Willie Brown – Death Certificate and Mysteries

See Willie Brown’s Death Certificate, and learn more about the mysterious bluesman.

Below is a photo of Willie Brown’s Death Certificate, as discovered by Gayle Dean Wardlow in 1965.

For general information on Willie Brown, including information on his final resting place, check out this post.  If you are interested in visiting his grave, check out the location as noted on The Google Maps Project.

We all know the generals about Willie Brown.  A great sideman who played with the greats, including Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson.  We know where he lived and played.  For the most part, we know his recordings.  But, there is also some mystery surrounding good old Willie Brown.  You know how we love mystery.

Even though he died in 1952, there are no known photos of him.
This one to me, is just a bit odd.  I mean, as the Death Certificate lists above, Brown died in 1952.  Why are there no pictures?  The first 35mm camera was developed in 1913.  By 1948, the Polaroid camera was introduced.  How can it be that a man that died just a few years later has no photos?  He performed with Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, and more.  We have photos of those guys.  No one ever thought to snap a picture of this guy?  I mean, we are talking about a performer who played with some of the greats.  he went to recording sessions where other photos were taken of the performers.  Where are the Willie Brown photos?  There has to be some out there – maybe they just haven’t been identified yet.

He was listed to be notified in the case of Robert Johnson’s death.
According to an ex-employer of Robert Johnson, Willie Brown was the person to be notified in the event of Johnson’s death.  It turns out, Brown was actually a mentor to Robert, and quite an established sideman and friend to Robert Johnson.
Though it is difficult to track down the actual ex-employer, it is believed to be common knowledge that this was the case.  What is strange is the fact that Johnson, who was legally married twice, didn’t choose to list a wife to be notified in the event of his death.  Nor did he choose to notify his sister(s), or other family.  Instead, he chose Willie Brown.

There are rumors circulating he recorded under the name Kid Bailey.
Whether you believe this or not is up to you.  However, it is a fairly easy rumor to dispel.   Some researchers have previously reported that the Kid Bailey recordings sound very similar – in fact too similar – to not be WIllie Brown.  The fact of the matter is, Willie Brown never recorded as Kid Bailey.  He recorded with Kid Bailey.  Several witnesses, including Elizabeth Moore discovered by Gayle Dean Wardlow, have said in interviews that they saw – first hand – Brown and Bailey playing together.  Elizabeth Moore stated:

Well him [Brown] and that kid [Bailey] made music together sometimes.  That fellow’s been with Willie Brown playin’ right there at Lake Carmen.  I seed him in person.  I don’t know where he lived at.   I just know they’d be over there to the juke on Saturday night.  …[Willie] where’s you been?  and he say, ‘Me and Kid been out making some records.’

Elizabeth didn’t believe him at first, until she heard the recordings.  She quickly identified “Rowdy Blues” as a song Willie Brown both played and sang.  Being that Elizabeth knew Willie Brown since he was around 16, she seems to be a reliable witness.  The fact that Bailey and Brown have near identical styles of play doesn’t help the matter.  But Willie Brown is not Kid Bailey.  They are two separate blues performers who happened to play together frequently.

There is more than one Willie Brown from the same place, doing the same thing.
This can make it quite confusing – but actually, there are three WIllie Browns playing blues throughout the delta.  However, we can discount William Brown of the Sadie Black Plantation who lived and played in the Arkansas Delta.  Even though Alan Lomax would later confuse him with one of our other Browns, he is not the WIllie we are referring to.

That leaves two Willie Browns.   Want to be confused even more?  They both were known to have played with Charlie Patton.  That’s right – two Willie Browns playing with Patton.  So who is who?  Who recorded?  What is going on?  Well, one Brown was chunky, heavyset, and described as being 6 feet tall and about 230 pounds.  He was described as having a big round face.  The other Brown was described as being “No bigger than Charlie” or “smaller than Charlie”, weighing no more than 135.  So how do we know which is which?  Easy – we go to the music.

