Day of the Dead at the Graves of Southeast Texas Music Legends
Or tried to, at least.
The plan was to head up to Navasota’s Oakland / Resthaven cemetery, where both Mance Lipscomb and Joe Tex rest. Then we would head east on some back-roads to the tiny Grimes County hamlet of Richards, where legendary itinerant blues singer Alger “Texas” Alexander sleeps in the piney woods. From there, we would blaze back into town on I-45, stopping off at the north side grave of Juke Boy Bonner, and then head down to Forest Park Lawndale for Lightnin’ and Ted Daffan.
That scheme proved to be a trifle ambitious.
It all started well. We arrived in Navasota’s pleasant Victorian downtown in mid-morning, and stopped off downtown at Blues Alley, a music-themed antique shop on Navasota’s main drag. The shop was staffed by Phyllis, a jolly, talkative 73-year-old Jamaican who told us all about her life and Navasota’s drive to assert itself on the Texas music map.
Music by Bukka White and Lee Roy Parnell blared over the speakers, as Phyllis pointed out a few of the exhibits in the store. There was a display case of Leadbelly artifacts, including a picture of my grandfather John A. Lomax Jr. misidentified as John A. Lomax Sr. Another case and the front window displayed Mance memorabilia, while a third gave props to Blind Willie Johnson, who was also from the area.
According to Phyllis, Navasota has been named Texas’s official blues town, and the honor is richly deserved. When you think about it, the cotton-rich Brazos Valley has just about as splendid a blues heritage as the Mississippi Delta. Phyllis confessed that coming from Jamaica she knew very little about the blues. (She did not own this shop.)
But she did know her mento. Koshkin, a dedicated vinyl junkie, bought a couple of her 1960’s pre-reggae albums, and he literally started drooling when she mentioned she had a few hundred more Jamaican LPs stashed in a barn up there.
But Phyllis didn’t go much for reggae. “That long-hair weed music,” she called it, in her sing-song island lilt. She hated Bob Marley until he died and saw how respected he had been in the wider world, but that was about as much respect as she was willing to grudge.
Part of her problem with reggae was that it caused every American she met to assume she smoked ganja. “I never even saw that stuff until I got to America,” she said. “Then I was working for a man in his house in Miami, and he asked if he could light up. I said ‘Sure, you go ahead!’ I t’ought it was a cigarette! When my husband picked me up, he said I could never go back to that man’s house. I reeked of marijuana!”
We got directions to the cemetery, and there things started going awry. I had not expected Navasota’s cemetery to be so huge. We spent about a fruitless hour searching for the graves Lipscomb and Joe Tex, and found little more than fat, sand-dollar sized spiders and the graves of numerous Confederate veterans, each festooned with a small stars and bars.
Well, we did also find the grave of Tom Moore, the infamous Navasota plantation owner whose ruthless, steel-eyed management style was bemoaned in a blues ballad recorded by both Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Lipscomb actually did work for Moore, and an incident on that farm led him to spend an exile of several years from Navasota. The story has it that one of Moore’s foremen had roughed up Lipscomb’s mother and wife, so Lipscomb beat the crap out of him and then hid out in Houston for a couple of years.
So even if we didn’t find any famous bluesmen, we did find the grave of someone who caused some famous music to be written. I played Lipscomb’s version of the tune on my iPod at Moore’s grave, and we left the graveyard and Navasota behind.
Now on the trail of Texas Alexander, we headed east over surprisingly rugged, rolling terrain that looked like Tolkein’s Shire. After a couple of hairpin turns, we passed through the historic hilltop village of Anderson and then into the ramshackle settlement of Richards.
Richards has an odd history – it was founded in 1907 when residents of two nearby towns decided to physically move to the railroad tracks that had passed them by some years before. Instead of rebuilding their towns near the tracks, they literally picked up their homes, businesses and churches, lashed them to log rollers, and then trundled the entire shebang behind oxen and mules to where this hybrid town stands today.
Today, Richards’s 296 inhabitants make do with nothing more than a school, a church or two, two post offices (one defunct and one active), a couple of community centers, a biker ice-house on the outskirts of town, and a country store, in which we went to ask directions to Longstreet Cemetery. The lady behind the counter gave us directions to a graveyard about five or ten miles from town, and then asked me whose grave I was looking for.
“A blues singer named Texas Alexander,” I said. Neither she nor a man I took to be her husband had ever heard of him.
“Was he black or white?” she asked.
I told her he was black.
“Oh, then I doubt he would be buried there,” she said. She gave me directions to another cemetery that was closer to the store. Like the first one she mentioned, she said it too was once known as Longstreet, which I later found out was the name of one of the towns that had been moved here.
