An Anchor Blues Biography - Belton Sutherland

“Kill the Old Grey Mule,
Burn Down the White Man’s Barn”:
An Unmarked Biography of Belton Sutherland

By T. DeWayne Moore
Executive Director
Mt. Zion Memorial Fund

The Association for Cultural Equity (ACE)—a charitable organization founded by folklorist Alan Lomax to explore and preserve the world's expressive traditions with humanistic commitment and scientific engagement—posted four and a half minutes of largely unseen footage to the internet on December 16, 2010. It featured a guitar player singing an improvised blues number on a porch in Madison County, Mississippi. Shot by John Bishop, Worth Long, and Lomax at the farm of Clyde Maxwell on September 3, 1978, the rolling rhythm of his guitar and the atmospheric accompaniment of the crickets projected a pure release of emotion to the creator, introducing Belton Sutherland, in all his foot-tapping and cigarette-smoking glory, to folks across the globe. He played a classic Kay archtop guitar tuned down almost two whole steps to around C#, which puts him a minor third low of standard tuning; other than that, all folks could say for sure, and they did so repeatedly, was that he was “the real thing.” According to the counter beneath the video, almost 1.5 million people have watched it to date.[1] ACE released two more solo blues performances, one a cappella field holler, and one duet with the fiddle accompaniment, almost none of which made it into the original release of the Lomax documentary, The Land Where the Blues Began. In fact, Sutherland appears only for about a minute and ten seconds during the entire film. In the introduction and the main body of the film, he hollers out, “Kill that old grey mule; burn down the white man's barn,” and then he disappears for thirty years.

Artwork by Gary Tennant, of Bolton, UK
Referring to arguably the fiercest, exquisitely iconoclastic artist that barely appeared in the late-seventies documentary, one contributor to a country blues message board lamented recently that after performing a few fine songs “nothing else is said about him.” A subsequent comment asserts that he may have only “recorded three songs, but they were powerful. I wish there was more of him.” One of the newer members admits, plainly, “I don’t know how ‘obscure’ this bluesman is, but...he looks & sounds like a man who has lived the blues his entire life.” While some folks who purchased the 30th anniversary DVD of The Land Where the Blues Began, which shipped in December 2009, had the pleasure of witnessing the performances of Belton Sutherland before anyone else, even those fortunate souls lacked any biographical information about the enigmatic musician. Not until 2017, when the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund—a Mississippi non-profit organized in 1989 to memorialize musicians interred in rural cemeteries without grave markers and provide financial support to African American church communities—initiated a campaign to locate and mark the grave of Belton Sutherland, would any information come to light at all. 

At a moment in America when the significance of historical context to a meaningful understanding of the past has become so clear, some of the more recent documentaries about blues music and the South find it difficult to relay such crucial information about the black experience under Jim Crow. Some filmmakers take the same approach to African American history as many roots revivalists and historic sites, all of which hope to garner their share of the existing markets, finding it much easier not to discuss it at all. By perpetuating the myth of southern redemption through a love of black music, however, these films undermine one of the original stated goals of blues tourism in state of Mississippi—racial reconciliation. At the foundation of any productive example of racial reconciliation or the production of a documentary—a nonfiction film that attempts to depict aspects of reality for educational purposes—there is a sincere desire to increase the level of understanding about the pasts of other people. Without it, it’s a propaganda film that serves the interests of the ruling majority at the expense of minorities. The release of Belton Sutherland’s performances in the 2010s, however, has served as a corrective to such lethargic trends in documentary film as well as demonstrated that social commentary on race relations can engender better understandings of the blues and still have mass appeal. With a tip of my hat to the good folks at the Association for Cultural Equity who decided to release the historic footage, this is the unmarked biography of Belton Sutherland. 

The graves of Mattie Sutherland, Zettie Sutherland,
and Belton Sutherland (unmarked, right)
Belton Sutherland was born on February 14, 1911—the same year as the King of the Delta Blues Singers, Robert Johnson. His parents, William and Mattie Sutherland, already had eight children, and they would have four more after Belton, making a total of thirteen.[2] The Sutherland family worked as sharecroppers in the small hamlet of Camden, Mississippi, not too far from St. John Missionary Baptist (MB) Church.[3] A minister, farmer, and member of their extended family, Reverend Cage Sutherland, had been born in the wake of the Civil War, and he managed to procure most of the land on which was Camden.[4]

Mattie Sutherland passed away shortly before the eighth birthday of Belton, having given birth to thirteen children during her brief time on earth. Since the Sutherland family owned their own land and enjoyed somewhat of an autonomous existence on their farms around Camden, they managed to purchase a modest, yet very respectful and professionally engraved headstone to place on her grave in the cemetery behind St. John M.B. Church. He lost his mother before a census enumerator could ever write his name in the 1920 Census.[5] Though no evidence of his life was ever documented in the decade after 1920, he almost surely sang during church services and played music on homemade instruments during his early years. Clyde Maxwell, who was a couple years older but also grew up around Camden, recalled that the construction of one-stringed instruments was common practice for children. He also did not necessarily ascribe much significance to their importance in predicting the competency of a future musician:

