My buddy Clarke and I turned down the wrong way on Mulatto Bend road, frantically scanning the side streets for a cemetery but hit the levee. There was a boarded up tavern at the corner with River Road: Brown’s Riverview Bar & Lounge. I hopped out to grab a picture of its yellowed plastic sign defying the ravages of business, a bubbly cartoon cocktail emblazoned on it staring down the levee wall. I was transfixed a little. I thought: This would be a more fitting place to wind up looking for Slim Harpo’s grave. Go to the places where he made his life, not to where his death makes him a monument.
I feel funny about graveyards. A person spends bodily an eternity in a place that he or she only hesitantly visited when alive, if ever. If you believe in such things, their spirit is elsewhere, everywhere maybe. So why a graveyard?
I was so swept up in life and death that I failed to notice an older man sitting under the mane of a willow as I was snapping photos. How long had he been there? I started to ask in my selfish rudeness if he knew where the graveyard was, but then noticed he was on the phone. “…and then he pulled a gun on him,” he said in calm tones to the other party, so I felt it best to leave him to his business.
Mulatto Bend stretches for a few blocks across US 190 (known as Ronald Reagan Highway to Google Maps and no one else) in the flats of West Baton Rouge Parish. At the terminus of the south section lies the Benevolent Society Cemetery. On this thin lane of graves wedged between two fields, the first thing I see is an angel statue in ecstatic prayer, sitting alone before a barbed wire fence and weeds beyond that. I’d just binge-watched the whole season of HBO’s True Detective. This little angel would have fit nicely into their artful opening montage.
We walked the full stretch of the graveyard looking for Slim’s final rest. “It’s supposed to be covered with harmonicas,” Clarke said, but we couldn’t find it. What I did find was the grave of Ophelia Jackson. I know this because her name was hand painted in black paint against the gleaming white stone. I pictured whoever she was being the Ophelia in the song by the Band, and will now forever.
There was a woman with one pink grave sitting among a sea of white. That is how you honor a final request! I pictured buckets of pink paint in some man’s garage that he cracked open once a year to touch up his mama’s grave.
A lacquered wooden sign before a tidy, picket-fenced family plot reads in elegant handwriting:
This section of the cemetery was restored in memory of John Allen. He was a straw boss on a plantation. Some of John’s sons lived in Mulatto Bend.
It was while contemplating this sign and what cut of man it takes to be a plantation straw boss, and listening to the irregular beat of hunting rifles in the woods not far away, that I saw a blue harmonica on a white grave by the fence.
Slim Harpo, his Christian name being James Moore, was a blues harmonica player, but much more than that. It was his spare stripped down songs recorded at J.D. Miller’s studio in Crowley, songs like “King Bee” and “Shake Your Hips,” that reverberate a half century later in the heads of all that hear them. The British Invasion artists — the Kinks, Them, the Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones — all felt that reverberation and included Slim Harpo songs in their catalogs.
Harmonicas circle the headstone like a train loaded up to trek across country, to blow that whistle that so many blues songs invoke. I thought I should have brought a harmonica, then thought, Where do I get off putting a harmonica on his grave?
Maybe this is why we visit graveyards. They put a thud beat in our song, one that shakes our sense of who we are and who we think other people were. Are we dust to dust, a name, a lifetime of mementos, a swath of pink paint or the dutiful swathing of that paint? Is it just that graves pose those kinds of questions, dropping pebbles in the still waters?
I said bye to Ophelia on my walk out, dragging it out like Levon Helm does in the song, and I waved at the sweet angel of the weeds, a benevolence vibrating in my heart.
Alex V. Cook is the author of Louisiana Saturday Night, an experiential guidebook to some of the Gumbo State’s most unique blues, Cajun, and zydeco clubs. You can follow Alex on Twitter (@cookalexv).
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