At any rate, this Longstreet Cemetery was right where she said it would be, in a large clearing hacked out of a pine forest just across the Montgomery County line and just west of the Sam Houston National Forest.
I was very excited as we eased of the two-lane FM road. In some ways, Alexander was as much a father of the Texas blues as Blind Lemon, and standing at his grave would be a thrill. I had also never seen a picture of it, so posting one to the Internet would be a small feat of actual field scholarship.
Like Lemon, Alexander’s music was raw as three-day-old white lightning, the link between the a cappella hollers of the antebellum cotton fields and the suave urban blues of the Roaring Twenties.
Alexander, born in 1900 in nearby Jewett, could not play guitar, but always carried one with him to loan to those whom he met on his travels who could. That roll-call eventually included Jefferson, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lowell Fulson, who reminisced about touring with Alexander in Stormy Monday: The T-Bone Walker Story.
According to Fulson, Alexander’s talents got him released from prison early, but unlike Leadbelly’s similar feat, in Alexander’s case it wasn’t because the warden loved his singing. Quite the opposite, in fact…
“Texas Alexander [was] a little man with a great big voice,” Fulson said. “A terrible voice, but he could make plenty of noise. I used to accompany him on guitar, and he didn’t need no mike. We’d go to different spots, honky-tonks and backwoods places. He could play a little piano, but since nobody ever had one, he’d just walk in and sing. He’d been doing it a long time, and he used to tell me all the things he went through. Like he got in some trouble in Texas and went to the Huntsville penitentiary, where they sentenced him to life. But he sung his way out of there! I think he stayed three months and 21 days. They run him off, telling him ‘Come back here and we’ll kill you.’ He said what happened was that they couldn’t stop him singing. He sang all that old mourning-type stuff. Nobody wanted to be in the place that he was. He just got next to them all, so they let him go. They run him out of there.”
Luckily for Alexander, the record-buying public thought more of his vocals than either that warden or Fulson. He was discovered by a talent scout for Okeh Records in 1927, and taken to New York, where in the next seven years he recorded over 60 songs, accompanied by the likes of guitar greats Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson, New Orleans jazz legend King Oliver, and the Mississippi Sheiks.
Among those songs were “Rising Sun,” later made famous by the Animals as “House of the Rising Sun,” and “Broken Yo-Yo,” later anthologized on the excellent 4-LP set The Story of the Blues.
Alexander’s bellowing style fell out of fashion in the advent of swing, and Alexander returned to Texas. In 1940, he was convicted of murdering his wife, and this time he had the bad fortune to be incarcerated by people who could tolerate his singing. (Or maybe not, as he served only five years.) On his release, he moved to Houston and settled in Third Ward. For the next five years, along with his cousin Lightnin’ Hopkins, Alexander sang for tips on street corners and in city buses.
Hopkins and Alexander also cut a few tunes for Aladdin in 1947, and in 1950 Alexander recorded his final session – “Crossroads” and “Bottoms Blues” -- on Houston’s Freedom label backed by Benton’s Busy Bees, which included pianist Buster Pickens.
Multiple sources maintained that at some point before 1954, Alexander moved back to his boyhood home of Richards, where he died of syphilis in 1954 and was buried in the cemetery that Koshkin and I were just entering now.
The graveyard held a couple of hundred tombstones, so finding Alexander’s would seem to be ten minutes’ work at most. We split up and looked. And looked and looked and looked, past many graves with names like Maxey, Kindle, Manning and Carrington, but no Alexanders. At last we concluded that he was either the only black person in the other cemetery in Grimes County that was sometimes called Longstreet, or that he was buried in a stone-less, pauper’s grave here. I think the latter is more likely.
So now we were 0-for-three. Multiple sources also informed me that Juke Boy Bonner was interred at Rest Lawn Cemetery in Greenspoint, so we zipped down through Conroe and The Woodlands to the Rankin exit of I-45. This is a truly huge bone orchard, so we stopped off to ask at the office. They had no record of Weldon “Juke Boy” Bonner. “Dude, we’re wearing the golden sombrero now,” said Koshkin, as we weaved in and out of a typical Friday afternoon North Freeway Death Race.
And so we headed off to Forest Park Lawndale. There, gloriously, we managed to find the graves of both Hopkins and Ted Daffan, the country star of the 1940s who wrote “Born to Lose.” Daffan’s pink-purple granite marker is much more opulent than Hopkins’s, which is just a black slab on the ground with his name, dates, a small guitar and the epitaph: “Here lies Lightnin’, who stood famous and tall. He didn’t hesitate to give his all.”
Even though we only found two of the six graves we were looking for, so had we. – John Nova Lomax