Saturday, February 22, 2014

John Whitehead: "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now"

Ok, so I just read something recently that kind of stunned me. One of the biggest hit songs of 1972 was “Backstabbers,” by the O’Jays. I remember it vividly, being played in heavy rotation with other songs at that time such as Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” and the Stones’ “Tumbling Dice.” What I just learned was that “Backstabbers” was written by the Philly songwriting team of John Whitehead and Gene McFadden - Whitehead is buried in Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery.

John Whitehead's grave marker in Philadelphia's Mount Moriah Cemetery
John Cavadus Whitehead was “one of the key members of the Philadelphia International record label, and was one-half of the successful team of McFadden & Whitehead with Gene McFadden.” (ref.)The duo had a big hit (in 1979) with the disco song "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now." "The song became an unofficial anthem for the Phillies as they charged to a World Series championship in 1980 and the Eagles as they reached the Super Bowl in 1981." (ref.) ("Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" could also be the theme song for the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc., which has been the driving force in keeping the formerly-abandoned cemetery safe and maintained since 2011.)

John Whitehead, a three-time Grammy Award nominee became affiliated around 1971 with the production team of Gamble and Huff and "The Sound of Philadelphia" (or TSOP, on the Philadelphia International record label). The team of McFadden and Whitehead wrote their first hit, "Backstabbers" for the O'Jays, which became a gold record. It would be the first of many (37) Gold and Platinum hit records for the team of McFadden and Whitehead and Philadelphia International Records. They wrote songs for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass, The Jacksons, Archie Bell and The Drells, Lou Rawls, Freddie Jackson, and Melba Moore. "We had been helping other people rocket to the moon," recalled Whitehead. "Gamble and Huff thought we were happy as writers and producers. Finally, they agreed to let us go into the studio to record one song. The first thing that came into our minds was: ain't no stopping us now!"(ref.)

Miniature golf tunnel in Philadelphia's Franklin Square Park

Whitehead began his performing career at age sixteen (in 1964) and was managed by none other than Otis Redding. His career (and his life) unfortunately ended in 2004 when he was he was shot while fixing a car outside his West Oak Lane home (in north Philadelphia). Whitehead was 55 years old. He and nephew Ohmed Johnson were shot (Johnson lived) in an apparent case of mistaken identity. The crime has never been solved. Obviously Whitehead never made a fortune in the music business, as he was killed while changing someone’s car radiator hose behind his home.

The gunmen fired more than 10 shots from handguns and then fled, and police believe the shooting was not random.(ref.) In an interview with Whitehead’s widow in September, 2004 (four months after his death), Elnor Whitehead called the notion that her husband was a target nonsense. "I keep hearing all these crazy things … they keep saying he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was not in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was home."

Whitehead, along with Gene McFadden, was instrumental in defining the sound of Philadelphia soul in the 1970s. Both were singers, songwriters, and music producers with national acclaim. Strong evidence of this can be seen in Philadelphia’s Franklin Square Park (near the Ben Franklin Bridge) on these record arches on the miniature golf course (that’s my daughter Olivia putting around them). “I Got the Love” was another hit off the same “McFadden & Whitehead” album that featured "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now."

Nearby the miniature golf green is an odd piece of granite with a Gamble and Huff inscription. It looks oddly like a grave marker. John Whitehead’s actual grave marker is prominently placed directly in front of the old brownstone gatehouse at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Southwest Philadelphia, just inside the fence off Kingsessing Avenue. (Many people strive to keep their name immortal, but end up having a headstone as the only tangible evidence of their existence. John Whitehead and Gene McFadden achieved much more, as their names live on through their music. (McFadden died in 2006 of liver and lung cancer.)

In case you're wondering about the words above John and Elnor's (not deceased) names, they are both Muslim. John converted to Islam in 1996. “Yahya” is a common Arabic male name; due to "Yahya (John the Baptist) being a prophet of Islam, it is a common name in the Muslim world." (ref.) The word "'Iman,' in Islamic theology denotes a believer's faith in the metaphysical aspects of Islam." (ref.) Mount Moriah Cemetery is one of the few cemeteries in Philadelphia that allowed (when it was active) Muslim burials.

