Image: Exposed casket
Eric Gay  /  AP
Visitors to the Hollywood Cemetery in Orange, Texas, walk Monday past a casket that was exposed by Hurricane Ike.
updated 9/15/2008 4:37:55 PM ET 2008-09-15T20:37:55

Hurricane Katrina chased bluesman Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown from his adopted home in New Orleans to his hometown here on the Texas Gulf Coast, where he died in exile. Now, another hurricane has disturbed his rest.

The 1982 Grammy Award winner's casket was one of dozens belched up by the ground when gulf and rain waters from Hurricane Ike flooded Hollywood Cemetery, an all-black burial ground on the west side of this city on the Sabine River.

"If my mother came down, we'd probably have to bury her right here," said Ronald Jenkins, who visited the place Monday to survey the graves of his grandparents and uncle. "She heard about it in Dallas and she was crying and having a fit out there."

Two days after Ike's landfall, water gurgled and bubbled ominously from submerged graves, and an invisible cloud of formaldehyde stung the eyes and throat. The only water left was filling now empty graves and vaults.

Debris from the storm littered the ground, mingled with "graveware" trinkets left behind by mourners — a toy car, a plaster angel, a black doll lying on its back, its eyes staring blankly heavenward.

The top of Brown's vault had popped off, and his bronze casket had floated away. But three jars of Bama grape jelly remained by his aluminum marker, no doubt left by a fan of his instrumental classic "Grape Jelly."

Brown, who reportedly got his nickname from a teacher who said he had "a voice like a gate," was born in Vinton, La., but grew up here. He started out as a drummer but switched to guitar, developing a freewheeling blend of blues, swing, bebop, country, jazz and Cajun music that he called "American music, Texas style."

Indefatigable, he once joked, "I started off at 300 (gigs) a year, and then I backed off to 250." He won the Grammy for "Alright Again!", which was considered a comeback album.

The 81-year-old musician was living in the New Orleans suburb of Slidell when Hurricane Katrina inundated that city. Dying of lung cancer, he evacuated to Texas and never got back.

He died on Sept. 10, 2005, not two weeks after the storm.

Brown's family lived two blocks from Sparrow Funeral Home. Wayne Sparrow, the third-generation owner, came Monday to survey the damage.

What he saw brought on a new flood from his eyes.

Originally, the burial ground was called simply Community Cemetery. When reporters asked Sparrow's father why he changed the name, he replied that "everybody out here, just like in Hollywood, is star to their respective families and to their place in this community."

Sparrow said he had talked with city officials and had been assured they were working on restoring the historic graveyard.

"These are somebody's somebodies," he said. "And it needs to be taken care of as quickly as possible."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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