Daddy Stovepipe, Lonnie Johnson and Clarence ‘Pinetop’ Smith: students of early blues will know these guys as three of the most important blues icons in history.
Yet, lamentably, they and hundreds of other deceased blues legends and pioneers, often lay for years in unmarked graves. Thankfully, there’s an organisation doing something to rectify this.
It’s the Killer Blues Headstone Project, a non-profit organisation based in Whitehall, Michigan, USA. If you check their website below, and click on the ‘Headstones Placed’ tag, you’ll see Killer Blues has put headstones on the unmarked burial sites of over 100 expired blues musicians.
These include icons of such significance, it’s beyond comprehension. Take Daddy Stovepipe, for example. Not only was Stovepipe the fourth male rural blues artist to record solo ( in 1924 aged 57), Daddy Stovepipe was certainly the earliest-born male blues performer recorded, and probably the earliest-born of any blues artist known, male or female.
Born Johnny Watson in Mobile, Alabama, on 12 April 1867, just two years after the U.S. Civil War ended, the music of Daddy Stovepipe below is folk music from America’s lost blues past.
Above is a sound of blues-gone-by that simply doesn’t come any older since the first African American to record a blues was Mamie Smith in 1920. And Daddy Stovepipe had been singing and, indeed, playing the blues as a one-man band, much longer than Mamie when 1920 came around.
Mamie Smith, too, was buried without a headstone.
So was Lonnie Johnson, the blues guitarist and singer who pioneered single-string guitar soloing (lead guitar to you and me), invented countless riffs and vocal phrases later copied by urban, delta and rural blues players alike, and was the second biggest-selling male blues artist of the 1920s, after Blind Lemon Jefferson. It beggars belief that Lonnie Johnson lay without a gravestone until the Killer Blues Headstone Project did something about it.
If you didn’t know Clarence ‘Pinetop’ Smith, he was, aged just 23, the first person to name boogie woogie with his 1929 hit, ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’. Tommy Dorsey’s 1938 cover of this track started the massive big-band boogie woogie boom that exploded in World War Two. The significance of Pinetop’s track, below, regarding its influence on blues, rock ‘n’ roll and soul, can’t be over-emphasised.
Pinetop Smith was the first blues singer-songwriter to include in his lyrics such well-known phrases as ‘the girl with the red dress on’, ‘shake that thing’, ‘mess around’ and ‘know what I’m talking about?’ When Pinetop was shot dead, aged 24, you guessed it, he ended up in an unmarked grave.
I won’t list here all the blues musicians currently buried without headstones. The Killer Blues Headstone project does that for you on its website, which I hope you’ll visit for more information.
You can also donate there on the site. Killer Blues would also like to hear if you know where any late blues artists lie buried without gravestones. One such unmarked grave they’re looking for is Jimmy Witherspoon’s – Jimmy Witherspoon, for God’s sake.
Checks/cheques and money orders for this worthwhile project can be sent to The Killer Blues Headstone Project, 120 N. Livingstone, Whitehall, MI 49461.
Or you can ring the project’s president, Steve Salter, direct on (in USA) 231-557-8438. He’ll be happy to tell you more.