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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Austin Music Historian Discovers Blind Willie Johnson’s Grave

Blind Willie Johnson

AUSTIN, TX - July 27, 2009 – Since his death in 1945, the grave of Blind Willie Johnson, one of the greatest bottleneck-slide guitarists of all time, has been unmarked. Now, thanks to 18 months of research and a dozen visits to the Blanchette Cemetery in Beaumont, Texas by Austinite Jack Ortman, the final resting place of this influential Texas musician will get the recognition it deserves.

Johnson’s music has always been revered by his fellow musicians. His songs have been covered by Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, White Stripes, Bruce Springsteen, Hot Tuna, the Grateful Dead and countless other artists. More than 30 years after his death, Johnson’s recording of “Dark was the Night (Cold was the Ground)” was included on a Sounds of Earth record launched into space onboard NASA’s Voyager One. Nearly 60 years after Johnson’s death, Texas guitar legend Johnny Winter called that song one of his 10 favorite songs in a Guitar World interview.

Johnson’s childhood, like his untimely death, was heartbreaking. His mother died when he was a baby; his step-mother blinded him with lye when he was seven years old. (His song “Motherless Children Have a Hard Time” was covered by Clapton on 461 Ocean Boulevard in 1974.) One of Columbia’s biggest selling race recording stars during the Great Depression, Johnson recorded 30 songs between 1927 and 1930. When the economy ended his recording career, he became a Baptist minister. He operated a “House of Prayer” in Beaumont with his wife and continued to perform on street corners. In 1945, a fire ravaged their home. With nowhere to go and little funds, they slept on newspapers on their water-damaged bed. Johnson caught pneumonia but was turned away at a local hospital because he was blind (or black, depending upon the source). He died within a week: his final resting place unknown; his grave unmarked.

Determined to uncover that page of Texas history, Ortman began making the 230 mile trek from Austin to Beaumont every two or three weeks. “I’m into the history of music and musicians of the Golden Triangle − Beaumont, Orange and Port Arthur, Texas” he explained. “During my research, I kept coming across information that Blind Willie had lived in Beaumont during the 30s and 40s. The sources also revealed that he died in Beaumont. My natural curiosity made me search further and I started finding information that no one was sure where he was buried. That was it, my moment of realization, and I thought, ‘What a perfect project for me’.”

Ortman began researching Johnson’s life, collecting books, articles, and CD liner notes. After reading an article in the Austin American Statesman by Michael Corcoran, and a chapter about Johnson in Corcoran’s book All Over the Map, he learned that Corcoran had found a copy of the Johnson’s death certificate that noted he was buried in Blanchette Cemetery.

Ortman headed for that cemetery and met Estraleta Sonnier, the new director of Community Cemeteries, an umbrella organization for several Beaumont cemeteries. He then hooked up with the Tyrrell Historical Library and the Jefferson County Historical Commission and was told Johnson was buried at Community Cemeteries, which had him searching two additional burial grounds. After a couple of dead ends at those cemeteries, he once again focused on Blanchette.

Johnson was buried in a pauper’s grave in the “colored section” of the Blanchette Cemetery, which has a chain link fence separating the white and black sections. When Ortman discovered his final resting place in July, Johnson had been dead for almost 65 years. Sam Charters, music historian, record producer, and author of The Country Blues, The Legacy of the Blues, and several other books on blues and jazz, searched for his grave in the mid 1950s. Corcoran abandoned his search in 2003. Ortman believed the time was right to try again and credits his success to a number of factors.

“Right from the beginning, I felt if I were to have any success, I needed the involvement of all the players,” he said. “My objective was getting to know the people at the cemetery and all the historical commissions on a personal basis. Discovering the location took combining the “Industrial Maps” of Beaumont from the 1920s to the 1960s; having a new director of the Blanchette Cemetery; utilizing overhead aerial photos from satellites in space; timing; and a lot of luck.”

“I think other researchers had been looking for a gravestone with Blind Willie’s name chiseled on it,” he added. “When I found out he was buried in a paupers grave, it changed the focus of my search. After I eliminated all the ‘marked’ and ‘paid for’ tombs and narrowed what was left as the paupers graves, I had found the last of the missing ‘Blues Founding Fathers’.”

Requirements for an Official Texas Historical Marker from the Texas Historical Commission (THC) are stringent and require applications to be submitted by a county historical commission. The Jefferson County Historical Commission is submitting Ortman’s application this fall. When approved, the THC writes the inscription, requires payment for the marker (approximately $1500, already pledged by an anonymous donor), and has a foundry cast the marker. Ortman plans to host an unveiling ceremony with the Jefferson County Historical Commission when the wait is finally over.

“Well deserved and 65 years overdue, Blind Willie Johnson will finally get the recognition he deserves as a seminal Texas musician,” Ortman added.
By Mary Lou Sullivan


JM said...

The below paragraph is a bit suspect. How do you know exactly which of the pauper's graves was Blind Willie's?

"I think other researchers had been looking for a gravestone with Blind Willie’s name chiseled on it," he added. "When I found out he was buried in a paupers grave, it changed the focus of my search. After I eliminated all the 'marked' and 'paid for' tombs and narrowed what was left as the paupers graves, I had found the last of the missing 'Blues Founding Fathers’."

RokySyd said...

Jack Ortman Replies to the above comment:

The good folks at the Blanchette cemetery have a 6 foot long "probe stick" to search for "lost graves". Now, the paupers section of that cemetery is only about 20 by 25 feet. It is the only overgrown section left in the cemetery. My guess is there could be as many as 100 or more buried in this area. Unless someone has some of Blind Willie's DNA handy and wants to dig up the entire area, and then search through each and every casket, we all agreed (The Jefferson County Historical Commission and the director of the Blanchette) and came to the same conclusion that he is in this small section. The fact that he's been dead for 65 years is also a factor here. The Texas Historical Commission is waving the 10 year wait period. It is just as much a matter of enough is enough, let's do SOMETHING. Most people are impressed that we've narrowed it down to the small area that we have. Now if anyone wants to come out there, I'm sure Estraleta (the director) will let you use the probe stick. Come on down! Jack

Doug Collier said...

Blind Willie's music has always been a favorite of mine Thanks for locating the general area of his burial. Sometimes a general location is all we have, so to mark that site is, i feel, apporiate

Doug Collier said...

Blind Willie was a favorite of mine, I applaud your efforts. sometimes a general location is all we have to honor great talent, so good job