? Finding Robert Johnson in 2004 ?

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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.

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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.

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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

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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'.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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 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!
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Payne Chapel MB Church at 32830 County Rd 167 in Quito, MS 32830 is three miles
South of Itta Bena and boasts a site. Take Hwy 82 to Hwy 7 to County Road 167.
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Mount Zion MB Church on County Rd 511 outside of Morgan City, MS 38946 is
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.
Take Hwy 82 to Hwy 7 & turn South thru Quito, MS.

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.

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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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