Sonny Boy Williamson II
Whitfield Chapel Cemetery in Tutwiler, MS
In the early 1900s, the only way across the Mississippi at Helena. Arkansas was a ferry run by Harold Jenkins, father of country singer Conway Twitty. The ferry closed at midnight “which was good in my favor,” recalled Mrs. Z.L. “Momma” Hill (who ran the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale until her death in 1997), when they were playing juke joints in the Delta.
His grave remained unmarked for over a decade, and the impetus for his headstone came from Lillian McMurry and the board of directors of Globe Music Corporation, who met in Jackson, MS to discuss promotions and the music business on December 3, 1976. Since she wanted to “to get some publicity” for its blues catalogue, McMurry made a motion “to design and purchase a headstone/memorial” to place on the grave of Sonny Boy Williamson II in Tutwiler. She estimated that the marker and memorial service might cost as much as $1,500. The motion was seconded and carried on a vote.
On December 14, 1976, McMurry commissioned Davidson Marble & Granite Works, of Canton, to provide an upright granite monument for placement on the blues musician’s grave in Tutwiler. It cost $654.75. On March 5, 1977, McMurry reported to the board that the “headstone was in the process of being set as per her conversations with Davidson Marble Works.” The board, however, decided “to do nothing definite right now about a memorial service.”
Tutwiler is a fitting place for the grave of blues legend. It’s also the place where W.C. Handy claimed to have had his first encounter with the blues in 1903. Cristen Craven Bernard painted a mural commemorating the meeting in the mid-1990s.
In the 1980s and 1990s, tourists often made unsuccessful attempts to find the grave of the legendary harmonica player, and locals often steered them to the small Whitfield Baptist Church. Beside the church, in what looked like nothing more than weeds from the road, sat the headstone with Williamson’s picture cut into it. Fans often left harmonicas, guitar picks, even a pint of whiskey on the headstone.
“It’s this diamond of a headstone, yet it’s overgrown with weeds,” declared one visitor in the early 1990s. “You have to look for it, to tramp through the weeds and cut through the briars and the B.S. to get to the heart of it. But people are willing to do it because they care that much about the music. That’s a metaphor for the blues to me.”
The site is maintained today largely due to the efforts of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund. In the 1990s, Skip Henderson recruited the help of a local physician and Roman Catholic nun, Sister Anne Brooks, who operated a clinic and an education center, and he helped the Tutwiler Community Education Center receive a grant, which, in part, went towards maintaining the property into the new millennium. In January 2020, the MZMF commissioned master stonemason Alan Orlicek to repaint the lettering and level the detached headstone.