“A lot of ‘em done that. But they didn’t learn to play any music on it…Just some kind of noise…They plunk it, everything else. But you think it sounds good, just plunk it and think you got a guitar. But it’s not like a real one.”[6]

Even if some contemporaries of Maxwell during his formative years never quite managed to turn the corner as musicians, one successful guitarist of a subsequent generation thought his early experience with a one-string important enough to mention regarding his own early years in Camden. Guitarist John (Alfonzo) Primer was born to John and Ruthie Mae Primer in Camden, Mississippi on March 5, 1945. At a very early age he began singing spirituals, and he also recalled hearing the music of Muddy Waters while growing up in rural Madison County. His first guitar was a self-made one-string, which he strung up on the side of his grandmother's home. He started to become interested in playing guitar around eight-years-old.[7] He did not start playing professionally until he moved to Chicago in 1963, where he finally acquired a guitar and discovered Jimmy Reed.[8]

By the time Sutherland’s name is again put to parchment for the federal government in 1930, he lived with his new wife in a sharecropping community in Beat 5 of Holmes County. The previous year, Belton was barely eighteen-years-old when he married a fourteen-year-old girl named Louise.[9] It was not, however, the best time for couples to get married in America. The devastating impact of widespread economic depression in the 1930s wrought a heavy toll on the institution of marriage. Many fathers and husbands—unable to serve in their gendered roles as breadwinners—turned to desperation in such hard times, or simply abandoned their families. 

Fake 1920s Advertisement with fire theme
Though it remains unclear what exact events transpired over the next seven years of his life, he never enjoyed working on the farm too much. He most likely split from his wife after a couple of years and returned to Madison County. In a brief filmed interview with Sutherland that remains viewable only in the archives, Lomax films folks singing and plowing behind a mule, which reminds Sutherland of the farming communities around Camden in the 1930s. One of his playing partners at that time was fiddler Theodore Harris, who, in his opinion, was:

the only man that could play [some songs]. See, I used to play with [him.] So help me, he could play it too. Yeah, he could really play it. There wasn’t no maybe about it. He’s the best fiddle player that ever went through here.” 

In the 1930s, when folks lived more spread out on all the farms in Madison County, Sutherland freely declared, 

“We had this country sewed up back then.”[10]

Harris was indeed a popular local musician. He sometimes attracted so many people to his gigs in Canton that it required blocking off the streets, and not a single musician from Madison County offered anything less than glowing praise in interviews. In his interview with Pete Welding in Chicago from December 1965, Canton harmonicist John Lee Henley talks about the music of Theodore Harris. The artist’s name, however, is misunderstood and recorded as “Fado Harris”.[11] In one interview published in Living Blues in the winter of 1973, Madison County native K.C. Douglas discussed a fiddler from Canton, who Tom Mazzolini later heard as “Fadel Harrison.”[12] He had, in fact, referred to Theodore Harris, an assertion that he corroborates in another interview from 1972. On his first visit to the America, sixteen-year-old blues enthusiast Axel Küstner conducted an interview at the Berkeley, California home of K.C. Douglas, who had indeed known the elder catgut scraper. While he certainly knew many blues singers under contract as recording artists, he knew of some musicians who were:

“just as good as some o’ those fellers, but still they had not recorded no records. Well, he wasn’t…he wasn’t considered as being known. Because it was there, the guy at my home, name, ah…Theodore Haze [sic]; he was a fiddler and brother, that man could play a fiddle. I mean he could play it. He was so good; he get on his fiddle and a guitar. And they would allow him [to] play on the streets, because them peoples stopped them cars out there on the streets. And that man could play. And it’s too bad that no record company [n]ever got him and recorded. He played the blues on the fiddle, just like he can on his guitar. He was, we followed him out, in my teen years, almost grown, when they had him the different places on Saturday nights for dances, we used to walk four an' five an' eight, nine miles ... see Theodore Haze [sic] play that fiddle. That man could play it brother, I mean he could play it. See, I knew a lot of musicians, I mean, that [were] good. But they wasn’t record artists.”[13]

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger informs that Belton Sutherland had come back to Madison County in the mid-1930s. He also may have married a woman named Annie Troy, with whom he fathered a son, Edward, on January 24, 1936. Not long after his son’s awakening in the new world, Belton Sutherland got arrested and convicted of forging a check in the amount of twenty-five dollars. The judge sentenced him to two years hard labor in the state penitentiary.[14] While the sentence seems a bit steep, the crime of check fraud had steadily increased in frequency in Mississippi during the Great Depression and many judges had taken a hard line in punishing offenders. Vernon Presley, the father of Elvis, was also convicted of forgery in the 1930s; he served a nine-month sentence in the state penitentiary, after which he began working for the Works Progress Administration.[15] In his initial 1927 record, “Levee Camp Moan Blues,” Alger “Texas” Alexander provides a little social commentary on the nature of the legal system for black folks in the Jim Crow South:

Mmmm, mmmm, mmm
Lord, they accused me of murder, murder, murder, I haven't harmed a man
Lord, they accused me of murder, I haven't harmed a man
Oh, they have accused me of murder and I haven't harmed a man.

