Holly Ridge Cemetery in Holly Ridge, MS
Though the first project of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund was to pay off the debts of Mt. Zion M.B. Church outside Morgan City and erect a cenotaph (memorial for someone buried elsewhere) in honor of Robert Johnson near the highway, Henderson shared his passion for the power and intensity of Charley Patton with Fogerty, who was amazed. The second project, therefore, was to erect a memorial in his honor. Patton’s niece, Bessie Turner, offered perhaps the most detailed recollection of his death on the morning of April 28, 1934 and his burial at Longswitch Cemetery, less than a mile from his last home at Holly Ridge:
“[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.”
Patton’s unmarked grave was also adjacent to a large mass of garbage. The massive cotton press and other machines used in the nearby cotton gin apparently required that part of the cemetery–specifically the unmarked grave of Charley Patton–become a trash dump. “I am not ashamed to admit I cried,” Henderson revealed, “Here was a man who served as a mentor to the great bluesman Robert Johnson and his grave was about twenty yards from a garbage dump. He deserved more respect than that.” It was this moment, perhaps more than any other during his time in Mississippi, which came to define the larger mission of the organization:
“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.”
The underlying motive of erecting the grave marker was not only to raise awareness in Mississippi about the significance of Patton and the blues as the roots of contemporary popular music. Recognizing this burial ground and taking all subsequent steps to restore, preserve, and maintain abandoned African American cemeteries has been a way of repudiating, rejecting, and overcoming the residual manifestations of racism in America. The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund continues its work still today maintaining cemeteries and marking the graves of blues musicians in Mississippi. By seeking out endangered historical sites and installing “permanent” testaments to the significant achievements of African Americans, particularly in regards to the cultural impact on popular music, the monuments of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund stand in bold contrast to other, more prominently displayed symbols of the Lost Cause.
To commission the stone, Henderson contacted the proprietor of the Greenville Monuments Company, Thorne Crosby IV, whose grandfather had once published the Greenville Times (later the Delta Democrat Times) a hundred years ago. Much like newspaper editor Hodding Carter, Crosby was “not a liberal but a Golden Ruler,” who eagerly assisted the commemoration effort by ordering the grave marker of arguably the most influential musician in American history. It features the cameo of Patton from his early recording days and an inscription: “The foremost performer of early Mississippi blues whose songs became cornerstones of American music.”
Skip Henderson told the crowd at his grave that Patton “roamed the Delta like a lion; a master guitarist and composer, a widely known celebrity sought after by wealthy landowners and sharecroppers alike, the most successful Delta recording star of his time.” The early 1990s developments, such as Indianola-native B.B. King opening a blues club on Beale Street in Memphis, struck a nerve inside Henderson. “Sixty years after Patton’s death,” he exclaimed, “I want to do anything I can do to bring the origin of the blues back to the Delta and away from the commercialization of Memphis and Beale Street.” “Don’t let anyone tell you that Memphis or Beale Street is where the blues began,” Henderson concluded. “It was right here in the middle of the Delta. This recognition for Charley Patton is long overdue. After all, he was the first blues star, and to many, he was the Shakespeare of the blues.”