References and Further Reading (and Listening!)
Listen to: "Ain't No Stopping Us Now"
Listen to: "I Got the Love”
Listen to: “Backstabbers,” by the O’Jays
John Whitehead biography
Spectropop Remembers John Whitehead Gene McFadden
McFadden & Whitehead on Wikipedia
Probe into musician's killing at standstill John Whitehead was killed four months ago, and no new leads have surfaced. Detectives turned over the case to a special task force.
Read more about Islamic burial rites here

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Bones Beneath Us

This being Black History Month (February), it seems appropriate to relay this story. My four-year old daughter has enjoyed playing in one of the neighborhood playgrounds for the past few years – Weccacoe, at Fourth Street and Queen Lane (near South Street in Philadelphia). This past summer it was closed for an archeological dig. Turns out the playground and adjacent tennis court were built on an old cemetery – an African-American cemetery.

Calling my blog “The Cemetery Traveler” implies that I travel to cemeteries all over the place (which I do, but that’s beside the point). As you’ll see as you read on, you could be standing on an old cemetery just about anywhere you happen to be in any major American city, and not realize it. Why is this? Well, it’s a familiar story – cemetery gets plowed over and a playground or ballpark is built over it. Happened in most major cities in the U.S. as urban property values skyrocketed and graveyards were moved, or sometimes even forced further underground. Rarely is anything requiring a substantial foundation built on such a site - you know, something that requires deep digging. You don’t have to wonder too long why that is.

Where I live in Philadelphia, there seems to be some accidental unearthing of bodies every few years. Some of these instances are covered in the book, Digging in the City of Brotherly Love: Stories from Philadelphia Archaeology (by Rebecca Yamin). This past summer, such an occurrence struck a bit too close to home. 

Weccacoe Playground is a few blocks from where I live in the Queen Village neighborhood of Philadelphia. My daughter likes playing there on the swings, slides, etc. During one attempted Saturday afternoon visit there this past summer I was surprised to find it closed, for “archeology work.” A quick check with the all-knowing Internet and I come to find out that someone found a burial ground beneath it. During some test digging prior to a playground renovation project, it was discovered that reportedly, more than five THOUSAND 18th and 19th century African Americans lie buried just below the surface of the playground and tennis court – a mere quarter-acre of land.

Doug Mooney, senior archaeologist from URS (right), explaining the dig at Queen Village's Weccacoe Playground to visitors in July. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer,
You can read the news reports and watch the video links at the end of this blog about the “discovery” of this burial ground, so I won’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say that it is appalling to me that we used to treat our ancestors with such disrespect. Two-and-a-half feet below the asphalt of the playground lies the surface of the cemetery, which was active from about 1803 until 1864. According to an August 2013 article in the South Philly review (ref), “In the 19th century, African Americans had to be buried outside the city limits unless the cemetery was attached to a church” (prior to 1854, Queen Village was considered a suburb of Philadelphia).

The same article goes on to say that “in 1810, Rev. Richard Allen and the trustees of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church [which still exists a few block from Weccacoe, at Sixth and Lombard Streets] bought a plot of land outside Philadelphia, south of what is now known as South Street. This cemetery was created for church members and the poor that could not afford a proper burial. Allen’s mission was to provide “burial aid” by giving an appropriate space and loans that were not always paid back. The last burial was in 1864. The church abandoned the cemetery because they had no money. It turned into a community lot in 1889” (ref.).

Apparently, the church sold the land to the city of Philadelphia around 1889. Like so many other area cemeteries, the city built a playground on it. (You know the huge city block park, “Capitolo Playground,” opposite Pat’s Steaks and Geno’s at Ninth and Passyunk? That was Lafayette Cemetery until it was “re-purposed” in 1946. Read more about that here.) During the archeological dig at Weccacoe (which was performed to identify the boundaries of the cemetery prior to renovations), headstones and graves were found.The photo you see here is my daughter playing near an excavated section of the playground a few weeks after the dig had been filled in and sealed up (the same hole you'll see in the video link at the end of this blog). The cemetery's actual boundary was located closer to the tennis courts than the playground (see below).

Grave excavation near tennis court

Historic African American cemetery in Queen Village larger than thought (

“The remains of at least 5,000 18th- and 19th-century African Americans lie less than two feet beneath the asphalt and tennis court at Weccacoe Playground in Queen Village, a far greater number than previously believed. 

And there could be more, stacked in layers in the old Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church burial ground, according to an extensive archaeological study conducted at the city's behest and just released. 
The magnitude of the estimated number of burials - a village of the dead with a population comparable to all of Queen Village - has stunned virtually all observers.

The Mother Bethel ground occupies about a quarter-acre at the southwest corner of the three-quarter-acre playground at Queen and Lawrence Streets.”

While there is some disagreement between the church and historian Terry Buckalew about how he went about the initial research into the Mother Bethel cemetery, all parties agree that the graves will be untouched unless absolutely necessary. "The earlier burials [at Bethel] were the first generation of free blacks, and most or many were not slaves," said Buckalew. "Individuals who were the leaders [of the nascent African American community] were buried there" (ref.). The cemetery was put on the city register of historic places in June, 2013, and there is talk of installing a memorial plaque.

