"I told him, 'You can fix up your home, fine, but you have to fix your eternal home, too,'" says Antoinette K-Doe, proprietor of the North Claiborne Avenue lounge.
K-Doe ushered Johnson into a back room, where he joined Paul Barbarin, Marie Louise Barbarin Baptiste, attorney Miles Trapolin and Friends of New Orleans Cemeteries (FNOC) stalwarts Robert Florence and Anna Ross Twichell. Beneath a crowded display of portraits and photographs of K-Doe's late husband, Ernie K-Doe, the group executed and signed documents establishing the New Orleans Musicians Tomb in a society tomb controlled by the Barbarins.
Through the archway, one could glimpse -- by leaning a bit -- a wooden jewelry box lying under the gaze of a lifelike mannequin of Ernie K-Doe. Inside the box lay the ashes of Lloyd Washington, last of the Ink Spots, who passed away in June at the age of 83. This fall, Washington is due to be the first musician buried in the tomb after it is completely restored by FNOC.
The 18-vault tomb, located along the St. Louis Street side of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, will bear a plaque designating it as the Société "L'Union Sacrée" / Barbarin Family / Musicians' Tomb. A larger plaque will list New Orleans musicians as they are entombed at the site. Eventually, says Florence, hundreds of musicians' names could be added to the plaque.
Inclusion in the tomb will not be limited to those who can't afford another place for burial, Florence says. FNOC will use the same criteria as the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic to determine who is a professional musician and can therefore go in the tomb.
"I feel good about being part of this," says Johnson, who signed the papers as an official witness. Twichell beamed to see an idea she proposed five years ago become a reality. "You can imagine how I feel," Twichell says. "I feel blessed."
Johnson's life illustrates just the sort of situation that Musicians' Tomb backers seek to remedy. His fame as author and performer of the Mardi Gras anthem "Carnival Time" all but eclipses his given name, but most people outside the city's musical community wouldn't recognize him. Like most New Orleans musicians, he is neither wealthy nor an international celebrity.
That was the case with Lee Dorsey, whose rendition of Allen Toussaint's "Working in the Coal Mine" is familiar worldwide, and Jessie Hill, known for "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," which he composed and sang. But neither Dorsey nor Hill are buried in the heart of the city where they made music. In fact, there's no easy way, short of calling relatives, for a visitor to find out where these or other musicians are buried. A list of burial sites for eight famed New Orleans musicians is available online at http://nutrias.org/~nopl/facts/burials.htm, but neither Dorsey nor Hill is on it.
"These legends need a place in the city," says K-Doe, who with her late husband served as grand marshall of FNOC. "Think about it. If you're a tourist, you're running all over the place trying to find out where the legends are."
FOR MANY, THE DEATH OF ERNIE K-DOE in 2001 first brought into focus the issue of musicians' final resting places. K-Doe, the self-proclaimed Emperor of the Universe whose name will be forever tied to his hit "Mother-In-Law," told friends before his death that he wanted to be buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2. The K-Does did not have rights to any of the tombs in the historic cemetery, however. Twichell's daughter, Heather Twichell, solved the problem by inviting Antoinette K-Doe to bury her husband in her father's family tomb, to which she holds the title. When Ernie K-Doe's actual mother-in-law -- Antoinette's mother, of whom Ernie K-Doe was actually fond -- died six months later, Heather repeated the gesture.
The media wrongly reported that Ernie K-Doe was buried in Twichell's tomb because he was too poor to be buried elsewhere, says Antoinette K-Doe impatiently. A delay in funeral arrangements caused by then-mayor Marc Morial's attendance at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention spurred the rumors, she says. "All of that at Gallier Hall, the funeral arrangements, who do you think covered that?" K-Doe asks. "I did."
Still, New Orleans has become infamous for the sad fate of many of its musicians. In 2001, the Los Angeles Times highlighted the sorry state of musicians' burials in a major news feature. Wrote staff writer Megan K. Stack: "The equation of music and death goes something like this: Funerals have their own kind of jazz -- dirges -- and musicians have their own sort of burials: the makeshift kind, scraped together from charity when a neglected body finally gives out." Rick Bragg drove the point home months later with an article for The New York Times about musicians buried in paupers' graves here.
Anna Ross Twichell says the idea of a musicians' tomb initially seemed simple enough. Five years ago, she was standing in front of the Homer Plessy tomb in St. Louis No. 2 and caught sight of a pair of abandoned society tombs. "I thought, we could bury everybody in the city in a tomb like that if we cremated them," she says. Various possibilities came to mind, including an artists' tomb and a tomb for AIDS victims. But a tomb for musicians was always at the top of the list. "I thought, we need to give the musicians a tomb. Some of them don't have money set aside for burial," Twichell says.
Assuming responsibility for abandoned tombs, however, is a dauntingly complex procedure. When all the survivors of a benevolent society have died without legally disposing of their property, no procedure exists for bringing that property back into use. It took years for FNOC, the nonprofit preservation group that Florence helped found in 1998, to locate a tomb that had living heirs attached to it. Before the Barbarins came forward, the group negotiated unsuccessfully with two other parties for rights to bury musicians in apparently unused society tombs.
"It's a great big problem," says Jody Rome, assistant director for cemeteries at the Archdiocese of Greater New Orleans. Rome estimates that there are at least 95 society tombs that are considered to be abandoned in the city's diocesan cemeteries. The archdiocese makes that call when there have been no title transfers or burials in 50 years and when the tomb is no longer being cared for, Rome says.
