? Finding Robert Johnson in 2004 ?
I was immediately greeted by Deacon Sylvester Hoover of Little Zion M.B. Church. Deacon Hoover is the sponsor of this weekend's Tribute to Robert L. Johnson, the legendary Bluesman that frequented the area during the 1930's. Mr. Johnson was buried in this church cemetery in 1938.
Several of Johnson's descendents are special guests at the 2-day event,
including Claud L. Johnson,
Also in attendance is Mrs. Rosetta C. Eskridge who attended the funeral some 66 years ago. Ms Rosie has lived nearby on the Luther Wade Plantation since 1932. Note: Mrs. Rosie died 2 years after this event and is buried in this graveyard next to her Husband Tom. The stone shows the date of death as 7-1-2006, however Mrs. Rosie died on 6-22-2006.
Tom & Rosie's Plantation House
Tom "Peter Rabbit" Eskridge, Rosie's husband, dug Robert Johnson's grave right under a pecan tree. The Johnson family, visitors, and several members of this 140+ year old church had just completed a clean-up of the cemetery and church grounds. Note: The stone shows the name Eskridge mispelled with an extra letter 'E'.
Mary Hoover, choir member and wife of Sylvester, reported that a few snakes were removed while workers cut grass, removed whiskey bottles, picked up beer cans, and assorted other trash left by blues fans visiting the gravesite.
The church property on Money Road borders the Tallahatchie River about 2 miles north of Greenwood, MS. Thousands of graves are located within this isolated, tree lined, and peacefully secluded spot. About 5 P.M., the Little Zion M.B. Church Choir finished their rehearsal and headed home while the Johnson Family headed to their hotel in Greenwood and the '72 Chevy headed north on Highway 49 to Clarksdale where I would spend the night.
I arrived back in Greenwood at 11 A.M. on Sunday March 21, 2004 to attend the special Church Services. McArthur McKinley has been Pastor since 1987 and welcomed me, the Johnson Family, and other event visitors. On this day, Pastor McKinley led 80 attendees through a joyous celebration that included a Gospel reading, prayers, local announcements, a special tribute by Reverend Steve Johnson, and song. The ten member choir was led by Mrs. Martha Johnson and was accompanied on the piano by Mrs. Eloise Gray. I must say that Mrs. Gray could really lay it down with a strong left hand.
Immediately after the church services, a special dinner of deep fried chicken, lemon baked chicken, dressing, greens, yams, buttermilk cornbread, peach cobbler, and sweet tea was served at Hoover's Country Kitchen. Hoover's Kitchen is located at 214 Young Street in the Greenwood area known as "Baptist Town". Sylvester Hoover is a gracious host, a #1 Blues Fan, and the Unofficial Mayor of Baptist Town. Robert Johnson was living in Baptist Town at the time of his death and often performed on the corner lot directly across from Hoover's Kitchen & Grocery. I suspect the area looks pretty much as it did during Johnson's time of the late 1930's.
The real treat for all was the impromptu Blues session that took place on this same empty corner lot while we were visiting. A power cord was stretched out from someone's house and the group started in. People just appeared from the alleyways, houses, and from up the street. This Blues Band included Willie Gatewood, James Givens, Roger Johnson, and P-Man. The Power of the Blues came over us all. Within minutes, Willie & Ann, Bill, Dwight, Ollie, Buckethead, Pops, and others were dancing and enjoying a sunny afternoon in Mississippi with the blues. Ollie's hat was put down and these musicians made a few bucks much the same as Robert Johnson did 70 years earlier on the same spot.
It seemed fitting that this spontaneous event took place in the presence of Robert's son Claud, and Robert's grandson Steve, along with the rest of the Johnson family. Claud L. and Steve Johnson live in Crystal Springs, MS just 12 miles from Robert's birthplace of Hazlehurst, MS.
On December 7, 2001, after a prolonged 10 year legal battle of ups and downs, Claud L. Johnson was named legal heir of his father's estate by The Supreme Court of Mississippi. Claud told me that he had always known that Robert was his father. The difficulty was proving it in the courts. Claud also told me what the middle initial "L" stood for in both his & his father's name, but I promised never to tell anyone while outside of the Little Zion Graveyard. If you ever run into me at the gravesite, I'll tell you the secret "Mississippi" truth!
Robert's life was one of mystery and legend, and the mystery continues in death. In addition to the Little Zion gravesite on Money Road in Greenwood, there are two additional gravesites! Payne Chapel MB Church at 32830 County Rd 167 three miles south of Itta Bena boasts a site, while Mount Zion MB Church on County Rd 511 outside of Morgan City boasts another site. The Morgan City site includes an impressive grave marker (cenotaph) that was provided by Sony/Columbia records and placed on April 20, 1991. In 1990, Columbia Records had released "The Complete Works" of Robert Johnson. Needless to say, the release turned into a big hit for Johnson's music. The granite obelisk has inscriptions by Peter Guralnick and Skip Henderson.
Robert L. Johnson became known as the King of the Mississippi Delta Country Blues even though he died tragically at the tender age of 27 and recorded only 29 songs in just two sessions.
St Louis Frank