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Memphis Magic - Honoring Charlie Burse

I’ll tell the story again and again about my search for the grave of Charlie Burse Sr. How Dr. T. DeWayne Moore, Executive Director of Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, contacted me and asked if I would look at Rose Hill Cemetery, where, according to records, Burse was buried. About how I told him I had some time that weekend (hahaha!), about the fallen tree stopping me from driving inside the gate. Then the allure, the magic, of Rose Hill got to me. I spent those first few hours walking the 16 acre abandoned Black cemetery and on that May afternoon found a Burse – Emma Burse – her hand scrawled cement slab headstone barely legible. I walked that day, looking at markers and sunken graves with no markers, and wondered about the people who were buried there. Why was it in the condition it was in, why so many unmarked? It was a few weeks before I went back again looking for answers. Thanks to Arlo Leach, we knew that Mrs. Burse was Charlie Burse Sr.’s Mother. I made it a point to visit with her, tell her what we were trying to do, asking for her help. Not finding her son’s grave got me interested, no, committed, to finding out about the cemetery, its story, how it came to be this way. Every time I looked, every time I visited, a little magic unfolded. I was always alone out there, always cautious, but seeing the graves of the abandoned, the graves of the children, the hawks, rabbits, and occasional stray dog, I grew comfortable being there. The first story I found was from 25 years ago, about the murders and trial. A newly dug grave was a convenient place to bury a competing drug dealer, his Mother, and his friend. Then I read about a local Pastor who wanted to change the dialogue. Leonard Dawson, Pastor of Cane Creek Baptist Church, and neighborhood allies, wanted to clean up the ground, protect it, get help in maintaining it. I started looking for him to see if he could help me with my investigation. Then I read of another murder, earlier, possible associated with fraud, though the murder went unsolved. State and local officials sought burial records in 1979, but the news story said were lost when the victim – the cemetery owner – was stabbed to death and his car dumped in the Mississippi. Then the small file at Benjamin Hooks library disappeared. The magic was turning dark. Meanwhile, I had other priorities. I volunteered for my church’s Outreach Committee, which grants aid to local non-profits with missions aligned with our beliefs; simply put, helping neighbors in need – immigrant children, disabled, homeless, those unable to provide for themselves for whatever reason. I called, looked online, and tried to find someone who knew Pastor Dawson.

Then one day, the magic of that ground struck again – I found him working in his own church cemetery. When he spoke of the Holy Spirit guiding his efforts to revitalize the cemetery as part of a larger effort in the South Memphis neighborhood around Cane Creek Church and Rose Hill Cemetery, I wanted to do more – but how? Through my volunteer position – outreach liaison – at church, Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal, I went to an orientation meeting with Linda Marks of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association. Born of the tumult following the murder of Martin Luther King, their mission is bringing the community together through service. Once again the magic of that old ground went to work. MIFA was about to celebrate 50 years of serving the community and they were looking for churches to partner on a service project. Once again, I was inspired. Meeting Ms. Marks, Pastor Dawson, and researching the horrible stories of Rose Hill – and all those good life stories that ended there fired me up to take action. I brought an idea to the GSL Outreach Committee and Pastor Dawson. I met with him and other Hamilton neighborhood ministers and friends. We were going to take steps to build on what he had done – with help from Shelby County – in maintaining the ground, “sprucing it up” and making those good stories known. We were going to partner under the umbrella of MIFA’s Jubilee CommUNITY Days, using a grant from Grace-St. Luke’s, help from an anonymous donor, continued assistance from Shelby County, support from the City of Memphis, and a bunch of determined volunteers. I’ve written at length about this process, what I call the first phase of this project. The magic of Rose Hill was in full force as 35 volunteers cut and hauled dead trees and limbs, planted 24 trees and shrubs (including bringing roses to Rose Hill), and had 280 yards of fill material delivered thanks to an anonymous donor and city crews. With a not very promising forecast, we got most of the work done just before the skies opened up, watering in our work and pretty much cancelling every other outdoor event scheduled in the city that evening (the day of the Southern Heritage Classic).