Mmmm, they have accused me of forgery and I can't write my name
Lord, they have accused me of forgery and I can't write my name[16]

There were many African Americans who could not read or write in the South, but Belton Sutherland was not one of them, according to one census enumerator in 1930.[17] As he served his sentence, one member of the Hinds County board of the supervisors, S.C. “Babe” Heard, was charged and convicted of defrauding the people through the purchase of gravel—a practice that only increased in frequency among country boards of supervisors until an FBI sting operation, Operation Pretense, sent scores of Mississippi politicians to federal prison in the 1980s (Crockett, Operation Pretense). Heard was also sentenced to two years in prison, but Governor Hugh White decided to step in and release him after ninety days. The governor also looked over several more cases. After serving only eight months, Belton Sutherland had the remainder of his sentence suspended by the governor.[18] Not yet thirty-years-old, the future posthumous internet sensation walked out of the state prison farm.

After his release, Belton Sutherland moved to Chicago. He told Alan Lomax that he lived in the Windy City for the next thirty-seven years before returning home. Like so many African Americans in the 1970s who had engaged in the Great Migration, Sutherland worked hard for many years and returned home to purchase his own private farm. His estimated forty acres were located not far from Camden. Thus, he started to play more with local people, such as Clyde Maxwell and Alberta Walton, on a semi-regular basis. Clyde Maxwell was a proud and adept musician who played both fiddle and guitar at country suppers and dances. Believing that he “had it in [his] mind” and “caught the sound,” Maxwell considered himself an elite musician. In more than one interview, he made the sentiment clear: “Everybody told me I was as good as you wanted in my day.”[19] One of Sutherland’s last statements in his short interview refers to their partnership: “We [are] about to get back together.”

Portuondo Mescal catches
Clyde Maxwell at home in 1981.
Though no one seems to remember these musicians from the rural farms around Camden, the more urban Madison County seat of Canton boasted some of the most important entertainment districts in central Mississippi during the mid-twentieth century. The cafes and other businesses located in the black section known as “The Hollow” often featured popular blues artists such as Albert King, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson II. In the surrounding rural areas of the county, some of the more renowned local guitar pickers were William Dubois (corrupted into “Do’Boy” based on phonetics) Diamond and K.C. Douglas, from the small community of Sharon. Elmore James, who developed into a popular electric slide guitarist, laid down some of his first records at the club of a local civil rights stalwart named C.O. Chinn, who, along with Mississippi Freedom Party delegate Annie Devine, organized one of the strongest political action organizations in 1970s Mississippi—the Madison County Union for Progress.[20]

Completely unknown to the outside world, Belton Sutherland had to move back home to rural Camden before he ever got a chance to demonstrate his musical skills. Though former Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee field secretary-turned-folklorist Worth Long never spent too much time in central Mississippi due to the emphasis of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) on voter registration efforts in Canton, the state legislature appropriated $178,400 in 1974 to finance the state’s participation in the Festival of American Folklife in Washington D.C. Some members of the House of Representatives opposed the appropriation, arguing that participants would “weave baskets and make mud jugs” and demonstrate “how backward we are.” The appropriation passed, however, and it allowed for several field researchers from the Smithsonian to scour the state for its best 125 folk artists, craftsman, musicians, artisans, and farmers.[21] It was during this initial search that Worth Long discovered the young and prodigious Lonnie Pitchford, a multi-instrumentalist from Holmes County who initially performed at three subsequent festival events in the nation’s capital and came to reflect the hopes of folk and blues enthusiasts across the globe concerning the interests of younger generations of African Americans. 

Clyde Maxwell on the porch
(Photo: Courtesy of
Mr. Portuondo Mescal)
On a scouting expedition for the Festival of the American Folklife in early 1976, Long visited Madison County and discovered Clyde Maxwell, which led to the talented musicians’ subsequent performances in Washington D.C. and the state capital of Jackson, where he performed alongside James “Son” Thomas for the blues lectures of native folklorist Bill Ferris. In 1978, Worth Long served as a consultant on a documentary film about the blues for noted folklorist Alan Lomax, who, having been absent from the scene for almost two decades, sought advice on locating talented individuals to participate in The Land Where the Blues Began. In initiating the project and guiding the filmmakers to the homes of many artists as well as his official role in “research/development,” Worth Long leaves a largely unheralded legacy in film, which has gone unacknowledged for far too long.[22]

On September 3, 1978, folklorist Alan Lomax and filmmaker John Bishop had spent the entire day and most of the night filming various performances and interviews at the rural Madison County, Mississippi home of Beatrice and Clyde Maxwell. In the film, Maxwell provides vivid demonstrations of the utility of singing work songs in the rhythm of particular tasks, specifically plowing a field behind a mule or chopping wood with an axe. Beatrice Maxwell is one of the only women featured in the film. Recognizing her opportunity to enlighten viewers, she makes the most of it by challenging the cult of domesticity as well as prevailing racial biases about single black mothers. Staring into the camera with a determined awareness, she declared:

