The former Lorraine Motel at 450 Mulberry St. (see Google Map), closer to downtown, is where Dr. King was shot the next day (April 4, 1968). It's now the National Civil Rights Museum.

Next stop: Nashville: the country music capital. Every music fan who knows anything at all about the history of country music will want to visit the Ryman Auditorium, site of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974 (see Google Map). Just down the street (5th Avenue), not too many blocks away is RCA Studio B: the most famous of the Nashville studios, where Eddy Arnold, Chet Atkins, The Everly Brothers, Don Gibson, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Charley Pride, Jim Reeves, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, Roy Orbison, and many others have made recordings (see a list of many of the hit songs). The Country Music Hall of Fame is at the same location (see Google Map). Music Row, just southwest of downtown, is the heart of Nashville's music industry, with hundreds of businesses related to country, gospel, and contemporary Christian music.

For those interested in visiting gravesites of famous country musicians, Woodlawn Memorial Park at 660 Thompson Lane (see Google Map), is the final resting place of many stars, including Red Foley, Marty Robbins, Webb Pierce, Tammy Wynette, Eddy Arnold, and also Otis Blackwell, composer of Don't Be Cruel, All Shook Up, Fever, Great Balls of Fire, and Return to Sender. Spring Hill Cemetery at 5110 Gallatin Rd. (see Google Map) in nearby Madison contains the sites of Roy Acuff, Floyd Cramer, Jimmy Martin, and Hank Snow. Lastly, Johnny Cash (see photo of gravestone), June Carter Cash, and Mother Maybelle Carter (see photo of grave) are interred at Hendersonville Memorial Gardens, northeast of Nashville (see Google Map).

Further north in Kentucky lies Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, in Rosine Cemetery, Rosine, Kentucky (see Google Map), where he grew up (his boyhood home is now restored). After that it is up I-75 back to Motown.

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