The Zion Cemetery of Memphis, TN has been in a state of disrepair for many decades – the grave markers in most cases inaccessible thru a canopy of creepers.
The cemetery is important because it was the first African-American graveyard of the region, founded in the 1870’s by the “Sons of Zion”, who were former slaves. The property was in use until the 1970’s but quickly slid into disrepair shortly thereafter. In the 1980’s and 1990’s there were rumors of the gravestones being used as “chop shop” jack props for car thieves and as a result – this was a location that the general public would dare not venture.
Local activist Ken Hall of Volunteer Mid-South has been working with local volunteers to correct that for the past nine years.Currently, approximately eighty percent of the property is still covered by overgrown brush, weeds, and thorn bushes – but Mr. Hall is optimistic that one day this will change.
In the accompanying photographs, he supervises the work of 100 local teens from the non-profit Bridge Builders comprised of 50% white and 50% African-American youth. Armed with machetes, mowers, and clippers, they go in search of the gravestones of the Sons of Zion by re-claiming the land for the future generations of those buried here.
Video by Neal Moore. Photos by Ken Hall.
James “Super Chikan” Johnson’s chicken shack, out back behind his family’s Clarksdale home, is a work in progress. He’s currently expanding it out to accommodate his art, guitars, and inner sanctuary that he calls home.
Blues enthusiasts from all over the world celebrate Super Chikan’s unique, old school take on the blues – including a wide variety of homemade guitars that he both plays and sells. Here you’ll find the diddley-bow hybrid he calls a “bow-jo”, his rooster guitar, ax guitar, 38 calliber gun guitar, and ceiling fan guitar. A simple cigar box guitar will set you back around $3,800, while a diddley-bow bow-jo will run you closer to $5K. And they sell.
But before his success, Mr. Johnson “lived the blues” in a different context – as Wikipedia explains, “moving from town to town [as a child] in the Mississippi Delta and working on his family’s farms.” From a sharecropping existence, picking cotton, to working the John Deere tractors that replaced the sharecropper, to driving truck throughout Arkansas and Tennessee, Mr. Johnson made a conscious decision to stay in the South and to do it with a smile.
Which life lessons led him back to his early childhood memories, back onto the front porch where he’d listen to the likes of blues legends Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed, among others, who would stop by to visit his grandfather, to talk shop, play their music, and in so doing, to quite literally live the blues.
The Delta Bus Line took me from Clarksdale to Memphis to Tupelo in search of the Homemade Jamz’ Blues Band – one of the hottest little bands to come out of Mississippi’s north rolling hills since the North Mississippi All Stars. The terrain up in these parts is dramatically different from the flat plains of the Delta. It jukes and jives in soft, rolling thrusts. As does their music. The sound of the north hill country is electrified and the sound is alive. It comes full circle, right back at you, like a character in a story who changes his ways.
To witness the Homemade Jamz’ Blues Band is nothing short of a religious experience. Ryan is seventeen, Kyle is fifteen, and Taya has just turned eleven. Yet the kids are press savvy and no strangers to the road. All three are gregarious – all three quick on the smile. They laugh readily, they speak about the joys of family and as such they tend to agree.
I was prepped for my interview by both the Delta Blues Museum at Clarksdale as well as the Blues Foundation in Memphis. Explained Joe Whitmer of the Blues Foundation, “The Homemade Jamz’ Blues Band ooze the blues when they speak [and] when they sing.”
When you walk the streets of Clarksdale, Mississippi, you can still hear the voice of blues legend Robert Johnson – ringing from the shop windows as well as from passing cars. There’s a revival going on here and it’s all about the blues – about a respect for the first generation bluesmen who are honored and revered.
But it’s not just about a cultural renaissance. The blues pays, a concept that folks from all walks of life have begun to latch on to.
Here at Ground Zero Blues Club of Clarkdale, Mississippi, I sat down for a one-on-one interview with Mississippi Democratic gubernatorial contender, Bill Luckett. In this complete and uncut interview, Mr. Luckett, who co-owns the Ground Zero Blues Club with Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, answered a barrage of questions ranging from the cultural renaissance of the blues to his candidacy for governor.
Super Chikan in his Chicken Shack, Clarksdale, MS
Am currently in the heart of the Blues smack dab in the Mississppi Delta – in a town called Clarksdale, Mississippi. Thrilled beyond belief to be working a couple new stories on the blues, including interviews with Super Chickan, the Homemade Jamz Blues Band, and Mississippi gubernatorial contender and co-owner of Ground Zero Blues Club, Bill Luckett. More to follow soon…
Woke up early this morning in preparation for a 50 mile river run from just north of Tunica, Mississippi to Helena, Arkansas. Was in the water before the sun first broke, and when she did, I passed my first barge of the day. This photograph captures a glimmer of the scene. The entire hour before this barge I was in absolute wonderment over how beautiful the sky was. On this trip, it’s times like this, when nature quite literally surrounds you, that all of the pain and struggles wash away. Today there is a current and today is a very good day.