“My husband [before Clyde], he was public works, and I taken my kids and made my living. Plowing. Chopping. And when I got through with mines, I know it wasn’t through. I went to the white man. I borrowed money. I had to work and pay it back, but that’s the way I had to make it…I cleared up new ground. I cut down trees. I cut wood. I can cultivate. I can plow, and I can even sweep. And then I can plant. I done did all that all the way through in my life. I farmed for twelve years, just me and my girls. [We] didn’t have no men to help at all. And I made it…Up until now, after I married. I thought it was gonna be lighter, but [it] act like it got a little heavier. So now whenever he gets down, he don’t have to worry. I take it all and go right on.”[23](ACE, DVD 199)

In the weeks preceding, what turned out to be, the last day of filming on the first installment of the American Patchwork PBS series, The Land Where the Blues Began, news of the filmmakers’ presence had spread through the state’s music communities and several native artists had tracked down and presented themselves to Lomax.[24] Only “the worst ones come forward,” Lomax once imparted to Bishop, “the community pushes the better ones forward, and the phenomenal ones sulk in the background until you notice them.” That evening Lomax noticed a man carrying a Kay archtop guitar and wearing a scowl on his face; without hesitation, he asked him to play a few songs. In a remembrance published a quarter-century later, Bishop recalled: 

We had never heard of him before and never heard of him after, but his rough guitar and expectorated lyric—kill the old grey mule, burn down a white man’s barn—is one of the most emotional moments in the film The Land Where the Blues Began.[25]

Indeed, both of the brief appearances of Belton Sutherland in the original release of the documentary, including the above noted lyric from “Blues #1”—along with the blunt depictions of oppressive working conditions on the levees and demonstrations of their embeddedness in the Delta blues—offered a new clarity about the absurd nature of studies not couched in the context of the experiences of African Americans. It was out of this impulse to increase the level of cultural understanding among the long-divided communities of the state that grounded the first-ever Delta Blues Festival later that month outside of Greenville, Mississippi. 

Belton Sutherland’s “Blues #2” was the first of the videos uploaded to the internet on December 16, 2010. His guitar has him playing in E position in standard tuning, right around C#, which puts him a minor third low of standard tuning. The text in the film clip suggests the song was “improvised,” and certain aspects of it were almost definitely improvised. Though the form is Sutherland’s own--one-line stanzas, some of which are repeated for further emphasis—his opening verse is traditional. In essence, admitting that he did not have any particular song in mind, he hollers out the lyrics that came into his head. Overall, the song reflects an imagined live performance of Blind Willie McTell’s “Broke Down Engine” in a late night/early morning setting. Perhaps at the end of a hard night, he continues playing, slow and droning, feeling low. Sutherland may have been a fan of Percy Mayfield in the 1950s, because he seems to draw on “Strange Things Happening” in both Blues #1 and #2. It was the B-side to Mayfield’s most famous song, “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” which hit number one on the R&B hit single charts in late 1950. Sutherland, moreover, may have been drawing on Brownie McGhee’s “The Way I Feel” from the album, The 1958 London Sessions

Well, I feel like hollerin’, don't wanna holler, Lord
I got somethin' to tell you, girl, tell it to no crowd 
I want you to love me or leave me, anything you wanna do (x2)
What a strange thing happenin', someday it might happen to you 
She's a brown-skin woman, dimples in her jaw (x2) 
If you ever had the blues, know about how I feel (x2)
Feel just like an engine, ain't got no drivin' wheel

On December 16, 2011, ACE also released a departure from the previous offerings. Sutherland’s “I Have Trouble” abandons the powerful, whirring basslines of his other works and produces an exceptional, if slowed down and composite, rendition of Muddy Waters’ “I Be’s Troubled,” “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and “Rollin’ Stone.” Sutherland’s somewhat natural emphasis on pauses and phrasing transforms the boastful delivery of Waters into his own personal dirge.

Well, I know my little ole baby
She gonna jump and shout
When that old train rolls up
I come walking out
And I got trouble  
Well, my mama told my papa
Just before I’se born
You got a boy child comin’
Gonna be a rollin’ stone
I got trouble (x2)
I’m worried all in mind
And I just can’t be satisfied, I just can't keep from cryin'  
Well if you’ll be my little ole baby
I’m gone be your brown
Think the good lord made you
Angels brought you down
I have trouble (x2)
(I be all worried in mind) – UNSPOKEN VERSE
And I just can’t be satisfied, I just can't keep from cryin'  
All in my sleep I
Hear my doorbell ring
Lookin’’ for my baby
Didn’t see a doggone thing
I got trouble (x2)
(I be all worried in mind) – UNSPOKEN VERSE
And I just can’t be satisfied, I just can't keep from cryin'  
Well if you’ll be my little ole baby
I tell you what I’ll do
I’m gonna rob and steal now
And bring it back to you
I have trouble (x2)
(I be all worried in mind) – UNSPOKEN VERSE
And I just can’t be satisfied, (guitar says last line) 

In “Blues # 1,” which ACE released on November 16, 2011, Sutherland again works in E position, standard tuning, at C#. He maintains the loose, traditional song structure, and he demonstrates some serious skill on the guitar. While he starts off playing an exceptional, if slowed-down and derivative, cover of “Prison Cell Blues” by Lemon Jefferson, he gets away from it rather quickly in the second verse—the striking lyric that Lomax featured twice in The Land Where the Blues Began. The third verse again seems to draw from Percy Mayfield’s “Strange Things Happening.” 

