Gatemouth Brown Needs a Gravestone

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Verve Records

One of my favorite blues songs of all time is Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean." Especially these lyrics:

Did you ever hear that coffin sound

Means another poor boy is under the ground

Creepy! Jefferson's song has been covered by many, many people over the years, like Houston's own Lightnin' Hopkins, the Grateful Dead, Canned Heat, Bob Dylan and even Lou Reed:

Anyway, all that is just a roundabout way of saying that while legendary Gulf Coast country-blues musician Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's grave may be clean, only a select few know where it is. That's because, as the Beaumont Enterprise reported this week, it's unmarked.

That's right, one of the most important, influential musicians our little corner of the country has ever known (and a Grammy winner to boot) is currently buried sans headstone at the Hollywood Cemetery in his native Orange. Brown was actually born across the Sabine River in Vinton, Louisiana, but his family moved to Orange when Gatemouth was a newborn. Brown also died there, at his niece's apartment in September 2005, after leaving the Port Arthur hospital where he had undergone angioplasty surgery against medical advice.

McNeese State University Archives

Now Robert Finch, director of special education for the Little Cypress-Mauriceville school district, has set up a fund to pay proper postmortem tribute to Brown. Finch also hopes the Texas Historical Commission will approve the placement of a historical marker at the gravesite. The fund is listed under "Gatemouth Brown Memorial Committee," account no. 1892149, at Orange's Sabine Federal Credit Union.

Rocks Off queried local blues scholar and Down In Houston author Dr. Roger Wood how exactly something like this could happen. His comments, a few of Gatemouth's greatest hits and a rather shocking revelation about the burial status of one of Houston's own legendary bluesmen after the jump. - Chris Gray

Dr. Wood writes:

McNeese State University Archives

"Margaret Toal's article is good news. I applaud the efforts of Robert Finch and Howard Williams to honor the memory of Gatemouth Brown by raising funds to mark his tomb and by petitioning the state to waive the rules and officially commemorate Gate's importance to Texas music history.

"Having befriended many blues artists of Gate's generation, I have been saddened to observe how many of them have passed away without much notice beyond, perhaps, a newspaper mention. It hurts me to recall it, but there are several of such folks that I am aware of who may still be in unmarked graves.

Jimmy "T-99" Nelson, "How Long"

"Case in point: The great Jimmy T-99 Nelson, who died almost exactly one year ago (July 29, 2007), received a proper funeral service and burial. But I believe his grave site is still unmarked.

"I could give other examples of this phenomenon, but to get back to Gate's case, and no offense intended to the others, Gate was in a class by himself.

"If anyone else was in that class, it was T-Bone Walker, who died in 1975, when he was 65 years old. Gate, on the other hand, made it to 81. The aforementioned T-99 made it to 88.

"And I think that longevity is part of the issue here. When a distinguished artist outlives most of his peers, he or she is often outliving much of his family too. (For example, T-99's wife died in the 1960s.) The older blues guys (and others) often make it to the end of the line all alone. Except for fans and friends, there may be no family to handle the postmortem commemoration. So longevity can, in one sense at least, be unfortunate.

Gatemouth, sans cowboy hat for once, tackles the jazzy "Pressure Cooker."

"Moreover, some of the older musicians--particularly those like Gate, who continued touring and gigging until near the end--have practiced a lifestyle which is not always conducive to family unity and bonding. They may have ex-wives or children from previous relationships that they have rarely seen or communicated with for many years. Often they die without those folks even being present. And if distant family members do show up at the end, they sometimes seem preoccupied with haggling over the estate of the deceased.

"I read some time back that Gate's various children were challenging each other in court over who gets what from his estate, and the Toal article suggests those conflicts have yet to be resolved.

Gatemouth and Houston's Katie Webster, who passed in 1999, do B.B. King's "Every Day I Have the Blues" live in Hamburg, Germany, 1983.

"So, living the blues life, especially for those that make it into their advanced years, can mean living the blues afterlife too. It can be sad to realize that the family response to the legacy of a truly great artist is only indifference or greed-whether, in the family's opinion, the dearly departed allegedly "deserves" such a fate or not.

"But beyond family matters, what Robert Finch and Howard Williams have initiated in Orange is uplifting and important. Whether surviving family members are in a position to do something or not, sometimes the rest of us must see to it that greatness is commemorated.

"I know that we cannot propose, raise money, and build statues for every accomplished musician who passes away. If so, the city of Houston, and others, would be chock-full of statues.

A choice fiddle duet between Gatemouth and legendary bluegrass bowmaster Vassar Clements.

"But Gate was unique, special, incredibly influential for a very long time. In recent decades, he played all over the globe and recorded numerous fine albums - and few folks could experience either without soon realizing how much he identified with Texas. It was something he often communicated overtly, but it was also something inherent in his sound and style.

"The city of Port Arthur, very close to Orange, has done a pretty good job of commemorating PA native Janis Joplin via its exhibition about her life, which is on permanent display at its misnamed Museum of the Gulf Coast. Gate deserves such high-profile status there too.

Gatemouth and one of his pupils, Joe Louis Walker, sing the cross-generational blues in Paris.

"But official sanction from the State of Texas is meaningful in another way, and I hope that Williams succeeds in convincing the authorities to establish a historical marker on Gate.

"Beyond that, basic human decency cries out for something, however modest, to be installed on his actual grave - something to mark for posterity that one of the most important musicians in the postwar music history of Texas lies there, yes. But on the most fundamental level, a man - like you or me - lies there.

"We dignify our own existence by marking that of others. But especially is that so when those others are rare artists who created something bold and new."

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