As we all know, there are reports of Willie Brown living and playing in Drew.  But when Gayle Dean Wardlow played the Willie Brown recordings to Dick Bankston, a blues artist who knew and played with Brown in Drew, and he could not identify the recordings as being from the Brown he knew.  Though the Brown he knew did introduce him to Charlie Patton in Drew in 1912.  He also claimed that the Brown he knew didn’t make any records.  He also claimed this Brown – the heavy set larger one – moved to Memphis and died around 1940.  The other Willie Brown, the smaller one, the one that recorded, could not be the same man.  Ernest Brown, a gambler turned preacher discovered by Steve LaVere, had known Patton, Johnson, and Willie Brown.  He even stated he lived on the Peerman Plantation with a young Willie, and met him again later in Robinsonville.  Reverend Brown said Willie lived on that plantation with him from about 1909 until 1915, and left when he learned guitar.  This ties in with Willie Moore and Elizabeth Moore meeting Willie in 1916.  So wait – how could Willie have been living in Drew in 1912 and living on the Peerman Plantation?  He can’t – there must be two Browns.

More evidence there were two Browns who played with Patton:

At least nine different sources had two completely different physical descriptions of him;
Different people had different reactions to the recordings of Willie Brown;
The Death Certificate an statements from Son House about when the Willie Brown he played with died.

Willie Brown played a large role in shaping and developing delta blues.
Most people don’t realize how good Willie Brown actually was.  He preferred to play “second” when he played, but he was a very skilled, and accomplished blues musician.  He had a large knowledge of a wide variety of songs, and could play almost anything.  He had a unique style, which he developed along side some of the greatest blues musicians ever to live including Johnson, Patton, House, and others.  One would be hard pressed to find another delta artist as underestimated as Brown.  Some local legends even have hom being the composer of several of Patton’s songs including “Pony Blues.”

Look to this site for more info, specifically concerning raising a marker on the grave of Willie Brown in Prichard, MS.

34 Comments to “Willie Brown – Death Certificate and Mysteries”

  • Well done. But it means you now have to find TWO Willie Brown gravesites! Heck, Robert Johnson has three. All great fun, and most entertaining

  • Yeah, I hear ya. The other Brown, the thicker one, as they say – apparently is buried in Memphis….

  • Anyone seen the movie Crossroads, with the Willie Brown character? Sold his soul to the devil and all that.

  • Nick,

    Mot of us have seen it. If you check out The Google Maps Project (link is above on right) you can see I have marked the crossroads from the movie.

    Also, you should know, the Willie Brown in the movie is hardly a representation of the Willie Brown of real life. It is more of a combination of several blues figures.

    Thanks for posting!

  • You guys and your encyclopedic knowledge of Blues. That’s why I come to this site, cause you guys never cease to amaze me with your research.

  • How muich will a headstone cost?

  • Bruce,

    The cost can vary. Obviously. The goal is to raise as much as possible, and then spend it all on a headstone and a dedication ceremony. So the plan, right now, is to raise around $5000. This will allow us to purchase a decent headstone, and still be able to have money to pay a preacher to dedicate it, etc.

    We have gotten permission from the county to place the headstone on the property, we are in the process of raising the funds now. Things are slow, but we’ll get there.

    I am also working on having a custom headstone designed… More on that later.

    Thanks again for posting!

  • Good article, Jason!

    Willie Brown was (and still is to an extent) such a common name around there… It makes this particular mystery bluesman pretty darn convoluted.

  • Thanks Matt!

    Yeah, WIllie Brown is a common name regardless! It makes it harder to research the man… But, yeah, it is important to get the right one! Hopefully this will help and will shed a little light…


  • It’s posts like this that keep me coming back and checking this site regularly, thanks for the info!

  • Willie Brown Death Certificate and Mysteries TheDeltaBluesValuable info. Lucky me I found your site by accident, I bookmarked it. 5/25/2010

  • Willie Brown Death Certificate and Mysteries TheDeltaBluesIt posts like this that keep me coming back and checking this site regularly, thanks for the info!6/6/2010

  • Valuable info. Lucky me I found your site by accident, I bookmarked it.

  • I’m loving it

  • Great article. The Dick Bankston interview I did in Memphis in 1967 is now on line from Middle Tennessee State University to listen to as I played the records for him and asked about Drew and Brown, Bailey and Patton, etc. I tried many times to find a photo of Willie and Charley both in the 60s and 70s but no luck. They seemed to believe photos were dangerous for them if they had any trouble with the law or were just plain superstitious.They, unlike Robert Johnson who went to Memphis or stayed there with relatives–didn’t go to a large town where there were photographers. The Patton, Tommy Johnson, Blind Blake and Blind Lemon photos all came from record companies for promotion.or we would not have photos of them either. Keep up the good work. Gayle Dean Wardlow in Milton, Fl.

  • Gayle Dean!

    It is an honor to have you posting on the site! So much of my research is based off of your findings. You are the man!

