Searching for Nathan Beauregard
Memphis Blues, Race, and the Myth of Southern Redemption Through a Love of Black Music
By T. DeWayne Moore
May 21, 2020
In 2017, when Communication Arts professor Augusta Palmer contacted the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund to help conduct research for her film about the Memphis Country Blues Society, she believed that the lack of recognition for Nathan Beauregard was one of the most curious travesties in the history of the Memphis blues. Due to the importance of his legacy to the festival organizers and the work of several musicologists who focused on the blues, the scant amount of research into the life experiences and musical career of this legendary blues artist was surprising. Very little was known about his life and death, and the myths associated with his age and re-emergence as a performing artist serve as a poor replacement for actual knowledge about the African American experience in Memphis and his native Benton County, Mississippi. Drawing on all of the published and unpublished research of scholars who focused on the Memphis blues tradition as well as official government documents, newspaper articles, liner notes, and oral histories pertaining to the artist, this essay details not only our search for the grave of Beauregard but also our attempts to put together a more accurate biography. This article is the first part of series, which is based upon the research of several affiliates of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, specifically Bill Pichette, of Memphis, Tennessee, Jim Lill and Jeff Harris, of Rochester, New York, and John Shaw, of Barlett, Tennessee, each of whom provided crucial research support over the course of this project.
On May 30, 1970, the Brittenum Funeral Home of Holly Springs, Mississippi buried the remains of Nathan Beauregard at Shiloh M.B. Church Cemetery near Ashland, Mississippi. The cemetery contains the headstones of several members of his family, and we can now move forward in the memorialization process. We have solicited the help of Bolton, UK artist Gary Tennant to render a line-drawing of his signature Kingston “Swinga” guitar, and we look forward to working with his family, the Memphis music community, Robert Kimbrough Sr., the keeper of the Cotton Patch Soul Blues tradition, and many others to commission and dedicate his headstone later this year.
The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund aims to raise the historical consciousness of blues enthusiasts and promote a more inclusive process of memorialization, and this project reflects the amazing potential of a more self-conscious and collaborative inquiry. The death certificate of Nathan Beauregard was discovered due to the determined efforts of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund's Memphis affiliate Bill Pichette, who managed the campaign to mark the grave of Charlie Burse and clean up Rose Hill Cemetery in 2018. He soon learned that Beauregard's exact death date was unclear, and he searched several Memphis newspapers for his obituary from May 1 - June 15, 1970, knowing that he died sometime in May 1970. Despite previously locating the obituaries of other blues artists, namely fiddler Will Batts, Pichette knew that this time-consuming method had great potential. In this case, it only proved frustrating, as he scanned page after page of microfilm to no avail. Most researchers would have given up and thrown in the towel, but the affiliates of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund realize that the research process is often daunting, sometimes excruciatingly disappointing. Our ethical practice of memorialization, however, is grounded in serious research, and it can be a most rewarding experience, especially for someone whose passion for the music inspires a greater curiosity about the African American lived experience.
One problem was that his actual name was Nathan Bogard, not Beauregard.
This fact reflects only one of the many misinterpretations that plague blues histories.
Another point of contention is his date of birth.
Musician Bill Barth, who claimed to have “discovered” him, wrote that he was born in 1863 and that his guitar playing “had naturally slowed a bit by the time we met when he was 103.” Festival organizer and record collector Steve LaVere believed that he was “somewhere around 100 years old” and the “oldest active blues singer” until his death in the spring of 1970. Jerry Hopkins, Jim Marshall, and Baron Wolman, in their book Festival: The Book of American Musical Celebrations, explain the deductions of Steve LaVere in regards to Bogard’s age. In one section about the Memphis Country Blues Festival, the author’s state:
"Nathan Beauregard probably was the oldest of those there. [Steve] LaVere said he tried to pin the exact birth date down by finding out how old Nathan was when his nephew martin was born; he came up with ninety-five. Others swore Nathan was more than a hundred. Still it wasn’t until recently that he was “discovered.”
The early deductions of Barth and LaVere were repeated by their contemporaries and romanticized in the existing literature, which demonstrates how “music scholars” and blues tourism brokers focus on literary flourish and the white imagination—as opposed to the Black experience—to construct and perpetuate the myth of southern redemption through a love of black music.
In the context of this myth, Beauregard serves as an example of the “Magical Negro,” a trope created by white people out of their ignorance, a character in literature and film that was "in some way outwardly or inwardly disabled, either by discrimination, disability or social constraint,” who often has no past and simply appears one day to help a white protagonist. Often possessing some sort of magical power, "rather vaguely defined but not the sort of thing one typically encounters,” the character is patient and wise and ostensibly "closer to the earth." In the absence of knowledge about the Black experience, the “Magical Negro” rises about from all the racial stereotypes so prevalent in minds of white Americans who grew up during segregation.
