By MATTHEW TRESAUGUE, Houston Chronicle
RICHARDS, Texas (AP) _ The Longstreet Cemetery is a small one, tucked amid the tall pines of northwest Montgomery County. This place is devoid of sound except for that of birds, wind and the occasional pickup.
But there is music in the ground, if you know where to look.
Buried in one of the graveyard’s back rows is Alger “Texas” Alexander, whose soulful moans, shouts and hollers after years working in cotton fields and on the railroad made him a father of the Texas blues.
Few will recognize the name, for this was a man whose death 62 years ago this month went unreported by the local newspaper. He died penniless despite a rich musical legacy that influenced bluesmen like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lowell Fulson.
In an effort to make up for the neglect of the past, the Montgomery County Historical Commission plans to honor Alexander with a historical marker at the African-American cemetery. It would be only the second site with the designation in the fast-growing county. Last year the commission awarded one to a Conroe barber shop that has operated for nearly a century.
“He is a little-known but very important figure in the development of the Texas blues,” Larry Foerster, chairman of the historical commission, told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/26vLDpt). “There are many other blues artists, like Hopkins, who get all the attention. But Texas Alexander was really the one these blues artists emulated.”
Alexander was born in Leon County in 1900 and raised in Richards. He learned how to sing the blues from other blacks while working in the fields and began to perform at picnics and other events. He could not play the guitar but carried one with him to loan to others.
With the increasing popularity of the blues in the Roaring `20s, Alexander made his first recording sessions in New York for the Okeh Records label. In all, he recorded more than 60 songs from 1927 to 1934.
When Alexander sang the blues, he bellowed. He often skipped a beat, and his timing was tough for a band to follow. But it didn’t stop some of the era’s top musicians from playing with him.
“He was an amazing guy who hollered field-type blues,” said music scholar Chris Strachwitz, whose Arhoolie record label is devoted to American roots music. “He had a good, strong voice.”
Coy Prather, an Austin-based music writer, said Alexander’s career was held back by his inability to play an instrument, “but his songwriting was a step above.”
Among Alexander’s songs was “The Risin’ Sun,” which some music historians believe later evolved into the folk-rock ballad “The House of the Rising Sun,” a chart-topping hit for the British group the Animals.
Alexander also wrote “Frost Texas Tornado Blues,” which told of the tornado that tore through the town in 1930, killing 41 people. He recorded the song with the Mississippi Sheiks in 1934.
“Some lost their babies
“Was blown for two or three miles around
“When they come to their right mind
“They come on back to town
“Rooster was crowing, cows were lowing
“Never heard such a noise before
“Does seem like hell was broke out
“In this place below.
After the recording, he returned to Texas to play neighborhood dives and juke joints. And then, he disappeared.
Some say he spent five years until 1945 in prison for murdering his wife. But Prather said he couldn’t find any record of Alexander being arrested or serving jail time in the Texas counties where he lived.
Instead, Prather said he believes Alexander was arrested and sentenced to county-run work farms without any paper trail. At the time, it was illegal to perform “race music,” blues songs about bad women and sexual acts, in front of a white crowd.
But those were Alexander’s best-known songs.
“It’s so sad,” Prather said. “Here is a man who influenced Texas blues as much as anyone, and he is being forgotten because of a crime he probably didn’t commit.”
Alexander resurfaced in Houston in the late 1940s, singing with Hopkins for tips on street corners and railroad platforms.
In time, Hopkins moved on with his iconoclastic blues career, and Alexander went home to Richards, where he died of syphilis in 1954.
To find Alexander’s final resting place, take FM 149 North, the winding two-lane road that slices through the Sam Houston National Forest.
Continue past a Baptist church and cattle pastures and turn right at the green-roofed community center, known as Montgomery County Voting Box 5.
After one more right turn, onto a slender two-lane road with barely room for passing trucks, there is a U.S. flag to mark the unpaved parking lot for Longstreet Cemetery.
The graveyard is a small, sloped clearing in the pine barrens, with some 200 headstones, as well as countless other unmarked graves for the indigent dead.
Alexander’s grave was among those without a marker until Prather wrote about him in Texas Music magazine’s spring 2014 edition.
Shortly after the article appeared, so did a granite gravestone beside the burial plot of his cousin.
The flat marker reads simply: Blues legend Alger “Texas” Alexander.
Prather said no one seems to know who placed the stone. But he said one of Alexander’s relatives confirmed that the family believes the cousins were buried side by side.
Even with the simple marker, Prather said more should be done to honor the bluesman. So he has been working with the Montgomery County on the historical designation for the cemetery.
Foerster said the site is worthy of state recognition but the county can move faster than the budget-strapped Texas Historical Commission on placing a marker.
The biggest hurdle still is the price tag, which is $1,200 for the marker.
The commission is more than halfway to the amount, with the country singer Gary P. Nunn among the donors.
“We have such a great heritage of the blues in this state,” Prather said. “I wish we did a better job of honoring it.”