Big Joe Williams
Rural Cemetery in Crawford, MS
The upright headstone for Big Joe Williams may seem as if it sits in a pasture, but his marker resides in a rural cemetery near Crawford, Mississippi. Due to the rain pouring from the clouds on October 9th, 1994, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund held the dedication ceremony at the public library in Crawford, a cramped little book depository that locals had converted from a trailer. The combination of the graves’ forlorn location and the poor weather resulted in more than a few late arrivals, several of whom pulled up just as folks began heading to their cars to drive to the cemetery. The impromptu venue provided a quiet, dry space, however, for the particularly moving eulogy delivered by Charlie Musselwhite, who had formerly traveled and performed with the blues shouter.
Author Henry Wiencek, while conducting research for his 1999 book The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, who ended up arriving very late to the ceremony, described his rain-soaked blues experience in his book. The heavy rain and the rural dirt roads made for an exciting drive out to the graveside service.
“We were soon off the hard road. It had been raining much of the day, and the road had turned into a waxy gumbo that stuck to the sides of the car and clogged the wheel wells. My guide’s car fishtailed as he struggled to keep the vehicles ahead of him in sight. Like me, he was an outsider and unused to speeding down these dirt roads in the rain. At one point we lost the lead cars, ended up on a narrow side road that just petered out, and had to drive in reverse for a quarter of a mile to get back out. This was the poorest part of the county. Far from everything, even a paved road, scattered families lived in shacks surrounded by their chickens, hogs, and an occasional cow. Wide-eyed children in tattered clothes watched as we slithered by.”
“It was most certainly a black burial ground. Some of its interments had graves marked just with a single, small, bare stone, while other graves were marked only with a rectangular depression in the earth. In fact, the unmarked grave of Big Joe Williams had been one of them” for almost a dozen years.