Blues Musicians in Unmarked Graves Are Finally Getting Some Respect
Dozens of blues musicians, some as famous as Bessie Smith, were buried in unmarked graves. Now Steven Salter is leading the charge to right that wrong.
A lot of musicians have sung about being buried alive in the blues. Not so many sing about the cruel—but all too common—fate of being buried unrecognized, unheralded, and in an unmarked grave. No one can say precisely how many blues musicians are spending eternity without even a headstone to mark their passing, but certainly there are dozens whose gravesites are a mystery. And those are the ones we know about.
The problem gets occasional publicity when a rock star steps in and buys a tombstone for a blues great. Janis Joplin bought the headstone for Bessie Smith. John Fogerty and others paid for a monument for Robert Johnson. And more quietly, local blues societies have labored for years to locate the graves of their heroes and place headstones on unmarked plots.
But no one has done more than Steven Salter to right this wrong.
As head of the Killer Blues Foundation, Salter has been searching for lost heroes of the blues for more than a decade and raising money to put headstones on every unmarked grave he can identify. In the past decade, his foundation has laid 22 headstones, with four more almost ready to be installed.
“I tell people, we lost them when they died, and if they don’t have a stone, they’re twice lost,” says Salter, 62, of Whitehall, Michigan.
This blues fan’s passion for this project ignited on a 1997 trip to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, when he stopped along the way down south to pay homage to any of his heroes he could locate.
In Alsip, Ill., he stopped at the Burr Oak Cemetery to pay his respects to Otis Spann, Muddy Waters’s longtime piano player who was generally considered the finest blues pianist of the post-war era.
When Salter got to the graveyard, he inquired at the office for directions to Spann’s grave. “They gave me a little card, and I went out there, but I couldn’t find anything,” he says. “I went back and said there must be something wrong. I couldn’t find anything. And they said, he doesn’t have anything. I was totally shocked that a person of his stature didn’t have a headstone.”
So Salter wrote a letter to Blues Revue magazine, saying, “This piano great is lying in an unmarked grave. Let’s do something about this deplorable situation.” Donations flowed in from around the world, and Spann finally got a headstone—30 years after he died.
Salter was elated, but not for long. “I thought, wow, this is great. Now how about these other guys” who still lay in unmarked graves. “But there didn’t seem to be the interest out there that there was in Otis. I was kind of dismayed at that point, and I said, I’ll carry on myself if need be, because I can’t live with the fact that these artists are lying in unmarked graves.”
Carry on he did, sometimes alone, sometimes with local blues fan clubs, and for the last few years with fellow blues enthusiast Aaron Pritchard. They read everything they can, talk to family members when they can find them, and raise money through the non-profit Killer Blues website from donations and by selling calendars, posters, and Every Day I Have the Blues, a perpetual calendar listing the final resting places of more than 450 blues players.
“I’m no private detective or professional researcher,” Salter says. “I do the best I can to try to find any family members. The first stop is the cemetery where generally somebody purchased a plot for that individual. They may have the next of kin, and if we can find them we certainly do.”
So far they have honored such notable as Walter Vinson of the Mississippi Sheiks, Charlie McCoy, and Johnny Watson, a.k.a., Daddy Stovepipe, the blues and medicine show legend. But the job is never easy, and dead ends are more common than not. The Killer Blues website currently lists 19 musicians whose grave sites are yet to be found.
Even when Salter and Pritchard know the cemetery where someone is buried, that’s not always enough. “If there’s an office and you can check records, that’s wonderful,” Salter says, “but many times there’s no office and you walk the cemetery and look at every stone.” But old cemeteries, especially little country graveyards, are often neglected, if not abandoned, compounding the problems of grave hunters.
“Bo Carter is in a cemetery in Nitta Yuma, Miss.,” Salter says, “and the funeral home told me that he was the last person to go in that cemetery. That was 1964. And he doesn’t have a headstone. I’ve been to that cemetery and walked it, and there is no headstone. I’m trying to find someone responsible for that cemetery that we could speak to who would allow us to put a stone there.”