Tired of sleeping, low-down lonesome cell
Tired of sleeping there, low-down lonesome cell
And I wouldn't've been here, hadn't've been for Nell 
Kill that old grey mule, burn down the white man's barn
Kill that old grey mule, burn down that white man's barn
I didn't mean no trouble, I didn't mean no harm 
I want you to love me or leave me, girl, anything you wanna do
I want you to love me or leave me, anything you wanna do
What a strange thing happenin', someday might a-happen to you 
Well you say you gonna leave me, said you're goin' away
Well, you said you're gonna leave me, Pearly Mae, said you was goin' away
I said, love beats a fortune, you'll come back home some day 
I said, love beats a fortune, Pearly Mae, you’ll come back home some day

The film crew recorded a second version of “Blues #1,” and during the performance some folks started talking and moving around. The recording is obscured in some places, but not so bad that you can’t understand his words. At the end of the song, he declares, “"I'm sick of it now. I'm sick of it all the way down now,” perhaps complaining about having to play the song so much or the guitar period, or it might have been something else entirely. Whatever it was, he was very sick of it. With a little help from a friend Brandon “Moses” Crouch, a musician who got an early start in Memphis, we understand that he sings:

It's good enough to do you till your Glory comes x2 
I know I love her just can't help myself x2 
If I don't get her, neither will nobody else 
If you ever had the Blues you know just how I feel x2 
Come here Louise sit down on my knee x2
I just want to tell you how you mistreat me 
You mistreat me here, can't when I go home x2
I got somebody there, make you leave me 'lone
In April 2010, Long Island blues and roots musician Pat Conte recorded several songs for Jalopy Records at the fabulous Jalopy Theatre and School of Music. One of the fiddle tracks is called “Burned a White Man’s Barn,” of which two-thirds of the lyrics are almost exactly the same as the middle verses of Belton Sutherland’s “Blues #1.”[26] Considering that one admirer contends that “in New York he is the most important musicologist…passionate, almost manic about” traditional music, this author reached out to him recently in hopes of discovering the origins of the song lyric, perhaps farther back in time, or in some dark corner vault of his “Secret Museum of Mankind.”[27] My ostensible query was how did he “come about recording the song., “Was it a derivative, mostly original content, or based on some specific historical event?” Conte replied forthwith, recalling that the lyrics were “just floating verses, impromptu and in situ recording.”[28] Though he did not recall or mention Belton Sutherland, a survey of his larger repertoire with former playing partner Bob Guida reveals their familiarity with the works of William Dubois Diamond, who also hailed from Madison County, Mississippi. Once I informed him of my specific research interests, he beamingly stated, “Ah well that must be it then! I think I'd agree it’s a line original to Belton. I don't recall it elsewhere.”[29]

In the context of the African American experience in agriculture and state politics, the concept of burning down a white man’s barn derives from the long history of economic inequality and the oppressive system of sharecropping. In her turn-of-the-century essay on “The Race Problem in the United States,” Anna M. Jackson explains how the sharecropping kept black folks “virtually chained to the soil” in the South. She even quotes the lyrics of a song she overheard several black farmers singing:

“It’s hard to be a n---er
De n---er raise de cotton and de n---er hoe de corn
But when the crop is gathered, it goes in de white man’s barn.

It’s hard to be a n---er,
You may work all night and work all day,
But it’s hard to be a n---er, for you can’t get your pay.”[30]

Since black folks could have the raised the cotton and corn, gathered the crop, and stored it in the barn of a white man who subsequently sold the crop, pocketed most of the profits, and paid the sharecropper only enough to cover his current debt, Belton Sutherland hollers the suggestion that they might as well as have burned down the barn of the cheating planter while still filled to capacity with the harvest. He even proffers the murder of the old grey mule, which traditionally held a long-venerated position amongst black fiddlers. “The words of these songs were not designed…for the ear of the white boss,” John and Alan Lomax wrote of the song “Ain’t It Hard to Be a Ni—er,” and “in them the Negro was likely to speak his free and open mind.”[31] Belton Sutherland, therefore, in the opening lyric to “Blues #1,” offered a bold denunciation of tenant farming contracts and sharecropping arrangements black tenant farmers and white landowners, a relationship that had indeed been central to the experience of African Americans in the South.

For unknown reasons, the field-hollering, guitar-playing, and blues shouting of Belton Sutherland and Clyde Maxwell was not in demand at the inaugural Delta Blues Festival later that month at Freedom Village in Washington County. Worth Long invited both men to perform the following year in October 1979, however, and their names appear beside each other in the program for the second annual Delta Blues Festival. Maxwell’s 1979 performance of the song “Corrina” is featured in Long’s documentary of the event, Mississippi Delta Blues, and a rare LP issued in 1980 by the Delta Arts Project, the cultural arm of a community action organization called Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE).