But abandonment doesn't mean it's legal to give someone else rights to a space. And because human remains are involved, relatives can be very touchy about tampering, even when it's done in the name of restoration. "We've been involved in situations where a tomb has fallen to the ground and we've removed bricks -- and we've had to go to court to defend ourselves because we cleaned up the rubble," Rome says.
The informal nature of some of the societies makes the problem even more tangled. "It could've been a handshake between a couple of guys in back of a barroom," says Rome.
Greg Osborn, a research librarian with the Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Public Library and an avowed cemetery-lover, agrees. Osborn, who co-founded FNOC with Florence, has studied the 19th century groups that came together to sponsor burial structures. As far as he can tell, the earliest of those groups were tradesmen who combined their skills to jointly build tombs -- just as they came together to help build one another's houses. They were closely followed by lay Catholic societies such as the Society of St. Anne.
Immigrant groups would also band together for burials, creating large, sometimes spectacular tombs such as the Italian Mutual Benevolent Association Tomb in St. Louis No. 1. Finally, Masonic groups -- noted for emblems such as the all-seeing eye -- would join together to sponsor burial vaults for their members.
The tomb that the Barbarins offered for use was probably of the second type, says Osborn. Title to the tomb was issued in the name of Société "L'Union Sacrée" on Feb. 6, 1922, though researchers from the University of Pennsylvania date the first use of the structure to 1871. That earlier date puts the society in line with the numerous lay Catholic groups started by free people of color in the decades after the Civil War, says Osborn.
"A lot of titles were first issued in the 19-teens, when the archdiocese started demanding that you had a title to bury you," Osborn says. Before that, he figures, the Church knew which families were genuinely associated with the cemetery, in part because the living still tended regularly to the tombs of the dead.
In some ways, making "L'Union Sacrée" structure into a musicians' tomb is redundant. The majority of the burials recorded in the tomb are of Barbarin family members or their spouses, and the Barbarins are indisputably one of the city's most musical families. Already interred in the tomb, known in the archdiocesan inventory as SLS 21, are Onward Brass Band leader Isidore Barbarin; his son Lucien, a drummer; and his daughter Rose Barbarin Barker Colombel, mother of beloved musician and teacher Danny Barker. Lucien's son Charles, a trumpeter, is also there.
"All they do in the Barbarin family is talk about music, all the time music," said Danny Barker of his mother's family in a 1981 interview with Jason Berry.
Paul Barbarin, Isidore's grandson, smiles on the fact that the tomb will now be available to musicians who are not Barbarin family members. But it was the practical need to get help in restoring the tomb that drove him and his sister to decide to cut a deal with FNOC. In 1987, the archdiocese banned future burials in the structure until it could be restored. But restoring the tomb to make it sound for both caskets and urns will cost a minimum of $10,000, an amount that neither of the Barbarin siblings were prepared to pay. When their cousin Sylvia Barker, Danny Barker's daughter, approached them about swapping some space for a full restoration, they agreed.
Under the agreement, only six of the tomb's 18 vaults will be made available to FNOC. Even the use of those is non-exclusive, leaving the Barbarins and their relatives plenty of room for family. The restoration, plaque and enrollment in the Archdiocese of New Orleans' perpetual care program are estimated to cost FNOC about $20,000. The group already has raised half of that amount through fundraisers in which many local musicians played for free, Florence says.
Trapolin, who donated his legal services to FNOC, dodged the stickiest parts of the transaction by framing it as an exchange granting a "right of use" rather than as a transfer of real estate. Still, he opened the signing on July 16 with a litany of caveats, warning that the Barbarins might be open to a challenge from anyone who could prove a relationship with société "L'Union Sacrée."
Despite popular belief, case law does not hold up the idea that heirs of the last surviving member of a benevolent association inherit the association's property, Trapolin says. That called the Barbarins' claim to own the tomb into question, even though Marie Barbarin Baptiste has the yellowed 1922 certificate of title in her possession. "The only way to get it clear is to go through the courts," Trapolin says. In the end, the group opted for the definition of the society as a "partnership," a tactic that opened the door for Paul and Marie to inherit some of their grandfather's rights to the tomb.
FNOC members say they aren't too concerned that, after all these years, someone might surface to challenge the musicians' new rights to the tomb. "If somebody wants to be that much of a jerk, we'll just take our bones and leave," Twichell says.
UNDERLYING THE CONVERSATION in the dark room behind the Mother-In-Law was the strange sense that the players were already deeply connected. In fact, Twichell's daughter's tomb lies around the corner from the last resting place of Paul Barbarin and Danny Barker in St. Louis No. 2. L'Union Sacrée tomb, meanwhile, received a plaque from FNOC marking its place in jazz history in 2002 -- long before the group knew that using the tomb for other musicians might be an option, Florence says.
Washington's interment, scheduled for Sept. 24, will double as a dedication celebration for the Musicians' Tomb. The fete will include a second line and a gathering at the grave. Florence hopes it will set a precedent for funeral processions that will now be able to take musicians on their last parade all the way to the cemetery.
Heather Twichell's tomb became a de facto musician's tomb last year when it received the remains of rock 'n' roll pioneer Earl King in addition to those of K-Doe and his mother-in-law. But she's glad to see a more stable situation for musician burial emerge in the city's oldest cemetery, she says.
So is Antoinette K-Doe, who asked at the end of the signing if everything's all set. "So that means Lloyd can go in the tomb?" she asked Trapolin, nodding at Washington's ashes. "Good. 'Cause I'm tired of him sleeping in here."
Musicians interested in registering for the Musicians' Tomb should contact Florence at firstname.lastname@example.org.