But the pleasure in success far outweighs the disappointments, he says: “I tell people, I’m paying it backwards. I’m grateful for the joy I’ve received from the blues. It sounds kind of strange to say I’ve received joy from the blues, but I certainly have.
There’s so many of them that I didn’t get to see while they were alive and performing, but I can at least go to the graveside and pay my respects. And to be able to place a stone there for them if they didn’t have one is a fantastic feeling of joy.”
The day after I spoke with Salter on the phone, I got in my car and drove 50 miles to a modest cemetery in Lynbrook, N.Y., a town in Long Island just east of Queens in New York City. Salter could think of no blues musicians without headstones in the New York area, but there are a few gravesites of well known performers who are recognized, at least to the extent that they have headstones on their graves. W.C. Handy, the so-called Father of the Blues and composer of “St. Louis Blues,” is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in the Bronx. And Rev. Gary Davis, the extraordinary singer and guitar player who performed everything from blues to ragtime to gospel, is buried in Rockville Cemetery in Lynwood.
My conversation with Salter got me thinking that putting a headstone on someone’s grave is a crucial act of homage, but unless other people go to pay their respects, the equation isn’t complete. So I decided to take the time to find Davis’s grave and do him honor.
Hawks kept me company on the way, soaring on thermals high overhead, and I saw two eagles, both big as footballs, perched in a tree beside the road. The eagles reminded me, somehow, of the man whose grave I was about to visit. Blind almost from birth, Davis was nonetheless an imposing human being—in photographs and on film, he appears imperious, kinglike. And every time he played the guitar, he expanded your idea of what humans are capable of doing.
Born in Laurens, S.C., in 1896, Davis grew up playing on the streets of towns and cities across the Piedmont South. In the ‘30s, he made his way to New York City, where he lived in Harlem (and later, I’ve read, in Queens—no full-scale biography of him exists, so what we know of him comes mostly from album liner notes and the testimony of people who studied with him, including Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna and Taj Mahal).
Davis was revered while he was alive, certainly at the end of his life (he died of a heart attack on the way to gig in 1972), when teaching, recording and performing gave him some steady income (Say what you like about Peter, Paul and Mary, but royalties from their hit version of his signature song, “If I Had My Way [Samson and Delilah],” certainly improved Davis’s fortunes).
Davis was not a conventional blues musician. Indeed, he foreswore the blues when he became an ordained Baptist preacher in the ‘30s. But you can hear the blues in almost everything he played and sang, whether it be gospel, ragtime, marches, or nonsense songs. Picking with just his thumb and forefinger (anything else he regarded as cheating), he pulled enough music out of his Jumbo Gibson to sound like two or three players at once.
I got to his grave with some help from the cemetery staff, who said visitors come from as far as California to pay their respects. Without assistance, I might never have found the spot, it’s so modest. The plot is marked only by a simple stone flush with the ground that lists Davis’s name and his wife’s. Recently someone has laid a Christmas wreath on the grave.
So Davis is one of the lucky ones, a great musician whose final resting place is known and respected. But as I stood there on that cold, bright afternoon, knowing that my journey to his grave meant little, I was nevertheless happy to be there.
There is something mysterious about confronting the last physical evidence of someone’s existence. Or maybe not mysterious at all. My pilgrimage made Gary Davis more real to me, reminding me that an actual human being, not a myth, made all that amazing music. I didn’t feel his ghost or sense his spirit, but in my mind he somehow became more vivid.
Standing there staring down at his gravestone, I pondered the fact that we were born barely 50 miles apart, and had taken very different journeys to wind up at this spot. He was blind and poor for most of his life. He was a genius. I was just a fan. His music, really, was all we had in common. But the pleasure that music has given me was reason enough to be there. For if we don’t pay respect to that which we hold great, do we not cheapen it with our indifference? Did Rev. Davis benefit from my visit? Not at all. The pleasure was all mine. But the sight of that headstone made his existence more real to me, made me a little more humble and oddly very joyful. Turning for home, I was glad to have made the journey.
Editor's Note: A previous verison of said Salter was from Illinois, not Michigan. Also, Killer Blues did not make a gravestone for Gatemouth Brown.