James “Son” Thomas
Greater St. Matthews M.B. Church in Leland, MS
On March 9, 1996, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund unveiled a large memorial headstone on the grave of James “Son” Thomas at Greater St. Matthews M.B. Church in Leland, Mississippi. Creedence Clearwater Revival lead singer John Fogerty financed the memorial. The unveiling ceremony followed a fellowship gathering attended by the descendants and large extended family of Thomas as well as numerous local friends and musicians from Austin, Texas and Memphis, Tennessee, such as Texas guitarist Rick ‘Casper’ Rawls.
A gravedigger who remained a beloved fixture in his home town of Leland, Thomas was also a renowned folk artist who sculpted figures in deathly repose as well as expressive skulls.
Gravedigger & Artist
Often remembered for his musings on the subject of death, his artwork sat on display at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. as well as in galleries in New Orleans and Memphis.
In one article for the (Clarksdale, MS) Press-Register, a photograph from Panny Mayfield shows four of Thomas’ 13 children including (from left) Raymond “Pat” Thomas, who sang and played his late father’s guitar as part of the headstone dedication service. Mt. Zion Memorial Fund founder Skip Henderson (pictured in upper right congratulating three of Thomas’ other sons) Johnny Thomas, Wendle Thomas, and Patrick DeWayne Thomas. Sid Graves, the founder of the Delta Blues Museum, hosted a reception following the dedication, which featured a performance by Raymond “Pat” Thomas. The owners of Hopson Plantation Commissary also hosted a blues event in honor of “Son” that benefitted the Clarksdale Care Station, a non-profit founded in 1987 “to feed the sick and shut-in” by “providing meals to needy persons” and by feeding “their souls with God’s word delivered daily by local pastors.”
Both the opening act—The Remains headed by Ronnie Drew—and the multi-talents of virtuoso guitarist Terry Williams (center) contributed to the success of the music benefit at Hopson that raised an estimated $400 for the Care Station. Featuring the “sharp dressed men” of the Wesley Jefferson Band (right) in black tuxedos and red vests including (from left in the photo below) Wesley Jefferson, James “Super Chikan” Johnson, Rip Butler, and Michael James, the benefit was filmed by Graham Video.
Looking To The Future
On August 13, 2019, Robert B. Mortimer of Mortimer Funeral Homes in Greenville, Mississippi raised and re-attached the headstone of James Thomas to the base. He is also the custodian of several other markers erected by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund in Greenlawn Memorial Gardens.
Lazy, Smoky Blues
The blues have changed a lot, in some ways, since Thomas was a young man.
In other ways, not so much.