Monday, 10 August 2009

Found; The grave of Blind Willie Johnson

Jazz, Blues, Ragtime and Country are full of Holy Grail artifacts which believers have spent years and in some cases decades in search of in the apparent hopes that finding them will open the discoverer to some sort of link to a mystical and misty musical past. Some of these icons have actually been found (photos of Robert Johnson) others have not (Edison cylinders by Buddy Bolden, recordings by ragtime pianist/composer James Scott), and then there are the lost graves of those who died in hopeless but romantic obscurity. Oddly three of the most sought after have been from Texas; namely bluesman Henry Thomas (no photos of him either by the way) and gospel bluesmen Washington Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson. The circumstances behind the death and burial of Phillips were cleared up a few years back, and now it's the turn of Blind Willie Johnson.
Blind Willie Johnson is legendary for his harsh fire and brimstone howling and scorching slide playing backed by the plaintive keening of his wife in a series of recordings made in the 1920's. Although all of his recordings are religious in subject matter and therefore not technically blues, stylistically they are amongst the most powerful blues recordings of his, or any other era and would be covered by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Fairport Convention, Mississippi Fred MacDowell, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, The Greatfull Dead, Nina Sinome, Rev. Gary Davis, Nick Cave, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Paul & Mary, Bruce Cockburn, Ben Harper, Beck and the White Stripes. So unique and otherworldly were his recordings that Carl Sagan insisted on including a copy in the Voyager Explorer Spacecraft disk of earth sounds along with Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, Glen Gould, Stravinsky, Bach and Beethoven and a whole lot of world and folk music, to introduce earth culture to any possible alien explorer that may yet find it. Like most other rural performers of his era his recording career was wiped out by the great depression and he died in abject poverty in 1945 in Beaumont Texas after his house burned down and he was forced to live in the burned out ruins as he had no other place to go. He caught pnemonia and died shortly thereafter and he was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave.
Starting with the 1960's blues revival there were attempts to locate his grave and give him a proper marker as had already been done for Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith however nobody had been able to find it until now. Blues researcher and fellow Texan Charles Ortman following on the previous searches by blues researchers Samuel Charters who had started his search in the 1950's and more recently Micheal Corcoran who had found a death certificate but gave up the search for a grave in 2003. Ortman decided that the previous failures to find a gravestone must mean that Johnson was buried in an unmarked and segregated potter's field and after a careful search of the burial records he is now convinced that he has located the grave in the "coloured" section of The Blanchette Cometary in Beaumont which is actually still separated from the "white" section by a chain link fence. In his exhaustive search Ortman made use of old industrial maps and satellite photos as well as other old documents and records.

Ortman has submitted an application to the Texas State Historical Commission (THC) which must okay any monument to built on public land. The THC is expected to give it's answer this fall and then a monument will be unveiled soon thereafter, an unknown benefactor has already pledged $1500 to erect a marker. Now Ortman can get to work finding a photo for Henry Thomas if not his grave, unless he turns out to be still alive of course.

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