Memento mori is a Latin phrase that means “remember you will die” and it is a commonly used motif in art serving to remind about the temporary nature of mortality. The motif can be seen throughout time and artistic disciplines, symbolized, for example, by skull imagery in paintings, depictions of the Grim Reaper and his danse macabre, cemetery architecture, and literary themes.
The subject of death and specifically burial instructions make up a significant portion of blues and folk songs, including “The Fatal Flower Garden,” “Country Blues,” and “The Butcher’s Boy.” None of these though is as detailed and poignant as Blind Lemon Jefferson‘s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” also known as “One Kind Favor,” originally recorded in 1927 for Paramount Records and included in the massively influential Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. We’re taking a close look at the song tonight on Folkadelphia Radio.
Jefferson was discovered in Dallas, Texas by Paramount Records and taken to Chicago to record throughout the 1920s, leading to commercial success and national acclaim. Jefferson’s unique style of playing and singing influenced the development of the Texas blues tradition and beyond. In 1930, Son House and Charley Patton, also recording for Paramount, were told to record their own take on the song, which led to the melody-sharing “Mississippi County Farm Blues.””See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” has been covered by artists as diverse as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Canned Heat, Diamanda Galas, The Dream Syndicate, and more. As a continually fulfilled wish, many admirers over the years have taken the pilgrimmage to the Wortham, Texas cemetary on Highway 14, due approximately 85 miles south of Dallas to keep Jefferson’s grave site clean.