“Burn Down the White Man’s Barn”:
An Unmarked Biography of Belton Sutherland
Referring to arguably the fiercest, exquisitely iconoclastic artist that barely appeared in the late-seventies documentary, one contributor to a country blues message board lamented recently that after performing a few fine songs “nothing else is said about him.” A subsequent comment asserts that he may have only “recorded three songs, but they were powerful. I wish there was more of him.” One of the newer members admits, plainly, “I don’t know how ‘obscure’ this bluesman is, but…he looks & sounds like a man who has lived the blues his entire life.”
Race and the Blues in Film
At a moment in America when the significance of historical context to a meaningful understanding of the past has become so clear, some of the more recent documentaries about blues music and the South find it difficult to relay such crucial information about the lived experience of African Americans. Some filmmakers take the same approach to African American history as many roots revivalists and historic sites, all of which hope to garner their share of the existing markets, finding it much easier not to discuss it at all. By perpetuating the myth of southern redemption through a love of black music, however, these films undermine one of the original stated goals of blues tourism in state of Mississippi—racial reconciliation. All productive examples of racial reconciliation— or the production of a nonfiction film attempting to depict aspects of reality for educational purposes—increase the level of understanding about the past. Yet, some films appropriate the term “racial reconciliation” and serve the interests of the ruling majority at the expense of minorities. The release of Belton Sutherland’s performances in the 2010s serve as a corrective to such trends in documentary film, and ACE demonstrates that social commentary on race relations can engender better understandings of the Blues and still have mass appeal.
Belton Sutherland was born on February 14, 1911—the same year as the King of the Delta Blues Singers, Robert Johnson. His parents, William and Mattie Sutherland, already had eight children, and they would have four more after Belton, making a total of thirteen. The Sutherland family worked as sharecroppers in the small hamlet of Camden, Mississippi, not too far from St. John Missionary Baptist (MB) Church. A minister, farmer, and member of their extended family, Reverend Cage Sutherland, had been born in the wake of the Civil War, and he managed to procure most of the land on which was Camden.
Mattie Sutherland passed away shortly before the eighth birthday of Belton, having given birth to thirteen children during her brief time on earth. Since the Sutherland family owned their own land and enjoyed somewhat of an autonomous existence on their farms around Camden, they managed to purchase a modest, yet very respectful and professionally engraved headstone to place on her grave in the cemetery behind St. John M.B. Church. He lost his mother before a census enumerator could ever write his name in the 1920 Census.
Though no evidence of his life was ever documented in the decade after 1920, he almost surely sang during church services and played music on homemade instruments during his early years. Clyde Maxwell, who was a couple years older but also grew up around Camden, recalled that the construction of one-stringed instruments was common practice for children. He also did not necessarily ascribe much significance to their importance in predicting the competency of a future musician:
A lot of ‘em done that. But they didn’t learn to play any music on it…Just some kind of noise…They plunk it, everything else. But you think it sounds good, just plunk it and think you got a guitar. But it’s not like a real one.
the only man that could play [some songs]. See, I used to play with [him.] So help me, he could play it too. Yeah, he could really play it. There wasn’t no maybe about it. He’s the best fiddle player that ever went through here.
We had this country sewed up back then.
just as good as some o’ those fellers, but still they had not recorded no records. Well, he wasn’t…he wasn’t considered as being known. Because it was there, the guy at my home, name, ah…Theodore Haze [sic]; he was a fiddler and brother, that man could play a fiddle. I mean he could play it. He was so good; he get on his fiddle and a guitar. And they would allow him [to] play on the streets, because them peoples stopped them cars out there on the streets. And that man could play. And it’s too bad that no record company [n]ever got him and recorded. He played the blues on the fiddle, just like he can on his guitar. He was, we followed him out, in my teen years, almost grown, when they had him the different places on Saturday nights for dances, we used to walk four an’ five an’ eight, nine miles…see Theodore Haze [sic] play that fiddle. That man could play it brother, I mean he could play it. See, I knew a lot of musicians, I mean, that [were] good. But they wasn’t record artists.
The Jackson Clarion-Ledger informs that Belton Sutherland had come back to Madison County in the mid-1930s. He also may have married a woman named Annie Troy, with whom he fathered a son, Edward, on January 24, 1936. Not long after his son’s awakening in the new world, Belton Sutherland got arrested and convicted of forging a check in the amount of twenty-five dollars. The judge sentenced him to two years hard labor in the state penitentiary. While the sentence seems a bit steep, the crime of check fraud had steadily increased in frequency in Mississippi during the Great Depression and many judges had taken a hard line in punishing offenders. Vernon Presley, the father of Elvis, was also convicted of forgery in the 1930s; he served a nine-month sentence in the state penitentiary, after which he began working for the Works Progress Administration.
Mmmm, mmmm, mmmLord, they accused me of murder, murder, murder, I haven’t harmed a manLord, they accused me of murder, I haven’t harmed a manOh, they have accused me of murder and I haven’t harmed a man.Mmmm, they have accused me of forgery and I can’t write my nameLord, they have accused me of forgery and I can’t write my name 
Social Security Card
Though no one seems to remember these musicians from the rural farms around Camden, the more urban Madison County seat of Canton boasted some of the most important entertainment districts in central Mississippi during the mid-twentieth century. The cafes and other businesses located in the black section known as “The Hollow” often featured popular blues artists such as Albert King, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson II. In the surrounding rural areas of the county, some of the more renowned local guitar pickers were William Dubois (corrupted into “Do’Boy” based on phonetics) Diamond and K.C. Douglas, from the small community of Sharon. Elmore James, who developed into a popular electric slide guitarist, laid down some of his first records at the club of a local civil rights stalwart named C.O. Chinn, who, along with Mississippi Freedom Party delegate Annie Devine, organized one of the strongest political action organizations in 1970s Mississippi—the Madison County Union for Progress.
My husband [before Clyde], he was public works, and I taken my kids and made my living. Plowing. Chopping. And when I got through with mines, I know it wasn’t through. I went to the white man. I borrowed money. I had to work and pay it back, but that’s the way I had to make it…I cleared up new ground. I cut down trees. I cut wood. I can cultivate. I can plow, and I can even sweep. And then I can plant. I done did all that all the way through in my life. I farmed for twelve years, just me and my girls. [We] didn’t have no men to help at all. And I made it…Up until now, after I married. I thought it was gonna be lighter, but [it] act like it got a little heavier. So now whenever he gets down, he don’t have to worry. I take it all and go right on.
We had never heard of him before and never heard of him after, but his rough guitar and expectorated lyric—kill the old grey mule, burn down a white man’s barn—is one of the most emotional moments in the film The Land Where the Blues Began.
“Good Enough to Do You”
Death & Afterlife
Success! I did a bit of searching and found St. John’s Missionary Church, and drove out to the site. I walked the graveyard until I found Mr. Sutherland’s plot, took some photos and visited with him for a bit as well. I told him about you and the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund and played “I Got Trouble” for him while letting him know his music lives on, even to this day. And although it’s an overcast and dark, rainy day, it was so…joyous! I can’t fully describe it, but it was so deeply gratifying to me on so many levels. Thank you. Seriously, thank you for allowing me to help in your research.