A Delta Weekend
I’ll just go down here, see this thing, stay over there, and check out this other place on the way home. Sounds simple, right? Well, not in the Mississippi Delta, where an overnight trip can take you through multiple histories, cultures, and of course, music.
I met T. DeWayne Moore last year. DeWayne is the Executive Director of the Mt Zion Memorial Fund. The organization was founded to memorialize the contributions of musicians interred in rural cemeteries without grave markers and serve as a conduit to provide financial support to African-American church communities and cemeteries. Besides the Mt Zion church cenotaph for Robert Johnson, they have acquired and placed gravestones for Elmore James, Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Memphis Minnie, and others, including Frank Stokes. I attended the Stokes headstone dedication ceremony and wrote about it in the first story on this website.
Moore’s exuberance is magnetic and infectious, so not only have I volunteered to help on a project, but when invited to the Fund’s latest ceremony I was not about to stay home. I made the trip to Nitta Yuma despite, or maybe due to, the fact I knew nothing of Bo Carter (born Armenter Chatmon) before a few posts leading up to the event. I had heard of the Mississippi Sheiks, his group with brothers Lonnie and Sam, along with Walter Vinson and other rotating members. Bo performed with and managed the band but was not with them when Lonnie and Walter Vinson wrote and recorded their most famous song - “Sittin’ on Top of the World” in 1930. I knew Howlin’ Wolf’s version. Bo Carter was prolific and well known in the ‘30’s but quit recording when he moved to Memphis around 1940. He died here from a brain hemorrhage in 1964. He wrote some risqué songs, but also solid country blues. One of his last was “County Farm Blues,” his 1940 song about being sentenced and working a penal farm. One of his first and most famous is “Corrine, Corrina” which I knew by Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder’s Rising Sons. He wrote and recorded the classic in 1928, which has been covered and reworked by dozens, including as “Alberta” by Eric Clapton, the subject of an ongoing legal battle.
I have to admit the ceremony for Bo Carter was overwhelming in so many ways. First, I got a look at how long and complex the process is from discovery to conclusion. Next, Nitta Yuma, a former plantation town with a two hundred year history, surviving buildings from the 1840/50’s and a story of wartime love between a Northern doctor and his Southern patient, is so thick with Delta lore you could get lost in its few acres and handful of buildings. The Phelps family, descendants of those two Mason-Dixon Line jumpers, were such gracious hosts I wished for time just to visit and tour the town buildings with them - and wallow in the history and hospitality of the family working so hard to preserve and protect their heritage.
Last, yet most important, there was the gathering! The land-owning family, Carter’s step-grandson and his family, the musical followers and practitioners of Carter and Sheiks music, and the audience. Moore spoke first, giving credit to so many and speaking of his challenges - in a positive manner, an example of how well he played his part; Henry Vick Phelps III, Nitta Yuma family patriarch, host, and partner who has granted perpetual access to the grave; Steve Cheeseborough of Portland, Oregon, student of Bo Carter’s life and music, who like a kid on Christmas couldn’t wait for the schedule to be unwrapped and tore into a song. And the re-enactors of that music! At the Frank Stokes event, a few played. Here there lined up to honor Carter and his music - Cheeseborough, Bill Steber and Ron Bombardi of the Jake Leg Stompers, Moses Crouch, and Andy Cohen, who played bandleader and campfire song leader with equal excitement and expertise. This event supergroup wrapped up the “official” ceremony with Carter’s oft-covered (and stolen) classic “Corrine, Corrina.” Adding to the overwhelming performances was Bo Carter’s National guitar in a co-starring role, though it stole some scenes.
But the man who brought the house down was the man who has worked twenty years for Carter’s recognition - who with his attorney fights still for Bo’s proper credit for Eric Clapton’s reworking of “Corrina”; the man who made a promise to his dying stepfather - actually three. Miles Floyd, stepson to Bo Carter’s son Ezell Chatmon,. He had us in tears, his family looking down from Heaven beaming with pride and joy. I won’t repeat the story but provide a link to video.
I left Nitta Yuma for Greenville, my stop for the night, in absolute awe of Bo Carter and what he had inspired in all of those folks, participants and witnesses, including one guy who is beginning to understand what finding and marking these graves is really about.
Miles Floyd’s three promises (link to YouTube video)
- Courtesy of Mt Zion Memorial Fund