    I saw that your interviews were online. Quite a few of them actually. I did an article about you – and those interviews – here: I am quite familiar with most of your work. It is certainly odd there are no photos – but at the same time, understandable. I guess without a record company taking the picture, it is likely photos don’t exist. Except: What about mug shots? Didn’t Robert Johnson get arrested in Texas – would there be a mug shot of him that has never turned up?

    Anyway, thanks for posting, and I am glad you like the site. Hope you come back again soon!

  • Jason: I wouldn’t expect any mug shot of Johnson to exist after all these years if indeed one was taken and he was actually arrested there. Everybody got BOOKED on a docket when brought to the jail but not all got photographed. It was according to the offense. Then those mug books just were kept for so many years–how many I don’t know. Buft back in the mid 90’s I worked for a researcher working on a Sonny Boy Williamson book and we went to the Helena Police Dept. and all they had was a few old arrest books from the late 50s but they were stored out in an old shack. We went through them but couldn’t find any arrest on Sonny Boy (Rice Miller) although he reportedly got busted a number of times for public drunkeness.
    If anyboy would have found a RJ mug shot—if it existed– it would have been Mack McCormack who lived in Houston but he never mentioned such a photo existing to me when I spent an afternoon with him in the 90s.. San Antonio Police would have eventually disposed of their mug shots but I can’t tell you how long or how many years they would have kept such.
    I went to Jackson Police in 1963 looking for one on Tommy Johnson but they had nothing left from years past. Also one researcher went to Parchman in the 70s looking for a mug of Son House and Bukka White but they didn’t have one of either on file. I’ll make some comments on Henry Stuckey for you in a few days on what he actually told me in 1966 about going to France.
    Keep up the good work…..

  • […] and refused to play for over 10 years.  Want to learn more about Willie Brown?  Read about his Death Certificate and mysteries, learn about his burial place, or check out his Census […]

  • Hey Jason,

    More fantastic information from you.
    I had just read your Gayle Dean Wardlow post and the link to his page.

    Thanks so much.

    Amazing stuff that I’m really looking forward to reading and hearing.

    And thanks for asking Gayle Dean Wardlow about that Robert Johnson photo, he answered my question about that.

  • Super-Duper site! I am loving it!! Will come back again – taking your RSS feeds also, Thanks.

  • Actually, there is no photo of Son House from before the 1960s–nor of most Mississippi musicians who only made a single record.

  • My neighbor and I were just debating this issue, he’s generally trying to prove me wrong. Your view on this is outstanding and exactly how I truly think. I just mailed him this blog to demonstrate him your point of view. After looking over your site I book marked and will be coming back to read your updates!

  • I do have something of interest to me at lease, I’m looking at the death certificate of willie brown and I noticed the name of the informant Anna Mae Brown which happens to be the name of my grandmother who was married to willie brown my father’s mother, my father who’s name was also willie brown….have to dig all these papers out I found of my grandfather to see if anymore connections …..besides the fact we all play guitar.

  • […] and refused to play for over 10 years.  Want to learn more about Willie Brown?  Read about his Death Certificate and mysteries, learn about his burial place, or check out his Census […]

  • […] and refused to play for over 10 years.  Want to learn more about Willie Brown?  Read about his Death Certificate and mysteries, learn about his burial place, or check out his Census Record. Willie Brown Headstone in Tunica […]

  • You got fantastic nice ideas there. I made a research on the topic and got most peoples will agree with your blog.

  • This is a very interesting article. I agree with a lot of the points contained in this article. You’ve written an excellent informative article. Thanks.

  • Okay now, I am just wondering, is annie mae brown listed as an informant on the death certificate his wife, sister, aunt, or what? in what i have read her name hasnt popped up, granted I have not read every piece of pre-war blues literature.

  • Block 22 says “Dead on Arrival at 2:30”
    Full name of institution ; Tunica; 6 miles East
    Place of burial; Tunica; 6 miles East

    Mrs Louise J Brown (Could be Josie)- Wife
    Annie Mae – (Anna May)- (Niece)

  • Died 12-30-52
    Buried 12-30-52
    Date Received by local : 01-03-53

  • Stay tuned for what I believe to be a Major Update.
    I found what I believe to be the REAL Death Certificate yesterday.
    It explains all of the above mysteries and also gives me Mother, Father, Cause of Death, , AND it explains why he disappeared…
    Once I verify facts with GDW, I will show you guys….

  • No. There are conflicts between Son House’s account and my timeline…
    Ill keep trying to work it out…

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