So will I continue taking my daughter to play on the swings at Weccacoe Playground? Yes, but with a profound new appreciation and respect for those below ground. Am I wrong? Should more be done? Should the perimeter of the burial ground be delineated in some way? Not sure, but at least people – both black and white – are talking. This is a good sign that our priorities are being called into question. We the people made decisions in the past to plow over old cemeteries. Frankly, I don’t believe that we, for the most part, cared that Lafayette Cemetery, for instance, was condemned and turned into a ballpark. Those days are over, hopefully. I hope that we, the people, have a newly dawning respect for our ancestry, our history, ourselves. It’s not fair to criticize the sins of the past, because the sinners were us.

I am encouraged by such events as the Weccacoe dig and this recent situation in New York: “Changing of the Guard? City Island Residents Consider a Park in Nearby Potter’s Field.” Our sensibilities are changing to the degree that it is no longer a fait accompli that our memories be covered with asphalt. The debate is over whether New York’s Hart Island’s use as a cemetery should be preserved or if it should be turned into a park. The more media attention such a situation receives, the more likely we'll look ourselves in the mirror and make the right decision.

References and Further Reading:
Watch the video: “Weccacoe Playground Burial Ground Site Visit”
Historic African American cemetery in Queen Village larger than thought
Future Of Queen Village Playground Includes Look At Buried Black History
Friends of Bethel Burying Ground
Weccacoe Playground preserves history 
Thousands Buried Beneath Philly Playground
Queen Village Neighbors Association 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Have You Fallen in the Last Week?

I was making an appointment to get a routine physical a couple days ago and as part of the formal questioning ("What insurance do you have?" etc.) I was asked, “Have you fallen in the last week?” Well, as it happens, yes, but why would they ask that? The woman said, “We always ask.” Not that I can recall, not in my lifetime, anyway. So the question hit me like a wet fish, as I was still achy from a bad fall. I responded in the affirmative, but was mercifully not asked to go into detail. I might have blurted out something really stupid, resulting in them not wanting to make my appointment. Here, for your eyes only, dear reader, is the detail.

I fell off a cemetery monument a few days ago. I’m not proud of this. But sometimes, artists get carried away. Luckily, I didn’t need to be literally carried away from the little mishap. Now it wasn’t a big ornate monument, so I didn’t damage anything; however, it damaged me.

Good reasons to not climb on the ornamental stones in a cemetery:
1.    You might get hurt; and
2.    You might damage the monument/stone.

So, while everyone was out preparing for the oncoming snowstorm, buying up all the shovels and rock salt, I was falling off tombstones. I took a couple hours off work on this cold February afternoon, as I had a dentist appointment. I figured since I had to drive to Delaware County, I might as well make some photographs in nearby Chester Rural Cemetery (in Chester, PA.). 

Near the Alfred O. Deshong grave (1837 - 1913, a wealthy Chester philanthropist and art collector who was a Civil War veteran, and later a successful industrialist who operated stone quarries), there is a wonderful granite angel with wings spread wide, and a marvelous bronze of a woman in mourning. After photographing the angel, I made a few photographs of the bronze, and wished to look her right in the eye. The obvious way to do this was to step up onto the Deshong Family crypt cover. The cover appeared to have about six inches of snow on it, as did everything else in the cemetery. So I stepped up onto it, thinking it was flat. Unfortunately, its top was a gentle arch of polished granite. The dense packed snow allowed me to secure my right foot up so I could lift my entire weight up onto the stone. Then the world slid out from under me! I went down like a prizefighter, my three cameras flying everywhere!

Skiers call this a “yard sale,” when you fall and your belongings are littered about the snow around you. Cameras, hat, gloves scattered all over the accident scene. My right elbow hit the granite, along with my right hip. “FUCK!” was my clever rejoinder. If I’d been watching a movie of this bumblehead falling off a tombstone, I’m sure I would crack wiser, but in the heat of the moment, that one word seemed more than appropriate. Samuel Murray’s 1910 bronze sculpture of the mourning woman (appropriately named “Sorrow") stood above me with a look and posture that said, "Omigod, what an idiot!"

Here’s a photo of the accident scene. Doesn’t look like much, I know. But there was adequate carnage, let me assure you. Syzgial alignment of me, snow, and crypt cover was such that the frictionless interfaces between the three resulted in an element of great pain to yours truly. I actually drew blood where my el-bone hit granite and cut through the skin. I usually say that great art comes from great pain, but this particular experience was simply a result of stupidity. I did, however, produce some decent images that day.

