On the final day of 2020, a year marred by incomprehensible tragedy, isolation and civil rights strife, I wandered Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. There, I stood in the weighted silence of the mausoleum halls, by the urns, and among the graves sites of Black luminaries — James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Thelonius Monk and Paul Robeson. I wondered what it meant to be here at this sacred place at this troubling time in American history.
It was just a month before that I read an article in The New York Times titled, “Bessie Smith Grave, Unmarked Since ’37, Finally Gets a Stone” from Aug. 9, 1970. As a music-lover, it was to my surprise and anguish that Bessie Smith, one of the most prolific blues singers in history, died without funds for her burial. For 33 years, Smith only had grass as her grave marker at Mount Lawn Cemetery until Janis Joplin paid for her headstone with the inscription, “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World.”
As a New York native, I tried to connect myself to Smith’s injustice that happened 87 years prior in a small Pennsylvanian township. Within hours, I learned that Smith’s lack of memorialization was not an exception: she was joined by the likes of Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt and hundreds of other blues legends buried in unmarked graves across our nation. Within that week, I spoke to the presidents of two organizations — T. DeWayne Moore of The Mount Zion Memorial Fund based out of Morgan City, Mississippi and Steve Salter of The Killer Blues Headstone Project based out of Whitehead, Michigan — working to find and re-memorialize the unmarked graves of blues musicians. I later spoke to Annise Bradley, a descendant of the legendary Mississippi Young Family Drum & Fife tradition. I’ve arranged these interviews into a podcast through Engaged Cornell, titled “Shifting And Shaping.”
For Annise Bradley, the blues means heritage and family, “The blues is where we came from. I mean all of us. Blues is a smile to get you through those hard times.” The legacy of the blues is sewn from the earliest threads of post-Civil War life, influencing shifts in the American body politic and musical landscape. Silencing the blues singer was an ironic and sinful oversight.
Loud celebrations are due for bluesmen after a century of resting quietly in unmarked graves. Burial sites are often found in the former plantation and sharecropping fields of the Mississippi Delta’s flood plain. Community headstone unveilings can be joyous jamborees with cookouts, live music featuring the local parish or a humble ceremony at an abandoned, rural cemetery on a humid 105 degrees Farenheit day.
“At the Mount Zion Memorial Fund, we try to erect memorials that try to prevent the erasure of the past and promote the importance of African Americans and their history,” T. DeWayne Moore told me. In doing so, the memorialization process must value and delicately handle historical practice, community engagement and the active confrontation of the fallacies present in blues narratives precipitating from racial and economic subjugation.
Over Zoom calls to Desoto County, Mississippi, I’ve entered the rich historical world that is the blues genre. I learned that the founder of the Mount Zion Memorial Fund bumped into John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival at Robert Johnson’s unmarked grave. The rockstar drove across the country to pay his respects, with hopes of finding his own “blues roots.” The two became friends, and Fogerty has since funded many headstones, gifting Charley Patton’s grave with the inscription, “The foremost performer of early Mississippi blues whose songs became cornerstones of American music.”
Each gravesite uniquely reflects the essence of the genre. At the start of 2020, Delia Greene had her headstone placed by The Killer Blues Headstone Project 120 years after her death. Greene was 14 years old when she was murdered by her boyfriend on Christmas Eve at a bar in Savannah, Georgia. The young girl’s death has been the subject of folk and blues songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Harry Belafonte for decades. For a century, her only legacy were the slanderous lyrics of ten hit songs that referred to her as “a lowdown woman, worthless and evil.”
“In some small way, I tried to redeem her reputation,” Steve Salter told me, “She was an inspiration to many blues artists. She’s not lost to history anymore. There’s now a solid, tangible piece of rock that says that this person mattered to somebody.”
At last, Greene’s story, like a true “Blues Muse,” has a long overdue moment of reconciliation after disaster.
The blues’ connection to the universal themes of hope, resilience and togetherness is a beacon of light in the journey towards a kinder world. The genre is the ultimate protest in its existence; its roots in slavery and reconstruction led a cathartic call to action that ascends chronologically through American history. Its discography cultivates an unbreakable spirit that grows the fruits of life from a place of pain. I realize now that a headstone, no matter how humble in stature, embodies that same blues spirit. While it is a marker of death, it simultaneously plants a seed in our nation’s collective memory from which we can reach a consensus about our past, heal, and build an equitable future.
As I stood above Malcolm X’s modest plot with a singular Christmas wreath draped over it, I tried to comprehend the supreme meaning behind his graves’ presence, here, on the final day of a devastating year. With the aid of the incredible organizations and people with whom I have spoken, many dozens of Black musicians will soon join him in newly marked graves across the country. Within the immense tragedy of 2020, there is power and justice in preserving the legacy of life.
Natalie Breitkopf is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.