? Finding Robert Johnson in 2004 ?

GreenWsign.jpg (50837 bytes)Early in the morning of March 20, 2004, I headed south out of St. Louis on highway 55.  Some 430 miles & 7 hours later, my '72 Chevy pulled into an old graveyard in Greenwood, MS.

 

 

SylHoover4.jpg (23857 bytes)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,
son of Robert along with Steve  Johnson, Grandson of Robert.

JohnsonG3.jpg (59076 bytes)              ClaudSteve1.jpg (38192 bytes)

 

MsRosieSylMeeks.jpg (47151 bytes)Also in attendance is Mrs. Rosetta C. Eskridge who attended the funeral some 66 years ago.  Ms Rosie has lived nearby on the LMSrosieGravestone.jpg (71445 bytes)uther 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

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TomEskridge2.jpg (14980 bytes)Tom "Peter Rabbit" Eskridge, Rosie's husband, dug Robert TomEskridgeStone.jpg (92316 bytes) 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'.

 

  

MaryHoover1.jpg (21193 bytes)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.

 

 

LittleZion1.jpg (26906 bytes)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.

ZionSign.jpg (50753 bytes)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 SteveJohnson1.jpg (25825 bytes) 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 SylKitchen.jpg (20880 bytes) 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 "BaptistHovSign1.jpg (32337 bytes) 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.

 

Pman3.jpg (28871 bytes)     BandCrowd.jpg (87045 bytes)     Gatewood.jpg (33297 bytes)

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 justRogerJ.jpg (28368 bytes) appeared from the JamesGivens.jpg (32492 bytes) 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.

 

JohnsonStepNME.jpg (75550 bytes)     BillAnn.jpg (47128 bytes)     Willie1.jpg (27172 bytes)     Dancers4.jpg (51224 bytes)     BucPopsWillie.jpg (31527 bytes)

DwightH.jpg (38019 bytes)     AnnMagic1.jpg (30295 bytes)     Dancers3.jpg (35199 bytes)     Dancers1.jpg (72355 bytes)

ClaudNME2.jpg (23384 bytes)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.

SearchRobertJ.jpg (19524 bytes)Good Times, Good Food, Good Friends, Good Music
All in the area that gave birth to the Blues.

St Louis Frank
March 21, 2004                  

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