The Grave of Sonny Boy Williamson II

Tutwiler, Mississippi

Map to Sonny Boy Williamson's Grave

Click the map and go directly to a scalable map at Mapquest.com

You'll find Tutwiler about 15 miles south of Clarksdale on Highway 49.

Headed south on 49 in Tutwiler, watch for a green sign on your right pointing to Downtown Tutwiler →

If you reach the point just past Tutwiler where Highway 49 splits and becomes 49W and 49E, do as I did and turn around and pay better attention to signs.

Follow the road downtown to the railroad tracks, cross them (look both ways), then continue following the road as it turns left and parallels the tracks for several yards. On your left you'll see the nearly empty lot containing the famous old train station location, and across the tracks you'll see the famous large murals covering the walls of several brick buildings. We'll return to the station and the murals. For now, let's find Sonny Boy's grave. . . .

Safely over the tracks, you will find yourself on 2nd Street. Stop at the aggravating STOP signs at Rose Street, Holly Street, and South Street, and then turn right, west, onto Bruister Road, the very next right.

  • On the Tutwiler map above you'll find a Bruister Street and a Bruister Road. You want Bruister Road.
  • Bruister Road did not have a road sign when I visited it on July 10, 2005.
  • Tutwiler probably needs money so pay no attention to those aggravating STOP signs if you have cash to spare.

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Continue west on Bruister Road for about 3/4 mile until you reach the county line sign. Just past it, shown in this photo, you'll find signs proclaiming that Bruister Road is now Gibbons Road to the left or Prairie Place straight ahead.

Keep going straight ahead down Prairie Place for about 1/2 mile. The cemetery is on the right around the slight curve to the right you can see in the larger photos. I drew a red cross at the top left of the above map to mark the location of the cemetery. The black dots past the red cross mark the small brick houses of plantation workers. (The shotgun houses of field workers are a part of the past.)

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Here we see a fine lookin' redhead's car with the cemetery beyond it to the right and in the edge of the woods. In the background we see the houses of plantation workers.

WARNING: In the larger photos you can see what looks like a brown can on top of the redhead's car. It isn't a can. It's a fence post several yards beyond the car and sticking out of an open septic tank with its lid collapsed by a tractor tire. If you step into that tank you're in for a very nasty bath. . . . Don't go strolling around Sonny Boy's cemetery in the dark.

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In this photo the cameraman—me—has walked up the blacktop road and turned to face Sonny Boy's tombstone. That's it in the near center of the photo in the edge of the woods at the end of the little lane trimmed through the weeds.

The twin tombstones on the left belong to Sonny Boy's sisters: Mary Ashford, age 89; and Julie Barner, age 95. Sadly, they both died in a house fire on October 11, 1995.

To the right of the photo you can see flowers on a recent grave.

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In this photo I've walked straight ahead to the edge of the weeds.

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Here we see a full view of the tombstone with a redhead added for scale and beauty.

On the base of the tombstone you can see many coins, a harmonica, and a guitar string.

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Here's a close up of Sonny Boy's tombstone photo. For a key to his harmonica-playing ability, note the size of his hands and how those hands and fingers become part of the instrument.

I can't look at this photo without remembering the words spoken to me by a woman in Lexington, some 75 miles south of Sonny Boy's grave. While we were talking about a long-gone juke joint in the woods between Durant and Goodman, she remembered her daddy coming home from work all excited about Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson playing together there that night. Needless to say, if I owned a time machine I'd be in that audience.

However, I do own a time machine—knowledge of archaeology. Let's take an archaeological look at Sonny Boy's grave site.

Here in Junior's Juke Joint I've often mentioned the vanished communities all over the Delta. On my page titled "An open letter to my fellow anthropologists. . . ," I talk extensively about lonely churches and cemeteries as the only remaining vestiges of thousands of African-American cotton-field communities emptied by the Great Migration. The area around Sonny Boy's grave is just such a community.

Click for full size photoIn this picture taken by Violet Turner for her article on this site titled "Black and White Blues," we see a 1998 photo of the church which once stood in front of Sonny Boy's grave.

