“I really need to get more people into the blues.”
My oldest brother, Matt, said this in 2014 as we left a Taj Mahal concert in the middle of a snowstorm. He had been up for over twenty-five hours at that point, having flown home from a business trip to Germany just a few hours before doors opened. The words came slow, tired, but with purpose, and I remember smiling, thinking how true that statement was.
Looking back, he and I had attended that Taj Mahal concert to hear the one song we knew and loved (“Slow Drag,” which he did play), knowing very little else in his repertoire. In all honesty, we probably wasted our money on that concert, only going in for one song. But we learned so much. And it led us even further down a path we had already started to tread with our dad and other brother, Mike (older than me, younger than Matt).
Because the blues are awesome. And more people need to appreciate the genre, the artists, the storied history. Where it started, where it’s been, where it’s headed. Who it’s influenced. What popular bands actually started as blues bands and morphed into their bigger forms. The stories it tells. In the four years since that concert, I still know I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s out there and what I can find.
But before I fall too far into the rabbit hole, let me back up and explain what we’ve set out to do in the simplest synopsis:
We’re taking a road trip to Mississippi to visit dead blues musicians’ graves.
How did this come about, you ask? Well, you can honestly blame my mom.
In the summer of 2017, she offered to take the whole family to Chicago to see Hamilton (this after watching the PBS special on the musical and me raving about the damn thing for months). Matt and his wife, me and my husband, and Mom all went (Mike and his wife declined). Matt made it known that before we headed home, he wanted to go see Howlin’ Wolf’s grave, about twenty minutes west of the city.
We found it, thanks to some quick Googling on my part, as the cemetery was about twenty times bigger than we all expected. As we stood around Chester Burnett’s grave in the summer Chicago heat, “Smokestack Lightnin’” playing on Matt’s phone, we all felt a little choked up. Halfway through the song, Mom said, “I wonder where Muddy Waters is buried.”
“Probably Mississippi,” Matt replied.
“I’ll check,” I said, immediately pulling out my phone and searching.
And that was how we found ourselves in Restvale Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, where the maintenance crew gave us a full page list of twenty other blues musicians buried in the same cemetery (we also visited Magic Sam and Hound Dog Taylor). We didn’t realize until we made it home that we passed Willie Dixon in a separate cemetery, and we also could have stopped to see Little Walter.
It created a spark in Matt. Weeks later, he came back to me with an idea for a road trip to Mississippi to see many of the other blues musicians we know and love.
This trip has had many iterations. When we first discussed it, we had six “big” people we wanted to see. Except that we didn’t write them down. Matt sat at my kitchen table on New Year’s Eve in the midst of the party, paper and pen in front of him, and we tried to wrack our brains for all of the names. We never did.
Over the next few months, we refined it little by little. For a few weeks, we thought we might try the Mississippi Blues Trail, even downloading the app for it (which remains on my phone). Then we talked about going all the way to Biloxi. Maybe even an afternoon jaunt to New Orleans to pick up some candy. Less than a month out, we still didn’t have a firm handle on things (we have two “trouble days” as Matt has labeled him in his third attempt at some semblance of a schedule). Now, with departure just under two weeks away, we have a decent handle and now just expect it to fall into place as we drive.
Who’s tagging along on this ridiculous adventure? We like to call it Roberts Classic: Mom, Matt, Mike, and me. All of the spouses politely declined a road trip to wander around graveyards in the unbearable southern summer heat.
My family has a strange obsession with graveyards and cemeteries. Maybe obsession isn’t the right word—fascination? Reverence? Respect? Wandering through rows of headstones, looking at old dates, calculating ages, and pointing out names makes us happy. It’s due to the “main” cemetery in the back country of Pennsylvania where the majority of my mom’s extended family is buried.
Trips back there to visit family always include a visit to St. Joseph’s cemetery, all along the hillside. Great grandparents are buried around the back, with our grandparents now there next to them, great uncles nearby. On the hill are great-great(-great?) grandparents, Margaret Engel (a character all her own), my godmother’s parents and a few of her siblings, Aunt Liney (who died decades before I was born, but I always go to visit. She’s six spots up from the road), and so many others we stop and see. If there’s time, we head up the road to Crown, where most of my grandpa’s extended family rests (though he’s with Grandma at St. Joseph’s).
Something about cemeteries and graveyards calls to us. This trip will have us feeling right at home.
Mike only fully joined this trip a month ago, his wife opting to travel to Minnesota with their son and visit her oldest sister. On Memorial Day when he asked me what the plans were, I didn’t even make it through the first day of travel before he cut in. “See, I already want to throw a monkey wrench into it. I want to stop in Louisville because that’s where a lot of Grandpa Jack’s dad’s family is buried.”
“Well, it fits the theme of the trip,” I told him. Mike has put hours of dedication and heart into Ancestry.com, recently discovering Grandpa Jack’s father’s prior family in Kentucky (before he skipped town into Ohio and started a new family—the one that created Grandpa, then our dad, then us). His job is to figure out what cemeteries we need to hit in the two to four hours budgeted for Louisville.
It’s a tight schedule with many stops and a hell of a lot of wandering. And it’s not all just the blues either, but old school music others tend to forget (Jimmie Lunceford is on our checklist, a jazz band leader from the 1940s buried outside of Memphis plus a fair amount of museums).
But we’re ready to drive around the northern half of Mississippi and catch a hell of a lot of blues.
Coming Soon: Day Two, Part Two: Crossroads