Casey Bill Weldon, “Talkin’ to Myself” 
Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, “Poor Man’s Plea” from Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play The Blues 
Howlin’ Wolf, “Back Door Man,” from Howlin’ Wolf 
The Grave of Nehemiah “Skip” James and his wife Lorenzo, Bala Cynwyd PA [12.30.11]
Skip James, “Cherry Ball Blues” 
Sonny Boy Williamson, “I Been Dealing with the Devil” 
Mamie Smith, “Jazzbo Ball,” 
Mamie Smith recorded demos for Okeh Records in 1920, but the label balked at releasing what she recorded, fearing backlash from their audience. No record label had yet released a vocal by an African American blues singer.
When her demo was leaked, bootlegged, and sold up and down the East Coast, Okeh reconsidered. Smith released her first official single, “Crazy Blues,” later in 1920. Her single went on to sell, some estimate, upwards of a million copies. You can read more about her here.
The Grave of Mamie Smith (1883-1946), Staten Island, NY [4.4.10]
I contribute photographs to a website called deadbluesguys.com, which lists the final resting places of great blues musicians. The site has helped me countless times in the past - if for nothing more than the reassurance I’ve needed to go plodding out into some Mississippi swamp - that yes, there will be a headstone waiting to be rediscovered. I’ve contributed photographs for Kimbrough, Lewis, Williamson, and McDowell.
Here’s my most recent find.
Mamie Smith is the first African American to record a blues song. She’s buried underneath a thorn bush in Frederick Douglass Memorial Gardens, a debt-ridden and rundown cemetery in Staten Island. You can read more about the cemetery here.
Her original marker was probably not built to last. A group of German fans (who had seen her on her 1936 world tour) bought her a replacement marker in 1964 and had it shipped to Staten Island. I believed this story to be mere apocrypha, or worse, that the story was true but the headstone they purchased was never placed. After three hours of pacing the grounds, I found this. Her German fans probably had no idea when she was born. The marker is placed in a part of the cemetery consistent with interments dating to 1945-1947, so this must be it.
Frederick Douglass Memorial Gardens is not the worst cemetery I’ve ever been to; the upkeep is consistent and the grounds are free of trash. Regardless, it’s the worst cemetery in New York City: dozens of sunken graves, downed headstones, and burials stacked upon burials. You can almost guarantee that anyone buried here after 1988 was set on top of someone else. There are several indications of mass graves towards the back of the cemetery.
Other great musicians are buried here: Tommy Ladnier (who I found) and Rosa Henderson (who I did not). For baseball fans, Hall of Fame inductee Sol White (2006), who wrote the classic History of Colored Baseball, was laid to rest here as well. Sadly, his final resting place is unmarked.
Tommy Johnson, “Big Road Blues,” 1928.
Johnson recorded only two sessions during his lifetime, though he toured extensively throughout the south. If you played blues in the Delta in 1930, you more likely heard him live before hearing him on record.
The story goes that in 1930, he sold the rights to this song (while drunk) for $50, so Walter Vinson of the Mississippi Sheiks could write this incredibly popular song…
Junior Kimbrough was born in 1930, years before such blues greats as Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. What sets him apart is that these other gentlemen had careers established as early as the 1950s; Kimbrough’s debut album came out in 1992. Until then, if you wanted to listen to Junior Kimbrough you had to go see him, and not on no national tour… at his own juke joint, Junior’s Place, in northern Mississippi. Many did, however, including the Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth, and U2.
I first heard Kimbrough shortly after his death. A compilation album was released in 2002. You Better Run: The Essential Junior Kimbrough is plagued by all the same shit that seems to bemoan most compilation albums. Junior recorded only a handful of albums, but each was considerably different in its quality of recording equipment, musicianship, and songwriting. You Better Run challenges the listener with 12 incongruous performances (all brilliant when separated from each other, but bewildering on one sustained listen). Junior wasn’t the final great innovator of the blues, as my father had said when he sent me the CD (he called Kimbrough as important an innovator as Charlie Patton). I thought little of his music.
I visited Junior Kimbrough’s grave in the summer of 2006, on my way to someone else’s, while crossing from Tennessee into Mississippi. The back of his tombstone read, JUNIOR KIMBROUGH IS THE BEGINNING AND END OF ALL MUSIC. The phrase struck me as outlandish and pretentious, so much so that I bought his second album when I got to the next big town later that afternoon. I made sure to buy his least favorably-reviewed record, the one with the lowest star rating at All Music. I’d heard the “Essential” collection. I wanted to hear his most inessential recording.
Sad Days, Lonely Nights is a masterful album. Recorded with his house band, the songs have a live show feel and blend into each other in a haze of sustained chords, baselines, and cymbal rides. Most tracks stretch beyond six minutes. When one song ends, it’s never entirely clear if a new song has started or the previous song is being repeated. Kimbrough may not be the end of all music, but he is the end of the blues. If WC Handy gave us well-crafted, classically structured 12-bar blues, Kimbrough falls into the tradition of the unpredictable stylists. He finished what Blind Lemon and Charlie Patton started and what Leadbelly, Fred McDowell and Hound Dog Taylor continued – the blues has its polish and its violence, and Kimbrough’s music personifies the latter.