Sutherland, however, did not make the trip for whatever reason. He is never again heard outside of confines of Madison County; only local people had the pleasure of enjoying his company and music during his last years on this earth. In 1980, two German blues enthusiasts, Axel Küstner and Siegfried Christman were so inspired by the Library of Congress-funded field work of Worth Long and Alan Lomax—as well as the earlier expeditions of Paul Oliver and Chris Strachwitz, David Evans, George Mitchell, and Bengt Olsson—that they solicited the support of German concert promoter Horst Lippmann, who, along with his partner Fritz Rau, had put on the American Folk Blues Festivals across Europe beginning in the early 1960s. Lippmann's record label L & R Records funded Küstner’s vision of an extended research and recording project. For almost three months, the duo committed to tape some of the last recordings of well-recorded country blues musicians as well as few of the more obscure blues artists. The nation’s capital of Washington, D.C., for example, provided the setting in which Archie Edwards laid down an album of his East Virginia Blues and Flora Molton crystallized perhaps the final sounds of a DC street singer, but the majority of the recordings featured on the fourteen LP series Living Country Blues U.S.A. had been recorded in Mississippi.[32]

Indeed, Küstner even traveled to rural Madison County, where he photographed Clyde Maxwell playing guitar at his home in Camden. Even thirty-seven years after the fact, he retains vivid memories of a visit to a Camden-area jook joint, in which he also spoke about the compatibility of blues and Christian beliefs with “another bluesman from Camden.”[33] In his 1982 photo essay about his excursion in Blues Unlimited, Küstner writes, “Belton Sutherland…told me that he had just joined the church when I met him, but it didn’t keep him from still playing the blues.” This brief comment is the sum of information gleaned from the last known interview with Sutherland. Not having had the chance to see the as-of-yet unreleased documentary, The Land Where the Blues Began, Küstner had not heard the amazing music recorded on the porch of Clyde Maxwell almost exactly two years prior. Küstner recently expressed sincere—even painful—regret about not recording any of his music, or returning to witness a demonstration from the newly-enrolled member of St. John’s M.B. Church.[34]

In the fall of 1981, Austrian blues enthusiast Michael Hortig traveled to the home of Clyde Maxwell and conducted a short interview with the then-ailing and diabetic musician. In addition to his discussions of hospitalization and the intricacies of insulin injections, Hortig asks about some of the more well-known blues artists from Mississippi and Maxwell mentions a few of the more notable local musicians with whom he was acquainted. Belton Sutherland, however, is not mentioned at all before the infirmed Maxwell plays a couple of half-hearted, noticeably hampered versions of some songs for Hortig and his quiet companion. Chicago blues guitarist John Primer, in a recent interview with Argentine blues enthusiast Juan Urbano Lopez, who had informed this author of his Madison County origins, also did not recall ever hearing or hearing about Sutherland. To put it plain, Sutherland was not considered a superior instrumentalist among his contemporaries around Camden. While that fact may be due to his almost forty year absence, Sutherland had moved back around 1975. He’d failed to make much of impression on folks after five years.

On October 15, 1983, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger published the funeral announcement for Belton Sutherland, who had ascended eight days earlier on October 7. Having recently joined the church, the funeral for this obscure blues belter was handled by People's Funeral Home, of Jackson. At two o’clock on the Sunday afternoon of October 16, he was laid to rest near his mother's grave in the cemetery behind St. John Missionary Baptist Church. His grave was marked temporarily by the funeral home with a small metal placard and a paper insert containing his name and both his birth and death dates.

The resilient paper insert remained untouched inside that rusting metal marker stuck in the ground atop his grave for over thirty years, avoiding the maintenance efforts of groundskeepers and cemetery sextons, and waiting for the arrival of a curious investigator in late March 2017. On the afternoon of March 30, Canton native Joe Austin, who this author had met by chance through social media and managed to enlist in his research efforts, drove out to rural Madison County, walked the cemetery, and went back home to send an excited and lengthy email of discovery. Having previously asked another investigator to walk the burial ground and hearing that his search had turned up nothing, the amazing discovery that Austin imparted in the text of his message came as a cold-handed slap of complete euphoric surprise to me. It seems the proverbial light had been shining down on him on that cold and rainy day. His message read: 

“Success! I did a bit of searching and found St. John’s Missionary Church, and drove out to the site. I walked the graveyard until I found Mr. Sutherland's plot, took some photos and visited with him for a bit as well. I told him about you and the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund and played “I Got Trouble” for him while letting him know his music lives on, even to this day. And although it's an overcast and dark, rainy day, it was so...joyous! I can't fully describe it, but it was so deeply gratifying to me on so many levels. Thank you. Seriously, thank you for allowing me to help in your research.” 

