A Grave Expedition

Visiting the State's Fallen Troubadours

Duane Allman & Berry Oakleyby Maryann Bates

Allman Brothers Band founding members Duane Allman and Berry Oakley rest in peace side-by-side in Macon’s historic Rose Hill Cemetery. Photo by Maryann Bates

Tucked away on a quiet, residential street in East Atlanta is one of the city’s oldest cemeteries, dating back to the mid-19th Century. Until a few years ago passers-by might not even have realized that Sylvester Cemetery existed because it was so overgrown and unkempt. But volunteers have restored the venerable shady resting ground to something resembling its former glory, and as they’ve done so one gleaming white marker has reclaimed its rightful prominence. The obelisk reading “Carson,” readable from across the street, marks the grave of “Fiddlin’ John” Carson, a country music pioneer who happened to be from Georgia, and spent most of his life in the state.

Carson’s isn’t the only musically notable grave carved into Georgia’s red clay. Far from it. From the coast to the mountains, the Peach State is dotted with the final resting places of many a picker, strummer and soul-shouter—some of whom lived long, full, lives and others who were taken far too soon. Here’s a quick guide to just a few of them:

In Macon, Rose Hill Cemetery contains the graves of not only Duane Allman and Berry Oakley of the Allman Brothers Band (who died in tragic motorcycle accidents just 13 months and three blocks apart), but of Martha Ellis, the namesake inspiration of the band’s classic “Little Martha.”

Just south of Thomson, in a rural area called Happy Valley, next to Jones Grove Church (just a stone’s throw from Wrens Highway) is where you’ll find a marker for country blues pioneer Blind Willie McTell, perhaps best known for penning the Allmans’ classic “Statesboro Blues.” Curiously, what you’ll find isn’t the original marker, which has some erroneous information, but a more recent, corrected marker donated by a fan.

Bandleader Fletcher Henderson's grave site in Cuthbert, Ga.

Bandleader Fletcher Henderson’s grave site in Cuthbert, Ga.

A similar story is attached to the gravesite of big-band jazz pioneer Fletcher Henderson, in the Old Cemetery in Cuthbert. When Chet Krolewicz, a former band member, saw a picture of the headstone, he was appalled. The marker had been ignored and
left unkempt. So Krolewicz had the memorial cleaned and restored, with a plaque added to recognize the bandleader’s
musical contributions.

Famed lyricist Johnny Mercer can be found in Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery, not far from the Back River in the tidal estuary surrounding the lowcountry city—since renamed Moon River in honor of one of Mercer’s biggest hits. And one of Mercer’s favorite hometown musicians was the pianist and singer Emma Kelly, who he nicknamed “The Lady of 6,000 Songs” since she could play at least that many strictly from memory. She’s buried at Eastside Cemetery in Statesboro.

The 2002 death of R&B star Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes in a Honduras car accident shocked the musical world. After an outpouring of grief, the events leading up to the death of the popular TLC singer/rapper were captured in the documentary film The Last Days of Left Eye. You can pay your respects at Hillandale Cemetery in Lithonia.

Though he was born in Detroit, Atlanta’s Greenwood Cemetery (Garden of Faith section, plot 958) is where you’ll find the final resting place of R&B hitmaker and Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame member Hank Ballard, best known for penning Chubby Checker’s immortal hit “The Twist.”

Emmett Miller is hardly a household name, but novelist, biographer and magazine writer Nick Tosches has dubbed him “one of the most intriguing and profoundly important men in the history of country music” and has done much to engender fascination with this shadowy 20th-Century figure, who influenced Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. (For an introduction, seek out Tosches’ book Country.) Pilgrims may find the gravesite of this mythic minstrel at Fort Hill Cemetery in Bibb County, near Macon.

Blues pioneer Gertrude "Ma Rainey" Pridgett is buried in Porterdale Cemetery in Columbus, Ga. Photo courtesy Jeff Crompton

Blues pioneer Gertrude “Ma Rainey” Pridgett is buried in Porterdale Cemetery in Columbus, Ga. Photo courtesy Jeff Crompton

Any survey of the highlights will be incomplete, and there are many more notable gravesites to seek out, including Ma Rainey (Columbus), (Jimmy Bryant (Colquitt County), (Old) Dan Tucker (Elbert County), Ronnie Hammond (Forsyth), Hovie Lister (Decatur) and Ma Rainey (Columbus). Remember to be respectful—a grave is hardly the place to “leave a mark” or litter—and let your fascination be your guide.

 

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