Back in 2005, in one of the very last times he would set foot in a recording studio, Texas swing master Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown recorded the old Blind Lemon Jefferson Texas blues staple “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.”
The Gulf of Mexico had other plans.
Later that year, just ahead of the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, Brown, then dying of emphysema, was forced to evacuate his home in Slidell, Louisiana. He fled to his childhood home of Orange, Texas, where he ran smack into Hurricane Rita and died of natural causes just before landfall.
As we noted at the time,there was something mystical about it
. Brown knew well the end was at hand, but instead of evacuating to Houston like half the New Orleans area, instead of coming to get last-ditch treatment at the Medical Center, Brown opted to go back to Orange, the rough-and-tumble Sabine River border town where he grew to manhood. As he once sang, and often noted in interviews, “[I] was born in Louisiana and raised up on the Texas side,” and he was the walking embodiment of Gulf Coast swamp music.
Brown died the week before Rita tore through Orange, taking with it the temporary marker that had been placed on his grave. As of a few weeks ago, Brown’s grave in Orange’s Hollywood Cemetery – appropriately located one mile south of the very first exit inside Texas on I-10 - was still unmarked.
Robert Finch, an educator in the school system of nearby Little Cypress-Mauriceville and a church music director, was campaigning toward getting a permanent marker placed on Brown’s grave… when along came Hurricane Ike.
Which is where things go from mystical to damn near freaky. A few days ago, the AP put out this report: The 1982 Grammy winner's casket was one of dozens belched up when Gulf and rain waters from Hurricane Ike flooded Hollywood Cemetery, an all-black burial ground on Orange's west side. Two days after the storm’s landfall, water gurgled and bubbled ominously from submerged graves, and an invisible cloud of formaldehyde stung the eyes and throat. The only water left was filling now empty graves and vaults.
Debris from the storm littered the ground, mingled with "graveware" - trinkets left behind by mourners such as a toy car, plaster angel and a black doll lying on its back, its eyes staring blankly heavenward. The top of Brown's vault had popped off, and his bronze casket had floated away. But three jars of Bama grape jelly remained by his aluminum marker, no doubt left by a fan of his instrumental classic ‘Grape Jelly.’
Had the Gulf of Mexico, Brown’s muse for seven decades, surged forth to reclaim its honored bard?
Not quite. I called Finch yesterday. Yes, he said, Brown’s vault did open, and Brown’s casket did pop out. It did not, however, float off in the receding waters. Instead, it came to rest against the cemetery’s fence-line.
“He continues to be as erratic and all-over-the-place in death as he was in life,” Finch notes. “Somebody I talked to who knew him told me he would probably think this was not without humor.”
Finch has now resumed his campaign to place a permanent headstone on Brown’s grave as well as lead other efforts – a statue, perhaps a plaque -- to memorialize Brown in Orange.
“A lot of music lovers travel between Louisiana and Texas,” he says. “How cool would it be for them to be welcomed to Texas by memorials to Gatemouth Brown?”
Indeed. Let’s just hope Brown’s beloved Gulf doesn’t try to kidnap him again. – John Nova Lomax
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