To the left, west, now, in 2005, stands the modern brick houses which replaced the wooden shotgun houses of tenant workers. To the right, east, a long row of shotgun houses once stretched across the area between Prairie Place and Hopson Bayou. That long community, called a "line village" by anthropologists, probably extended for nearly a mile along Prairie Place and Bruister Road. That community, which would have once had a name and perhaps still does, is now mostly a cotton field. To an untrained eye, the only part which remains is the cemetery and a few small brick houses.

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However, the eye of an archaeologist sees much evidence of that community. He or she sees evidence in the form of artifacts.

Just a step or two inside the blooming cotton field to the east of the cemetery shows the remains of foundation piers crumbled by plows and disks. A careful look at the photo on the right shows the ever-decreasing size of the rubble. I estimate this rubble as perhaps only 20 years past its days as a foundation pier. I ask the reader to stand there and look at this rubble and to imagine the village which once stood there, but to please leave the rubble where it lies— insitu it is called by archaeologists.

Some day in the not too far distant future when the world demands to know more about the people who lived in isolated African-American communities like this one, this cotton field will be the scene of a sizeable archaeological excavation. I say that for three reasons:

  • A famous African-American is buried here and surely lived here.
  • A modern component of the old community still exists—the brick tenant houses. People who live in those houses today will have stories of the old community and of the people who once lived there. That fact makes this semi-vanished community perfect for extensive research.
  • Via this web site I know first-hand the world-wide interest in communities like this one.

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Here we see a photo taken some 100 yards inside the cotton field, i.e., to the east of the cemetery. Beneath the cotton bloom we see the broken base of a glass container of some sort.

A careful look at the full size photo will show brick flakes above and above and to the right of the broken glass. This cotton field is a field of artifacts. Due to the close proximity of Hopson Bayou, I expected to find prehistoric Native American artifacts and did—stone chips probably left over from tool manufacture.

If those chips are in fact of Native American origin they are what archaeologists call "tertiary flakes" or flakes left from the third and final stage of tool making—exactly the flakes an archaeologist would expect to find on a site like this. I left those chips insitu and expect you to do the same. In archaeological terms, Sonny Boy's community is probably a multi-component site with more or less continuous occupation for the last 1,500 years.

Let us now leave Sonny Boy in peace and return to the town of Tutwiler.

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Here we see the eastern mural in downtown Tutwiler. You'll find it directly under the red star in the above map. I've seen photos of this mural all over the Internet, but this is the only one I've seen with something in it for scale. In this case, it's my redhead at a height of 5' 8".

To me, this painting of Sonny Boy Williamson looks much more like Willie Dixon than Sonny Boy Williamson. I think someone gave the artist the wrong photograph.

If the reader happens to wonder what kind of whiskey folks drink in Tutwiler, there's an empty 1/2 pint bottle of Heaven Hill just out of sight in the grass to the left.

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Here's a view down the tracks, eastward, with the mural directly to the left and 2nd Street directly to the right. This is all that remains of the train station where W.C. Handy first heard the blues in 1895.

The white kiosk on the right of the photo contains a brass plaque commemorating that monumental event some 110 years ago. As Sonny Boy Williamson was born only 4 years after that event, in 1899, and only 15 miles down the road in Glendora and with obvious familial ties to Tutwiler, I can't help but wonder if that seminal bluesman was his father, grandfather, or one of his uncles. Perhaps that unknown bluesman lived in the semi-vanished community around Sonny Boy's grave, just a couple of miles down the road.

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As my mind pondered the wonder of what happened so long ago on the spot upon which I stood, I walked across the park-like area to the other side of the large oak shown in the above photo. As I prepared to leave, a black girl rode up on a bicycle and plopped down on the bench you see in the photo to the right. "Looks like this is a popular place for Tutwiler folks to gather," I told her.

"Sure is," she answered. Then she spread her arms out like wings at her sides and said, "Breezy!"

"Cool here in the wind, huh?"

"Yep."

"Say, do you mind if I take your picture? It'll be on the Internet and millions of people will see it."

"Go ahead. I don't care."

I began focusing my camera on her as you see her sitting. "Say, what's your name?" I asked.

"Moonpie," she answered.

The camera focused, I asked, "Moonpie, out of all those millions of people all over the world who will see this picture, who do you want to say hello to?"

"Elvis," she said through the toothy grin you see in the photo.

Copyright 2005 by Junior Doughty

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