DeWayne Moore and Joe Austin:
A Force in Memorialization
Attached to the email was a photograph of the brittle metal marker and the insert containing some text embedded onto the paper by an old-school typewriter. Austin contacted the pastor of the church soon after making the discovery, and he agreed to meet him at the church. Arriving with several of his congregants, who apparently worked at one of the local utilities offices, the men walked over to the gravesite, and Austin explained our mission at the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund as well as provided as much information about the former church member and blues singer—and all the other forgotten bluesmen of his era—that the pastor would allow him to impart. The pastor shared his recollections of Belton Sutherland playing the guitar, but he was completely unaware of the immense talent that was evident as he watched the videos of his performances back in 1978. Austin was sure that the blues artist was not only resting in peace, but wearing his signature grin on his face and looking on as the men watched the video. According to his subsequent message about the meeting, the pastor and his compatriots “were blown away” as smiles came across their faces. In fact, the pastor “was so proud, he exclaimed, ‘I got a bluesman in my graveyard!’” Excited as well as humbled about the revelations that occurred in rural Madison County on that April afternoon, Austin assured them that we would keep them up-to-date with the progress of our project goals. He also advised that they remove the fragile metal placard that had marked his grave for so long. He did not want anyone else to remove it for them—that is, at least not before we replaced it with a permanent marker.

The handful of Belton Sutherland’s only recorded performances on that quiet evening in early September would be the only recorded evidence of his immense capacity to produce a blues aesthetic that almost effortlessly relays the black experience in Mississippi. As opposed to many revivalists and historic sites hoping to garner their share of the blues tourist market today—almost all of which bend over backwards not to upset the quaint, romantic, and highly volatile historical myths that buttress white privilege and the Lost Cause—Belton Sutherland managed in only a few lyrical lines to inextricably link issues of economic inequality and the long, disgraceful history of excessive black incarceration to the Mississippi blues tradition. Considering that filmmakers have found it extremely difficult to include such crucial context in the new millennium, tending to instead promote myths of southern redemption through the love of black music, the deployment of these video clips demonstrates how a historical narrative can serve as a “powerful weapon of liberation,” enlightening the mis-educated and apathetic who may normalize others or themselves “living under oppression.”[35] Belton Sutherland, in many ways, posthumously carries in these widely popular videos the rare mantle of the late Willie King, a blues artist hailing from Alabama, whose lyrics challenged the sepia-toned historical fiction central to the Lost Cause, specifically that freedom was not a significant outcome of our bloodiest sectional conflict.

Alan Orlicek installed the marker on September 19, 2018.  It was dedicated on September 22.  Rev. Robert Luckett blessed the ceremony, and Jason McQuillen, of West Viriginia, as well as Silas Reed, of Oxford, Mississippi, performed at the ceremony.


[1] Alan Lomax Archive, “Belton Sutherland: Blues #2,” December 16, 2010, [accessed August 17, 2017].

[2] William 40, Hallie 32, Ola 19, Bessie 15, Dock12, Jim 16, Mollie 9, Emma 7, Captula 4, Sam 1; see, 1910 US Census, Camden, Madison, Mississippi; Roll: T624_751; Page: 10B; Enumeration District: 0039; FHL microfilm: 1374764.

[3] William 52, Mollie, 19, Cagie 14, Captola 12, Belton 8, O.E. 6, Matha 1; see, 1920 US Census, Camden, Madison, Mississippi; Roll: T625_886; Page: 18A; Enumeration District: 51.

[4] Cage Sutherland was born on March 16, 1874; see, “Cage Sutherland,” World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2005.

[5] 1920 US Census, Camden, Madison, Mississippi; Roll: T625_886; Page: 18A; Enumeration District: 51.

[6] Clyde “Judas” Maxwell, interview by Jeff Todd Titon, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., July 1976.

[7] Big City Blues Magazine 4 (1997): 14.

[8] Colin Larkin, The Virgin Encyclopedia of the Blues (New York: Random House, 2013).

[9] 1930 US Census, Beat 5, Holmes, Mississippi; Roll: 1149; Page: 19A; Enumeration District: 0022; Image: 98.0; FHL microfilm: 2340884.

[10] Association for Cultural Equity, Alan Lomax Collection – DVD 199, The Blues Archive at The University of Mississippi.

[11] Lawrence Cohn, ed., Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians (New York: Abbeville Press, 1993), 82.

[12] Tom Mazzolini, “Living Blues Interview: K.C. Douglas,” Living Blues 15 (Winter 1973/74): 15.

[13] K.C Douglas, interview by Axel Kustner, Berkeley, California, August 15, 1972.

[14] (Jackson, MS) Clarion-Ledger, March 10, 1937.

[15] Governor White also commuted the sentence of another man convicted of check forgery. The McComb Daily Journal and the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported that the three year sentence received by Vernon Elvis Presley in May 1938 was commuted to nine months in the early winter months of 1939; see, (McComb, MS) Daily Journal, Feb 7, 1939; (Jackson, MS) Clarion-Ledger, August 13, 1938.

[16] These are traditional verses; though Alger “Texas” Alexander may have been the first to record it in his “Levee Camp Moan Blues” (81225-B), many of the same verses turn up in early 1920s vaudeville blues records. Furry Lewis also sang many of the same verses in his August 28, 1928 recording of “Judge Harsh Blues” Victor V38506.

