Holly Ridge Cemetery in Holly Ridge, MS
Tom Fogerty, the rhythm guitarist for Creedence Clearwater Revival, died of respiratory failure due to tuberculosis on September 6, 1990. He was only 48 years-old. Following the untimely passing of his brother, John Fogerty started to hear a little voice in his head, which repeated the phrase, “Go to Mississippi.” It was one of the darkest moments in his life, because the two brothers had not spoken to each other in many years due to the dramatic lawsuits over copyrights to the hit songs of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Admittedly “devastated” in the aftermath of his brother’s untimely death, Fogerty was also “very confused” and described his state of mind as that of a “tasered-cat.” “I kept getting this strong feeling and not understanding it,” he later told one journalist. It was in the depths of depression that he developed an incessant urge to “dig up his blues roots.”
Fogerty immediately turned the vehicle around and went back to the cemetery, where he met a kindred spirit, New Jersey guitar dealer Skip Henderson. In the late 1980s, another friend in the vintage guitar market, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, had suggested that he visit Clarksdale librarian Sid Graves at the Delta Blues Museum, a modest institution that had languished in obscurity since 1979. Taking his advice, Henderson caught a flight to Memphis and met a musician friend of Gibbons’ by the name of Nancy Apple, who, much like Virgil in the Divine Comedy, served as his guide down Highway 61. The New Jersey blues enthusiast was certainly struck by the state’s rural flatness and natural beauty. He was also disturbed. Scarcely able to come to grips with the depressing level of poverty in the Delta, he tried to locate some of the graves of blues singers on his depressing sojourn. Most of them were not marked, however, and some of his heroes were buried in abandoned or awful places. He had come to Mississippi and, as one Mississippian put, “he had been swallowed up.” Thus, in 1989, with the help of a local attorney recommended by Sid Graves, Henderson founded the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund to return some of the economic benefits from the region’s musical traditions back to the Delta.
“[He had] said, ‘Carry me right away from this house to the church and from the church to the cemetery.’ He died that Saturday, and we buried him that Sunday, ‘cause he didn’t want to go to a undertaker. That Saturday night they had a big wake for him. A lot of his boys who sang with him was right there too. I’ll never forget the last song they sung, ‘I’ll Meet You in the Sweet Bye and Bye.’ They sung that so pretty and played the music, you know. Couldn’t nobody cry. Everybody was just thinking how a person could change around right quick, you know. Changed right quick and then preached Revelation, the thirteenth chapter of Revelation. It says, ‘Let your light shine that men may see your good work and glorify our Father which art in heaven.’ I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘Did you hear that? My light been shining on each side. I let it shine for the young; I let it shine for the old.’ Said, ‘Count my Christian records and count my swinging records. Just count ‘em. They even!’ And you know he was just smiling, just tickled to death. Looked like he was happy when he was going.”
While his niece believed that a marker had been erected by Vocalion Records after 1934, a local resident who attended the funeral told one Patton biographer that contractors may have removed it when expanding the nearby cotton gin and that Patton’s remains were underneath the gin’s lint incinerator. In the early 1980s, with thunder rolling and lightning flashing in the distance, two researchers were trudging through the overgrown cemetery at sundown, when one of them felt a distinct chill come over his body in the left far corner of the graveyard. Standing not far at all from the lint incinerator, he was certain that he had found the unmarked grave of Patton.
“Our work isn’t some hollow gesture to honor the blues. The music is very important, to be sure, but it’s only the soundtrack. The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund serves as a legal conduit to provide financial and technical support to black church communities and cemeteries in the Mississippi Delta. We save rural cemeteries by any means necessary–whether it’s erecting memorials to musicians, engaging legal remedies, or filling the vast silences in important historical landscapes. It’s about saving the soul of Mississippi.”
Rosetta Patton Brown was not there when they buried her father. “We got lost,” she admitted, still bothered about it almost sixty years later. Her mother and stepfather got lost while driving, and by the time they arrived the service was over. “I cried so hard,” recalled Brown. “I wanted to see the body.” Three generations of the blues singer’s family, however, including Rosetta Patton Brown, her daughter Martha Brown and granddaughter Kechia Brown, were all in proud attendance at the second service honoring her father. The dedication ceremony took place on the blazing hot afternoon of July 20th 1991, the same weekend as the Pops Staples Festival in the nearby hamlet of Drew. Roebuck “Pops” Staples, of the famous gospel group the Staples Singers, who grew up west of Drew, attended the unveiling along with John Fogerty, who paid for the monument. Sitting up front during the church service was Joseph “Coochie” Howard (b. Oct 29, 1923; d. Oct 25, 1996), the cemetery sexton who grew up at Holly Ridge plantation and had several fond memories of the musician from his childhood. The elder sexton sat in a place of honor for having pointed out the piece of ground that held forever close the remains of “The Voice of the Delta.”
Reverend Ernest Ware likened Patton to the Apostle Paul, “who was a bad man…who started out doing wrong” so “God blinded him,” which inspired a change and Paul “pressed toward the mark of high calling.” Rev. Ware exclaimed that “when Charley Patton was playing blues, he was pressing toward the mark. Let the mark be Jesus Christ.” Speaking to Patton’s great-grandchildren sitting in the front church pews, the pastor declared, “I want to say to Charley Patton, sleep on and take your rest. [He’s] been dead a long time but you’ll see him again in that re-direction morning” when the twelve gates of the city swing open. “Charley Patton,” the preacher concluded from the pulpit, “made the way for us.”
Patton’s gravesite sits on land alongside a cotton gin and donated by Billy Robertson, who owned the surrounding farms on what once was Heathman plantation. What is now known as Holly Ridge Cemetery was once the old Longswitch Cemetery–named after a depot stop community on the Southern Railroad. Patton’s grave is located in the back amongst the older, unmarked burials. Inside the concrete block church, Billy Robertson recalled the days when he and Staples were growing up and worked for 50 cents a day. “None of us had any money,” he admitted, “but it wasn’t all bad. There wasn’t any dope, and if you had any whiskey, you had to make it yourself. Lots of folks around here remember how Charley Patton would draw a crowd playing at the Holly Ridge Store.”