(Cynthia Burse Wesson and Perdido Burse)

Though the renovation is at a standstill for many reasons, the magic of Rose Hill is still working in our favor. I’ve met with two families who have no idea where in the cemetery their loved ones are buried. I met a Mother and daughter from a third family later in the month who were able to wrap up my initial investigation. Thanks again to family research by Arlo Leach, I was overjoyed when Mrs. Nancy Burse and Cynthia Burse Wesson – Charlie Burse Sr.’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter, pointed to the spot where he was buried in 1965. I also had the pleasure of standing at Ms. Cynthia’s Great-Grandmother Emma’s grave with her, the lady who inspired me to keep going, as she visited for the first time. As the day drew closer for the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund to honor Charlie Burse Sr., the weather forecast for the second phase of my involvement with Rose Hill Cemetery began to fall apart. Once again, rain and thunderstorms were predicted. We had a backup plan, but as gracious as the owner was in accommodating our plan, having a celebration at a neighborhood gathering place on the other side of the city from the cemetery where an honoree is buried is not really MZMF’s style. Then there was a break – the predicted rain might stop sometime in the afternoon. With all the attendees and speakers in place – especially Arlo traveling from Portland, Oregon – it was a go. First, though, we had to deal with a flooded cemetery road and a stuck family member – Ms. Cynthia had a tire in one of those sunken graves just feet away from her Grandfather’s grave. She called for help, but Pastor Dawson came along and had her on the road in minutes. The magic of Rose Hill was in full force once again, though. As musicians and guests began to arrive, as my brother-in-law and I planted the 25th plant of the renovation project – a Peace rose for this troubled ground – the rain suddenly stopped, bringing the birds and bright sun out.

(Michael L. Jones)

So it was, standing on a tarp I’ve been carrying with me since I packed up and left Idaho in 2013, we heard about the beginnings of the jug band phenomenon, and how Memphis bands were different, the style having been modified by the Memphis Jug Band, Burse’s group, and others. This was after the idea was brought here from Louisville Kentucky, site of the annual National Jug Band Jubilee, by William Shade, the group’s founder and Burse’s partner until his death. Shade, “Son Brimmer,” had been honored in an effort led by Arlo Leach in 2008, but his headstone damaged. Replaced by Shelby County, I picked up the original and brought it to a safe place anticipating this day, when as part of our day’s celebration Leach presented it to John Doyle, Executive Director of the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. I spoke of honoring musicians such as Burse as part of honoring the abandoned, the ignored, the marginalized; honoring a culture so rich that I can’t imagine our lives without it. Author Tom Graves talked about us being surrounded by that culture and some of the stories that came out of it. Writing about Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie, he spoke about some of the myths and legends that get passed on as fact. One legend that we heard verified by family was the one about Charlie Burse’s influence on a young man from Tupelo. The story of the 1920’s jug band performer who drew the attention of the man later crowned king of rock n’ roll might be called myth except for the people who were there – the family of that jug band legend. It gives great credit to both the older man who was known for his stage presence and the young singer who paid attention. Even more shocking, if you think of the story in its time, was the influence of a nearly forgotten black musician on a young white boy. Magic.

(Arlo Leach, Vera and Christian Stanfield, Side Street Steppers)

(Bill Steber and the Jake Leg Stompers)

(Elmo Lee Thomas, Dr. David Evans, Christian Stanfield)

Practical magic was the result of hard work by Christian Stanfield of the Side Street Steppers, who acted as host and arranger for the event, especially the musical acts who payed homage to Burse and the jug bands. I have to say I was surprised at the punctuality and smoothness of his coordination (I mean, musicians!). Of course, the man I’ll call “the pusher” of the project was featured. Hearing Arlo Leach live on several numbers was a real treat for me, not having talked to him but emailing and messaging for about a year, and seeing only a few YouTube videos of his performances. But everyone got a turn – I wish I’d gotten a better picture of Bill Steber with his group the Jake Leg Stompers. When I met him last year, he was absolutely ecstatic that we were working to honor Burse and it showed in his performance with his band and sitting in on a couple of other performances. Of course, there was the Professor, Dr. David Evans of the University of Memphis, playing his role – as a musician. The ceremony wrapped up at Rose Hill as the sun set, when all the performers, 14 I think, got together on “Stealin’ Stealin’” possibly Charlie Burse’s best and most well-known effort with the Memphis Jug Band, originally recorded in 1928 but re-recorded so many times since, the latest on the phones and cameras of about 30 mud-busting, sun-drenched spectators and fans of all sorts, all caught up in the magic of Rose Hill Cemetery.

 How did i get here? 

In my journeys over the last three years, both physical and personal/internal, I have discovered Memphis and a drive to create. This site will display my goals to informally promote and tell stories about Memphis and the surrounding areas - music, culture, history - through my observations, photography, and telling the stories of people I meet along the way.

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