Mississippi Mosey - "In Honor of a Camden Legacy"
When I am standing in Rose Hill Cemetery, I see a beautiful piece of ground in a gritty city. A lot of things ran through my mind while planning the project to beautify the burial ground, some I wrote down – a visual impact, the cemetery as part of the neighborhood, the stories of people buried there, the troubled past. One chapter of its troubled past is improper burials – trying to squeeze a few more pennies of profit from ground already occupied. When the business of Rose Hill was no longer profitable, the cemetery was abandoned. Linda Marks, my point of contact for the project at the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA) saw my project as a way to honor forgotten and marginalized African-American Memphians – both during their lives and certainly after they were gone. The cemetery was abandoned, the maintenance fund “lost,” burial plans and markers disappeared, sunken graves left for someone else to fill. So I’ve spent a few months working on a way to correct some of those conditions and researched/wrote a few stories of people buried there, in part hoping to spark some recognition for its past, which is rich with stories of those buried there.
The Mount Zion Memorial Fund has been doing this for years. When I talk about the organization, I usually go with the musical giants they have recognized by locating and marking their graves – Charlie Patton, Elmore James, and Memphis Minnie (and sometimes still draw blank stares). Just as fascinating to me, however, is the same effort MZMF puts into locating and recognizing the lesser known – at least to the masses – Frank Stokes, and projects-in-progress for Charlie Burse and Roosevelt Graves. These and others made contributions often not recognized or known outside of certain musicians’ circles. All are deserving of recognition partly because, like those buried at Rose Hill, they were left behind in life and death, lost in a mass of “them” while alive and a mass of trees, thorns, and feet of grass after death.
So I consider each ceremony to honor the musicians found in their final resting place a unique opportunity to make an often forgotten African-American man or woman who in some way contributed to our rich culture a part of our stories.
I have now been to three. MZMF’s ceremonies take me to new places and new experiences, meeting new people, and sparking curiosity to learn more. The September 22nd ceremony to honor Belton Sutherland at St John’s Missionary Baptist Church in Camden, Mississippi has me thinking of two things – isolation and troubles. Like the first memorial I attended, for Frank Stokes, I know nothing of Belton Sutherland. Dr. T. DeWayne Moore, Executive Director of the non-profit, posted a bit from 1978’s “The Land Were Blues Began” a film I have never seen, on social media sites leading up to the ceremony. It is hard for me to fathom the isolation, even within Mississippi, which contributed to different “takes” on blues music – the Delta, Como, Bentonia, etc. Sutherland used parts of other songs in that documentary, sure, but he was also recorded singing an original, and used a particular unique phrase during the recording.
One of the musicians playing at the event, “Neffy” McQuillen, lives in West Virginia, but was in the area to play some gigs in Memphis, revisiting the city he lived in for several years. His song choice got me thinking too, covering the classic spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” There it was – all about individual experience, a major ingredient in a hard life of the “left behind” – a life in the sea of “them,” marginalized, famous to a few attendees – John L. Bacon, Evelyn Maxwell, on whose Father's porch he was recorded – but few others. Was it isolation and trouble that had Belton Sutherland holler out on film – “kill that old gray mule; burn down the white man’s barn?” Rehearsed? Part of his Saturday nights picking and singing on the Maxwell’s porch? Whatever it was, I envied those who heard it firsthand.
As project investigator Joe Austin told the story of finding the grave, I got a little greener when he told of his eureka moment - finding the grave of Belton Sutherland. I had hoped for that same moment of discovery, but lacking it, I think, took me deeper into Rose Hill’s history and helped lead me to my current project there. But Charlie Burse’s grave remains lost to me, his missing marker among so many lost in that troubled ground.
What little remained of Belton Sutherland’s legacy was in the spotlight as Silas Reed performed a powerful rendition of the isolated Camden man’s unnamed original blues song referred to as “Blues #2.” His voice and borrowed guitar (from McQuillen, and I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute to front porch music than a borrowed instrument) burst out and echoed throughout the hillside and trees of the cemetery, the way it must have sounded to neighbors on or approaching Sutherland’s or the Maxwell’s porches on a warm fall night. Mr. Bacon pointed out – literally, with his cane – where Sutherland lived, up the hill from the church and his final resting place. For an encore, Reed took his cue from Neffy’s tale of troubles and woe to look to the future – a future African-Americans still hope for in South Memphis surrounding Rose Hill Cemetery and rural Camden Mississippi’s St John’s alike – Sam Cooke’s classic “A Change is Gonna Come.”
The ceremony I attended last year for Bo Carter (Armenter Chatmon) in Nitta Yuma gave us two high points – a heart rendering personal story and a plethora of musicians playing Carter and Chatmon brothers’ music. The ceremony for Belton Sutherland was so much more elemental – a small group of friends, colleagues and acquaintances looking through troubles and isolation and remembering a local legend, forgotten by the outside world, and recalling his gift to the world. He is part of their life stories.
Thanks to the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, Belton Sutherland’s legacy is refreshed in those friends, like re-reading a favorite chapter or verse, and for the rest of us, though we missed the real thing, his echo now a part of our story.