My oldest brother and I had one goal on our trip to Chicago: See Howlin’ Wolf’s grave.
He had thought of it a few summers back on a drive-through trip with his wife on their way to visit friends in Indiana, but it had never fallen into place for them to stop. This time, with me backing him up and our mom surprisingly also on board, it came as a three-against-two vote against our significant others, and our trip home found us taking a twenty-minute detour due west to Oakridge Cemetery.
Google Maps has us completely passing the entrance to the place, which happens to be about fifteen times larger than any of us anticipated. “Where exactly is his grave?” My brother asks, turning onto the main road and driving slow.
“Fantastic question,” I reply.
“Maybe if you pull up a picture of his grave, we’ll see it when we drive by,” his wife suggests.
“I don’t know if that’s going to help,” my mom says quietly from the front seat. Rows upon rows of headstones greet us on either side, hitting the next adjacent road, only to continue on in more rows until the next road—and on and on for acres and acres. And here he and I had assumed the bluesman would have been in a cemetery an eighth of this size, a needle in a much smaller haystack.
“Here.” I shove my phone in everyone’s face with a picture of the gravestone, a tall grey slab with a guitar in the middle.
And yet even with the picture, somehow we all know this will take us hours to find. Even with an idea of what it looks like, this cemetery will take us days to search, and it’s time we don’t have.
The internet saves us after just a few minutes of driving. A website provides me with the exact latitude and longitude coordinates of Howlin’ Wolf’s final resting place, leading us to the complete opposite corner of the cemetery from where we are, a five-minute drive along blacktop paths and around large mausoleums. Google Maps tells us our destination is on the left, and my brother slams on the brakes.
“So where is he?” He asks, looking out through the driver’s side window.
We see it at last, just a few rows back from the road. Despite its size, it still seems so unassuming. We pile out of the car into the stifling air and wander over. The place radiates silence. Even despite the busyness of the rest of the cemetery, no cars sit parked in this area. No one visits here. No one except us, and it feels right. Even the smothering heat seems to fall away.
Who would know this was the final resting place of one of the most influential voices of Chicago blues? The man The Rolling Stones came to see back in the Sixties and brought out onstage with them? The name BURNETT sits at the bottom, Chester A on the left, Lillie M on the right. An engraving of “Howlin’ Wolf” nearly blends in with the stone beneath the guitar and harmonica etchings.
Our mom walks forward to adjust one of the flowers. An American flag rests to the left with a red white and blue wreath while a bouquet of similar flowers lays to the side, broken. She props it up in front of Lillie’s name and steps back once more.
The sight of his gravestone makes him feel more real, a concrete being that once lived and breathed rather than just a voice in a song that plays through speakers. We all stand in revered silence, even the ones who don’t necessarily care as much as my brother and me. It feels right being here, paying our respects to a man whose music we love and enjoy and have passed down to our children. And when my brother starts playing “Smokestack Lightnin’” from his phone, I walk forward and place a penny on top of his grave amidst a dozen other coins. My sister-in-law finds a guitar pick that blew off into the grass and places it next to my penny.
And as we stand there listening to the song we all love, our mother says, “…I wonder where Muddy Waters is buried.”
“Probably Mississippi,” my brother replies.
“I’ll check,” I say, pulling out my phone as the song wraps up.
Mr. Waters rests just a twenty-five minute drive away. And on our way back home, just a few minutes off the highway.
So we take the slight detour, excited at the idea of the new stop, wondering why we didn’t think of this in the first place. We had tried to stop at Chess Records the day before for a tour, but it had been unexpectedly closed with no one answering phones in the office and their mail shoved under the door in piles. This felt like the world trying to make up for that misadventure.
We find ourselves in Restvale Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, a cemetery behind a neighborhood and still larger than we anticipated, but smaller than where Howlin’ Wolf resides. A lawn crew wrecks loud havoc through the place as they cut the grass, and we pull off next to the office behind a few other cars. Google Maps tells me his grave is somewhere off to our left. And as we stand in the middle of the gravel road, fifty yards away, one of the lawn crew stops his mower, waves to get our attention, and just points.
He knows who we’re here to see.
McKinley Morganfield rests just in from the road in an even more unassuming grave than Chester Burnett. His is a simple flat stone, black and grey, with a small guitar at the bottom and the line, “The mojo is gone. The master has won…” Fake flowers stand behind it, an array of colors that contrast against the dying grass. Change litters the face of the grave. A passerby may only know it’s the famous bluesman because of the grave next to his: Geneva Morganfield, “Wife of Muddy Waters.” But even that doesn’t give it away.
We don’t stand here as long as we did at Howlin’ Wolf, maybe because we hadn’t anticipated the stop, maybe because the nearby workers make this visit a little less peaceful and reverent than the last. I leave a nickel on his grave. My brother and I try to remember when that Rolling Stones/Muddy Waters concert took place as we head back to the car, and the moment we shut the doors, one of the workers stops next to us and hops off his lawn mower.
“Is this your first time here?” He asks after we roll down our windows. We tell him yes. “Hang on a minute, I’ve got something for you.”
And he disappears into the office, leaving us to wait in our car and wonder what he might bring out. It takes nearly five minutes for him to return with papers. Each one of us receives one, a list of names and locations.
“We like people to know that it’s not just Muddy Waters here. You need to pay your respects to the rest of them, too,” he says, and I ogle at the list, twenty names deep, names I don’t even recognize, and all at once, I realize just how much of the blues I have yet to learn and discover.
“Magic Sam is here?” I exclaim at nearly the same time as my brother.
“Sure! You want me to take you to him?”
We take him up on the offer. He rides on his lawn mower and we follow yards away on the path in our car until he stops. And Samuel Maghett’s grave is even less than the other two. What else do you expect from a man who died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of thirty-two. But before we can give proper respects, the man leads us on to Theodore Roosevelt Taylor, a familiar name but unfamiliar music. Hound Dog Taylor died the same year as Magic Sam, though almost thirty years older.
“When Chicago has their big blues festivals, there are shuttle buses that take people out here to see all these guys,” he explains. “I’ve worked here twenty years and it’s insane.” He leaves us be, shaking our hands and saying it’s a pleasure to meet us all.
The notion that others take this same crazy trek out here makes me feel in a kinship with thousands of others I will never meet. These men, long passed, haven’t a clue the impact they made on a small section of the world. Our visit does nothing more than assure ourselves that they once existed and that others come to pay their respects as well to the men who created something we love.
I leave a quarter with Hound Dog Taylor, and before we leave, we find Magic Sam one last time and leave a quarter with him, too. Because someone else will find their way to this cemetery and smile at the sight of the piece of change, knowing someone else visited just to feel the blues like them.