HOLLYWOOD CEMETERY - FRANK STOKES HEADSTONE DEDICATION CEREMONY
JUNE 24, 2016
Thanks to the Memphis Flyer, I had the privilege to attend a rare ceremony on Friday night. Over the years, I have learned a little about Memphis and its influence on the world of music - Booker T and the MG’s, The Memphis Horns, Stax Records, The Hodges Brothers, Al Green, and BB King. Since moving here last year, I have tried to learn more and have started to discover the current generation of Memphis and surrounding area musicians. Friday took me back over a hundred years.
Frank Stokes was born in Whitehaven, now part of Memphis, around June 1878. Orphaned young, he began working as a blacksmith, but also picked up a guitar and headed to Memphis to play-as a young teenager. He travelled as a performer in minstrel shows, where he met and may have influenced country legend Jimmie Rodgers. Upon returning to Tennessee, he partnered with Dan Sane to form the Beale Street Sheiks, who recorded for Paramount and Victor Records, some of the earliest recordings of classics such as Mr Crump Don’t Like It and T’aint Nobody’s Business if I Do. Their sound, picking and rhythm guitar, was contemporary to Delta Blues by artists like Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson, but gave Memphis its own sound. That sound was absorbed by the blues as it found its way off the plantations to Beale Street, up to Chicago, and out to the world via BB King, Howlin Wolf, and a host of others.
I met three passionate fans at the ceremony. Eric Hughes played solo. I am fast becoming a fan of his, having heard him solo and with his band performing both originals and old Memphis music. Joe Kowalski is an avid collector of original records, owning some of Frank Stokes and Beale Street Shieks 78’s, one of which he found in a thrift shop in Newport RI.
Nathan Kent is also in a reggae band-Exodus. Can’t wait to hear him play. He talked of picking up his sick grandfather’s guitar at a young age, but not finding out about the music originally played on that guitar until years later. That ailing grandfather was Frank Stokes.
Also speaking at the event was Dick Waterman, who has photographed, interviewed, and written about great bluesmen for over fifty years. When he interviewed BB King, he asked “the King” about Frank Stokes - had he ever met him? BB told of going to Frank Stokes’ house on Sundays with Bukka White, another early legend, and watching them play. Dick asked him if he ever joined in. BB King told him, no, those guys were so much better, out of respect he sat, watched, and listened (and I’m sure learned)!
Later, I waded through the steam bath of summer to catch a bus downtown. The Center for Southern Folklore hosted a reception for all comers after the ceremony, including music by Eric Hughes and Davis Coen, a country blues artist who is my other favorite local blues artist. The center’s mission is to “celebrate the arts, music, and culture” of the area by hosting local artists and these kinds of events, including their own annual music festival in September. I met Judy Peiser, co-founder, and threw my hat into the ring as a volunteer.
The whole affair was made possible by the Mt Zion Memorial Fund, who has taken on the mission of supporting rural African-American churches and cemeteries, saving endangered sacred grounds (which have been destroyed at will) and marking final resting places of little known and famous blues artists, including Stokes, Elmore James, and Charley Patton. I met Executive Director DeWayne Moore, who told me of cemeteries being lost to cotton fields and roads, and how Hollywood Cemetery, where Stokes and fellow Memphis legend Furry Lewis are buried, is an endangered cemetery. They are also part of the Robert Johnson grave controversy, saving a rural church (Mt Zion) and placing a marker on the grounds in Morgan City Mississippi. It is one of three alleged graves of the great Delta bluesman, but not the one I visited on the Money Road outside of Greenwood.
So a steamy Friday evening was a complete education for me - culture, history, great blues; learning about long passed artists and meeting new favorites, and the people and organizations who support them.