Many of the white blues revivalists in late 1960s Memphis—with a few notable exceptions—also had little desire to learn about the Black experience. The African American musician, specifically Nathan Beauregard, according to Memphis writer Robert Gordon, was important “not for what he’d known and lived through but for what he still did; that is, the show was about music, and he could still play.” By placing a premium on their musical performances instead of their lived experiences, white blues enthusiasts misinterpreted the social construction of racial stereotypes as a form of education, and music scholars in the new millennium misconstrued the discursive fashioning of race as the attainment of a higher consciousness. “These musicians were not just artists but spiritual leaders,” argued Robert Gordon, “spiritual beings whose very presence was an education to people raised during segregation.” The silent presence of Nathan Beauregard, however, served as anything but educational. He became a racial figment of the white imagination.
In interviews conducted at the turn of the 21st century, the members of the MCBS did not reveal their understandings of the Black experience but rather their bucolic fantasies as the white inheritors of some magical aesthetic. Excavating rose-colored memories with his eyes closed, MCBS co-founder Randall Lyon exclaimed, “Nathan Beauregard was cosmic, like some Tibetan monk…and the guy’s a hundred and something years old.” Another co-founder, Jimmy Crosthwait, recalled, “I was getting to see from whence it all came. By 1968, there’s Nathan Beauregard, Reverend Robert Wilkins, Bukka [White]—and I got to play with all these guys. In a way, we have become the white boys that inherited this thing, like it or not.”
Indeed, like it or not, the white musicians in Memphis in the late 1960s inherited a problematic discourse on race from the previous generation, and the music, in many ways, silenced the voices of African Americans, preventing the “people raised during segregation” from attaining a better understanding of the Black experience.
A big problem with the writings of music scholars is the failure to reconcile the claims from oral histories with information in historical documents. In this case, the failure to conduct further research into the curious claims about Beauregard’s age has plagued blues literature well into the new millennium. Even though Steve LaVere notes in 1971 that Beauregard “was blind since the age of one,” Robert Gordon wrote in 2001 that he was “born blind [and] led around by his nephew, a man in his seventies. His withered skin hugged his high cheekbones, the lids over his sunken eyes always shut so that he resembled a mummy. He’d begun developing his repertoire when Lincoln was still president.” Robert Gordon’s vivid literary image drawn from his oral histories with white Memphians has been even further romanticized in the work of Daniel Beaumont, an associate professor of Arabic Language and Literature at the University of Rochester. In 1993, Beaumont published an interview with Rochester, New York blues artist Joe Beard, who had known Beauregard while growing up outside Ashland, Mississippi, but he failed to conduct any corroborative research to update the literature or add historical context for the 2011 book Preachin' the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House. In one section, he writes:
"Nathan Beauregard stayed [in Ashland], like one of the jinn bottled up by Solomon for eons, living on well past what can really be called "old age," until his life came to resemble the myth of the blues itself, patient, undying, and indomitable…Beauregard's musical breakthrough would not come until he was almost one hundred years old. Then, like a genie in the Arabian Nights loosed by a chance passerby—in this instance, a Memphis hippie—he would perform at the Memphis Country Blues Festival, make recordings, and appear on the television screen of Joe Beard in Rochester, New York, who gazed in mute astonishment at the flickering image of the ancient man singing "Spoonful Blues" on the public television station."—Daniel Beaumont
Of course, Edward Komara’s brief entry about Beauregard in his Blues Encyclopedia, which more than any other volume provides a conglomeration of the errant “facts” upon which blues stereotypes have been built, repeats the myth that he died a centenarian in 1970, as does the Dylan biography of Michael Gray.
Nathan Bogard was actually in his late seventies when he passed. In 1900, Frank Bogard and his wife Ellen (Ayres) Bogard told the census enumerator that their sixth child, Nathan, was born in February 1892. The Bogards lived in Beat 3 of Benton County, Mississippi. His registration card for World War I lists his birthdate as 1893. While his death certificate lists his birthdate as 1883, the most accurate document to determine date of birth is usually the earliest document. The 1900 US Census, therefore, which contains the information that his parents gave when he was eight years old, is the most accurate information available.
In the painting of Frederick Brown, the eyes of Nathan Beauregard are painted as globes, as if his sight took in the entire world rather than the cotton fields which stretch out endlessly behind him in the background, as endless as the stereotypes of race and place and the attachment of a cotton field to blues myths.
Photos: Chris Strachwitz, Jim Marshall, and Steve LaVere
Part 2 - Coming Soon
For more information about Augusta Palmer's film about The Memphis Country Blues Society, please visit HERE
For more on the Memphis Country Blues Festival, please visit HERE