[17] 1930 US Census, Beat 5, Holmes, Mississippi; Roll: 1149; Page: 19A; Enumeration District: 0022; Image: 98.0; FHL microfilm: 2340884.

[18] “White Critical of Hinds Jury in Issuing Clemency,” (Jackson, MS) Clarion-Ledger, March 10, 1937, p.16.

[19] Clyde Maxwell, interview with Michael Hortig, October 30, 1981, near Camden, Mississippi.

[20] The Madison County Union for Progress was a founding affiliate of the Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE), a community action organization that largely replaced SNCC and the Child Development Group of Mississippi in 1967.

[21] Political advertisement, The (Louisville, MS) Winston County Journal, August 14, 1975, p.23; “State to be Featured in Washington in July,” (Jackson, MS) Clarion-Ledger, April 7, 1974.

[22] "Land Where the Blues Began," in Life After the Movement Part 4: Roots of Organizing: A Conversation Between SNCC Field Secretaries Worth Long and Maria Varela, [accessed Sep 20, 2017].

[23] Alan Lomax (script/, direction/ production), John Bishop (cinematography/editing), Worth Long (research/development), The Land Where the Blues Began, first PBS broadcast 1980, re-edited 1989 for rebroadcast on the American Patchwork PBS series.

[24] Ibid.

[25] John Bishop, “Alan Lomax (1915-2002): A Remembrance,” Visual Anthropology Review 17:2 (Fall-Winter 2001-2002): 14-24.

[26] Pat Conte, “Burned a White Man’s Barn,” [accessed August 17, 2017].

[27] Acoustic, Folk and Country Blues in the 21st Century from Traditional to Modern, [accessed August 23, 2017].

[28] Pat Conte, email to author, August 20, 2017.

[29] Ibid.

[30] This is the song “Ain’t It Hard to Be a N---er.” John A. Lomax recorded it at least once, and it seems to have circulated around 1900-1910; see, Anna M. Jackson, “The Race Problem in the United States,” in Proceedings of the Friends General Conference, 1904 (Philadelphia, PA: Franklin Printing Company, 1904), 127.

[31] Howard Odum also published a version of this song in 1912; Bruce M. Conforth, African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics: The Lawrence Gellert Story (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013), 101.

[32] John Cephas & Phil Wiggins also recorded an album in Washington, D.C.; Guitar Frank Hovington in Delaware; Guitar Slim (James Stephens) in North Carolina; CeDell Davis in Arkansas; Piano Red in Memphis; Hammie Nixon, Walter Cooper & Charlie Sangster in Brownsville, TN; Lattie "The Wolf" Murrel near Somerville, TN; and “Boogie” Bill Webb & Arzo Youngblood in New Orleans.

[33] Axel Kustner, telephone interview by the author, August 18, 2017.

[34] Axel Kustner, “Living Country Blues,” Blues Unlimited (1982): 30-31.

[35] Scott Barretta, “Struggling Blues: Willie King’s Backwoods Philosophy of the Blues,” Living Blues 134 (Nov-Dec 2000): 24-32; Stephen A. King, “The Blues, Trauma, and Public Memory: Willie King and the Liberators,” in Popular Music and Human Rights (Volume I: British and American Music), ed. Ian Peddie (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2011), 67-77.


Barretta, Scott. “Struggling Blues: Willie King’s Backwoods Philosophy of the Blues.” Living Blues 134 (Nov-Dec 2000): 24-32. Print.

Bishop, John. “Alan Lomax (1915-2002): A Remembrance.” Visual Anthropology Review 17:2 (Fall-Winter 2001-2002): 14-24. Print.

Cohn, Lawrence. Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.

Conforth, Bruce M. African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics: The Lawrence Gellert Story. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013. Print. 101.

Conte, Pat. Interview. (email correspondence), August 20, 2017.

Crockett, James R. The FBI’s Sting Operation on County Corruption in Mississippi. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Douglas, K.C. Interview by Axel Kustner. Berkeley, California, August 15, 1972.

King, Stephen A. “The Blues, Trauma, and Public Memory: Willie King and the Liberators.” In Popular Music and Human Rights (Volume I: British and American Music). Ed. Ian Peddie. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2011. , 67-77.

Kustner, Axel “Living Country Blues,” Blues Unlimited 142 (1982): 30-31..

Jackson, Anna M. “The Race Problem in the United States.” In Proceedings of the Friends General Conference, 1904. Philadelphia, PA: Franklin Printing Company, 1904.

Larkin, Colin. The Virgin Encyclopedia of the Blues. New York: Random House, 2013.

Lomax, Alan, John M. Bishop, and Worth W. Long. The Land Where the Blues Began. Portland, OR: Media Generation, 2006. DVD.

Maxwell, Clyde “Judas.” Interview by Jeff Todd Titon. Georgetown University, Washington,
D.C. July 1976.

______. Interview with Michael Hortig. Camden, Mississippi. October 30, 1981. 

Mazzolini, Tom. “Living Blues Interview: K.C. Douglas.” Living Blues 15 (Winter 1973/74): 15. Print.