When Chicago musician and guitar instructor Arlo Leach journeyed to Memphis on a cemetery hunt favoring seminal blues musician long past, he found himself stumped when the map to the Shelby County Public Cemetery led him to an empty 30-acre field. No crypts, no headstones, the only thing suggesting that he was in the right place was a single tree, lending perspective to the otherwise bleak landscape.
He eyed a police car nearby and walked over to ask if he was in the right place. He was, the police officer told him. It turned out the Shelby County Public Cemetery is "for the poor and indigent," a place that holds 14,000 bodies, the majority of them infants who never reached their first birthday. "It was just a very sad moment," Leach said.
Even though it took place in October 2005, that moment stayed with Leach after his return north. At Shelby, he was searching for the gravesite of Will Shade, the Memphis guitarist and harmonica player who died in 1966 and who embodied jug band music, a branch of early country blues that incorporated homemade string and mouth instruments and was an important component of the Memphis blues scene in the Great Depression.
Phone calls to city and county agencies resulted in Shade's plot number and a diagram illustrating the approximate location of his grave. He was told that, if he wanted, he could purchase a gravestone for Shade to last (hopefully) a lifetime, benefiting blues hunters in his wake and contributing to Shade's legacy, which, to the general public at least, has long since been forgotten.
The result is a benefit concert Sunday at the Old Town School of Folk Music, featuring blues harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite, who says he took lessons from Shade and participated in jam sessions at his house, and a bill of national up-and-coming string bands who represent the current revival of jug band music. Leach teaches a popular jug band class at the Old Town, and last year his student group, the Hump Night Thumpers, earned the auspicious first-place honors in a national competition, held every February in Minneapolis. (They'll return next month to defend their title.)
The fact that Shade is so unknown is puzzling considering that, among the early century blues and country innovators of the time, he was one of the most prolific. He was born in 1898 and started playing music in the early 1920s when he formed the Memphis Jug Band. A form of early blues, jug bands featured instruments from big bands such as mandolins, violins, banjos and guitars and married them to homemade curiosities like the washboard, kazoos and, yes, jugs, to create music that had the homespun charm of country blues but swung like jazz. Unlike many blues figures who drift in and out of public record, Shade made himself very visible. He wrote the songs, booked the gigs, replaced personnel and kept a rigorous recording schedule. Between 1927 and 1934, the Memphis Jug Band became the most popular and most recorded band of its era, recording more than 100 songs for labels such as Victor and Okeh, in recording sessions that took place in Memphis, Chicago and Atlanta.
When jug band music passed its commercial heyday, Shade continued organizing groups, despite being out of step with the growing excitement of electric blues and R&B. He never left Memphis and took a job at a tire plant, which explains why, in the folk music revival of the early 1950s-'60s that exposed early century blues musicians to European audiences, he remained relatively marginalized. The Grateful Dead became one of the major groups to praise the early Memphis Jug Band recordings. Shade's group was also included in the 1952 "Anthology of American Folk Music," considered the Rosetta stone of folk music for later generations. Shade recorded for music scholars in the early 1960s, but in 1966 he died of pneumonia and was given an anonymous burial.
Leach said because Shade didn't have children, it was difficult seeking surviving relatives, if any were even alive. A 12-inch granite headstone costs about $1,000, but Leach has already secured a donated design created by Bay Area underground comic artist Robert Armstrong.
The tribute concert comes at a time when string band music has become increasingly popular. On Sunday, Musselwhite plans to perform songs Shade taught him as well the harmonica style Shade honed, which presages past master Sonny Boy Williamson. Among the bands on Sunday's bill are the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an all-black trio whose music appears in the recent film "The Great Debaters."
Despite Leach's humility about organizing the event, returning to Memphis with Shade's long overdue headstone will rectify the injustice he encountered two years earlier.
"It's like a community service project. If you're Miss America, you go out and work in homeless shelters. It's like our version of that," he said, with a laugh.
Will Shade Gravestone Benefit
Where: Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Featuring: Charlie Musselwhite, Devil in a Woodpile, Hump Night Thumpers, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Arlo Leach and others
Tickets: $20/$18/$16. (773) 728-6000 or visit www.tix.com