Luckily, this particular snowfall was the only one we’ve had all winter that came down wet and then crusted over, so the cameras just either bounced around or dug in. The more typical powdery snow would have been much worse for them. I scraped the snow off the expensive micro four-thirds and the even more expensive DSLR and pulled as much snow out of the back of my pants as I could (the crypt cover had pulled my coat back as I slid off it). I limped off toward my car to clean off the cameras and test them. One camera (the cheapest, of course) was in its padded case. The other two hit the stone AND the snow. A few scratches and dents here and there, but everything seemed to be functional. My lower back, however, was another story. People heal when they are injured, cameras don’t. Still, gear is gear, you know? When I first started making photographs in the 1970s, I bought a Pentax K1000 35mm SLR. I treated that like gold. And it lasted about 25 years! These days, cameras are almost disposable. If you’re serious about your art, you realize these things are just tools to help shape your vision. You can’t get emotionally attached to them.

I drove over to the cemetery next to Chester Rural, St. Michaels, and began walking around. Whoa. Back aching, neck cracked when I turned. Oh good, whiplash. If I have to lie in a dentist’s chair for an hour I may never get back up! My body felt as twisted as this tree in the photo above! I’ll just tell him I slipped on some ice, that’s all he has to know. Luckily I always carry some drugs, so I threw back a handful of ibuprofen and hoped for the best (if I’d have been at home, I might have whipped up a nice Motrin smoothie chased by some honey-flavored bourbon). It was forecast that we would get more snow that night along with freezing rain. I thought I might just have to settle for paying someone to shovel my sidewalks the next day. Maybe the guy who stole my shovel last year, then came around to ask if he could shovel my walks (with MY shovel!) for twenty bucks, will come back. This time, I might not send him away.

Read more about industrialist Alfred O. Deshong

Read more about the sculptor Samuel Murray

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Winter Death

As I look out the window on this predawn morning in January, I see a lone bicyclist riding up the street. With all the snow and deep freeze of the past few days, I haven't seen many bikes (and it's wonderful that the motorcycles are all in hibernation!). It’s been difficult for everyone to get around. Difficult to walk, difficult to drive. Everything is happening so slowly. I heard on the radio that drivers need to control their “snow rage.’  

A big snowstorm hit Tuesday (Jan. 14, 2013) around 1 pm and the city shut down at two. Then everyone tried to get home. I wonder if this is what death is like, you’re slowly trying to get home. Hung up in certain areas, losing traction. Like the poor guy trying to cross an intersection, as his wheels were spinning, he frantically maneuvered his wheelchair up out of harm’s way. Seeing this, I didn’t feel so bad about the bald front tires on my Saab convertible.
It’s Saturday now and everything is still frozen, with more snow predicted for today. In a geographic area that does not see much of the white stuff, such weather just stops everything. Kind of like how death sometimes happens when you’re busy doing other things. 
“And it's sure been a cold, cold winter
And the wind ain't been blowin' from the south
It's sure been a cold, cold winter
And the light of love is all burned out”

- from the song “Winter” by the Rolling Stones
So maybe I’ll get out and do stuff before death happens. This is where the real permanence lies, the immortality – spend time with your kids or others, live life as best you can. You can try all you want to create something by which you'll be remembered, but in the end, its up to others to decide whether they'll remember you or not. You can commission a magnificent cemetery monument and have it installed on your grave, which people may admire, but the same people can easily forget who you were. Might just do more for your legacy to spend an hour with your child, playing in the snow in a  cemetery. The writer Garrison Keillor says, ...."Nothing you do for a child is ever wasted."

Anne W. Tucker, in the book, George Krause A Retrospective, says of Krause's photography: “Photographing tombstones, Krause particularly notices how attempts to preserve memory are undermined. Time, weather, and vandals have eroded efforts at immortality, and the monuments’ deterioration affirms, rather than denies, corruption below.”

"It sure been a cold, cold winter
My feet been draggin' 'cross the ground
And the fields has all been brown and fallow
And the springtime take a long way around"
- from the song “Winter” by the Rolling Stones

Many of us have been taught that when we die, there is something else, something hopefully better (and warmer - but not too warm!) waiting for us -  a springtime, a rebirth. But if there really isn’t anything else, why not make the most of this life? Go take you child sledding in the snowstorm! Take pictures in the cemetery during that snowstorm! Push yourself to create an experience that others can share, either directly or indirectly. This is how immortality happens.