Saturday, December 4, 2010

Revisiting Ma and Fletcher

(I apologize in advance for the appearance/layout of this post. I tried to insert the photos in such a way that would look good on the screen, but found that I have very little control over how it may end up looking on any individual computer screen. On the plus side, you can click on any photo for a larger view.)

Yesterday I headed south again, armed with a camera this time, to revisit the Ma Rainey house and grave that I stumbled on by chance last month. (See my November 10 post.) The door of the Rainey house was locked when I tried it, but the woman working there had seen me walk up, so she let me in after determining that I was there to visit the museum, not for any nefarious purpose. She obviously had been trained in Rainey lore, but in some way she didn't seem to "get" it - a lot of the things she said were close to being right, not not quite. I would have preferred to be left alone to wander around by myself, but that didn't seem to be an option.

The house, as pictures attest, was in pretty bad shape a few years back, but it's been restored nicely. Much of Ma's original furniture is intact, including the piano, which has been stripped of the green paint that someone applied at some point. There are some Paramount records on display that made me drool. Otherwise, the displays were pretty generic, providing information about Rainey and the blues. But for me, the whole point was just being in Ma Rainey's house.

One of my assumption in my previous Rainey post was wrong, I think. Ma had such a large house built not so that she could take in boarders, but so that her parents (and sister, I think) could live with her. I was fascinated to see that she had her father's name inscribed in the concrete before the door.

I was also wrong in assuming that the Pridgetts buried on either side of Ma Rainey in Porterdale Cemetery were sisters. Edna, her mother, is on one side, and I think that (based on the dates) that Edna's sister is buried on the other side.

While in the cemetery I took also took pictures of an interesting-shaped tombstone, and the stone marking the grave of Jenny, Kizzie's baby, that I wrote about in that earlier post. Notice that Jenny's stone is marble, and professionally carved. Many, if not most, of the monuments in Porterdale cemetery are concrete, and are much rougher (and cheaper) in appearance. Who paid for the the stone over Jenny's grave? Was Kizzie the maid of a privileged daughter? Could Jenny's father have been the slavemaster?

After paying my respects at Porterdale, I headed 60 miles further south, to the little town of Cuthbert, Georgia. Cuthbert was the birthplace of the great Fletcher Henderson, who practically invented the big band swing style. Henderson spent most of his life in New York or on the road, but he's buried in his hometown. While Ma Rainey was buried in a segregated cemetery, Henderson's grave is in the town's main, mostly white, graveyard. I don't think this had anything to do with his fame as a musician; it was probably due to the respect in which his father was held. Fletcher Henderson, Sr. was principal of the African-American school in Cuthbert for decades.

I last visited Cuthbert and Fletcher's grave about 15 years ago. At that time, there was nothing at the gravesite to indicate that a brilliant and widely influential musician was buried there. Since that time, Chet Kruly, who played with Henderson's band in the late 1940's, sponsored a marker which at least mentions that Henderson had a band.

I'm glad I got to pay my respects to these two great Georgia musicians.

1 comment:

Paul S, said...

Thank you for that post, Jeff.
Thoughtful, touching, and inspiring.