The music of the Blues has always held twin fascinations for me. After my father’s murder, at the age of eight, playing guitar and playing the Blues was a healing force. It kept me sane. Playing and listening to the Blues was pursuing a life framed by courage and dignity. The other point of fascination, as a continuing student of American history, was the historical element of the Blues with it’s direct influence on the best parts of American music and the larger than life figures that populated the form.
My two favorite figures in the Blues are Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson. Wolf, for his oversized voice that ranged between storm force and haunting delicacy. Robert Johnson’s music gave shape to my shadows. Hearing his voice, guitar, and the compelling themes of his songs has always given me a premonitory chill.
Therefore, as a longstanding Robert Johnson fan, I found it disturbing when I read in a music trade magazine in the summer of 1990 that the congregation of Mount Zion church, where Johnson may have been buried, was in danger of losing the property to a bank lien. I contacted the head of the Robert Johnson/Mount Zion Memorial Committee, Skip Henderson, and asked how I could help?
I took it upon myself to contact the office of the President of Columbia, now Sony, records and asked them to contribute to the Johnson/Mount Zion fund. But the true heavy lifting was by Skip and many other Americans, including Atlantic records executive Jerry Wexler and roots rocker John Fogerty.
Ultimately, because of money received from Columbia records, a $7,500 bank lien was paid off for Mount Zion church where there was an active congregation and a four and a half foot obelisk memorial was placed at what may have been the final resting place of Robert Johnson.
The central inscription on the memorial was written by famed music writer Peter Guralnick, with a side inscriptions by Skip Henderson. Per the request of Columbia records, all of the titles of Robert Johnson’s 29 songs were placed on a side facing away from the church. Considering some of the titles of Robert Johnson’s work, including “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Hellhound On My Trail”, this helped to preserve the sensitivity of the congregation.
I received a thank you letter from the Mount Zion Memorial Fund Committee and was pleased that I had least paid back a partial payment to Robert Johnson for all of the inspiration his work has given me. I went on with my life as Skip Henderson also did with his. But who is Skip Henderson?
A partial answer starts as such…..
From the mid 1970’s until 1985, Skip worked a series of day jobs from being a head start teacher to being a social worker to working as a juvenile cop in a housing project for five years. In 1982 he switched gears and established City Lights Music, a vintage guitar store on the campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Initially, it was a part time endeavor with the name of the store, City Lights, reflecting a part time, nocturnal balance from Skip’s work-a-day world as a juvenile cop. In 1985, the store was established as a full time, retail venture. Skip had long been a fan of the deep Blues of the American South and felt an emotional affinity with the region.
In the late 1980’s, after a challenge thru a friend of ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, Skip went to see the land where the Blues came from when he made a trip to Mississippi Delta. Traveling with a friend, Skip discovered an almost third world country in the state of Mississippi and decided he wanted to make a difference.
After discovering the problems facing the congregation of Mount Zion Church in Morgan City, Mississippi, and considering that this may be the final resting place of Bluesman Robert Johnson, Skip established the non-profit Robert Johnson Mount Zion memorial fund in 1989. Prior to the ceremony for the unveiling of the obelisk Robert Johnson memorial in April 1991, Skip met roots rocker John Fogerty. Fogerty had recently been visiting the gravesite of another early Delta Bluesman, Charley Patton.
Fogerty explained the state of disrepair of Patton’s grave and suggested a visit. With Reverend Ernest Ware and Pops Staples in their company they did Indeed find Patton’s grave in a sad state.
The name of the Robert Johnson/Mount Zion Memorial Fund was shortened to the Mount Zion Memorial Fund and via the generosity of John Fogerty an appropriate gravestone was placed on Bluesman Charley Patton’s grave. From 1991 to 2001, gravestones/ memorials were placed on the graves of musical figures such as Elmore James, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Big Joe Williams, Mississippi Joe Calicott, James “Son” Thomas, Memphis Minnie, Sam Chatmon, Eugene Powell, Lonnie Pitchford, and Tommy Johnson. Music industry figures such as Bonnie Raitt, Phil Walden (Manager of Otis Redding and The Allman Brothers) and other fans of the music of the Delta provided additional assistance in the establishment of these memorials.
Providing appropriate memorials for these legendary musicians humanizes them. It creates flesh and bone realities for Southern musical myths. The Mount Zion Memorial Fund also provides maintenance for these memorials as they can fall victim to the harsh weather of the Mississippi Delta.
In 1994, Skip Henderson decided that the Clarksdale Mississippi train station was in need of saving from destruction and in need of preservation as an American landmark. In 1995, it was added to the national historical registry. Skip made sure that the area in the station where Bluesmen such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker waited for trains to the north was also preserved. Also in 1995, Skip decided to close the doors of City Lights Music and begin a new chapter in his life.
In 2013, Skip Henderson stepped down as the Director of the Mount Zion Memorial Fund, but still acts as an advisor. Currently Skip Henderson is writing a book titled “Mississippi Death Trip,” which is about the intersection of race, music and the role that the rail line played through Mississippi linking New Orleans with Memphis. The books covers the period between 1895, with Plessy Vs. Ferguson, and ends with Elvis Presley in 1955. All and all Skip Henderson continues to preserve and honor the history of the Mississippi Delta while shedding light on it’s mystery.
For more information about the Mount Zion Memorial Fund, contact them at www.mtzionmemorialfund.org