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Unmarked grave of bluesman Walter Davis to get headstone in Greenwood Cemetery

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 20, 2012 - Aaron Pritchard’s hobby might seem odd to some. He tracks down the burial sites of famous blues musicians and helps raise money for headstones for those interred in unmarked graves.

On Oct. 21, Pritchard and a few others will visit Greenwood Cemetery in Hillsdale to place a marker on the grave of Walter Davis, a Blues Hall of Fame inductee who was based in St. Louis when he built a national reputation as a singer and musician.

“Providing a respectful marker for him means a lot to us,” says Pritchard, vice president of the Killer Blues Headstone Project. “We feel these blues musicians paved the way to modern musicians and really impacted American music.”

Prichard says Davis was probably “the most legendary bluesman to ever grace his presence on the city of St. Louis.” Born in 1912 in Grenada, Miss., Davis reportedly ran away from home when he was about 13 and eventually settled in St. Louis. He became a musician and made numerous recordings between 1927 and 1953, including “Sunnyland Blues” in 1931. He suffered a stroke in the early 1950s and died in 1963 at age 51.

After learning that Davis was buried in Greenwood, Pritchard “contacted a very sweet woman named Etta Daniels.”

She’s the go-to person for questions about the once neglected cemetery, where an estimated 30,000 African Americans are buried. She’s an archivist and historian for the Friends of Greenwood Cemetery Association, whose mission includes restoring the site through annual cleanups like the one led by U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay in 2009.

“She actually showed me the exact spot where Davis was buried,” Pritchard says. “The cemetery is overgrown, but she worked diligently to get that spot cleared for us.”

Killer Blues has funded a dozen headstones since the project began in 2008. Money for Davis’ stone came in part from donations collected during the recent Big Muddy Blues Festival in St. Louis. Pritchard says about two dozen other important blues musicians are buried in unmarked graves in various cemeteries. Donations toward headstones for them can be made through the Killer Blues group’s website, or by sending donations to Killer Blues Headstone Project, 120 North Livingston, Whitehall, Mich. 49461.

Persons seeking additional information about the headstone project or the cemetery can also reach Daniels at 314-772-7466 or at ettadaniels@charter.net; or Pritchard at 314-775-6953 or at aaronpritchard.killerblues@yahoo.com.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.