Tuesday, August 18, 2009
By Sherry Koonce
The Beaumont News staff writer
Nestled among the rows of non-descript frame houses dotting Beaumont's Pear Orchard community lies what an Austin musician believes is the unmarked grave of a man whose life was anything but ordinary.
After months of research, Jack Ortman’s search for Blind Willie Johnson's final resting place ended in tiny Blanchette Cemetery, off Hagel Street.
There, among the green grass growing on unleveled ground is the pauper's grave of the Texas-born blues master.
Local historians have started the process to honor Johnson with a marker befitting a man known as the greatest slide guitarist of all time. Johnson died in 1945 in Beaumont following a bout with pneumonia.
Johnson sang gospel and the blues. His songs have been recorded by musical greats such as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, White Strips, Bruce Springsteen, Hot Tuna, the Grateful Dead, just to name a few.
More than 30 years after his death, Johnson's most acclaimed 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, Beaumont guitar legend Johnny Winter called the song one of his 10 favorite songs in a "Guitar World" interview.
As musically-gifted as Johnson was, perhaps it should not come as a surprise that Johnson's grave is as invisible to others as the world in which he lived.
In death, as in his childhood, his life was heartbreaking.
When just 7-years-old, Johnson's step-mother blinded him with lye-water aimed at his father while the couple argued.
"He never did get any kind of gravestone; this is kind of in lieu of the marker he deserved," Ortman said during a telephone conversation Thursday.
For the last year and a-half, Ortman said he has searched for Johnson's grave.
"I am a student of the music of Southeast Texas, and came across some books that said Blind Willie Johnson lived in Beaumont during the 1930s and 40s, but nobody knew where he was buried," Ortman said.
Others had searched before, but gave up the search before finding the grave site.
After reading an article in the Austin American Statesman by Michael Corcoran, and a chapter in Corcoran's book, "All Over the Map," Ortman learned that Corcoran had found a copy of Johnson's death certificate indicating he was buried in Blanchette Cemetery.
Ortman said to understand how such a gifted musician could have ended up in an unmarked grave, one would have to look at the world during the 1940s. Americans were still reeling from the economic meltdown of The Great Depression, and World War II was raging.
Despite the fact that Johnson was one of Columbia Records best-selling recording artists during the Depression, he did not record for the record company past 1930 when the economy ended his career. Prior to that, he recorded 30 songs between 1927 and 1930.
In Texas he became a street-preacher, often entertaining crowds with gospel music and his steely talent on the guitar.
He operated the "House of Prayer" with his wife Angelina and continued to perform on street corners until 1945 when fire ravaged his home.
With nowhere to go, and little money, Johnson continued to stay in the charred home, sleeping on a water-damaged bed until he became ill with pneumonia.
History does not reveal whether he was turned away from local hospital because of his race, or his disability. Either way, he died within a week after contracting the respiratory illness, and was buried by the county in an unmarked grave.
Estraleta Sonnier is manager of the adjoining graveyards, and was instrumental in helping with the search for the famed musician’s resting place.
Since the original owners of Blanchette Cemetery died without heirs, the cemetery has been in flux, overgrown with grass and weeds, she said.
When the company she is employed by, Community Cemeteries, purchased an adjacent graveyard, it was agreed they would assist the county in the upkeep of Blanchette, she said.
"There are quite a few paupers buried in this cemetery. If I had to guess, I'd say about 200," Sonnier said.
She said there is no way to tell which of the pauper's graves is Johnson's since their are no markers signifying where bodies were buried.
Because the actual grave cannot be distinguished, plans are to erect a Texas Historical Marker at the cemetery.
Members of the Jefferson County Historical Society are submitting the marker application, Ortman said.
Because the process is extensive, Ortman said he does not expect the marker to be erected until the latter part of 2010.
The maker will cost about $1,500, which has already been pledged by an anonymous donor, Ortman said.
When the marker is ready, Ortman said he plans to host an unveiling ceremony with the Jefferson County Historical Commission
"I just feel this is well deserved, and 65 years overdue. He is a Texas musician who needs to get his recognition," Ortman said. "The time is right to acknowledge him."