The many grave markers of Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson (1911-1938)

The famed Mississippi Delta bluesman from Hazelhurst who supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for talent to sing the blues. This exchanged occurred at the “Crossroads” near Clarksdale.

His landmark recordings from 1936 to 1937 display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that has influenced later generations of musicians. Johnson’s shadowy, poorly documented life and death at age 27 have given rise to much legend, including the Faustian myth that he sold his soul at a crossroads to achieve success. As an itinerant performer who played mostly on street corners, in juke joints, and at Saturday night dances, Johnson had little commercial success or public recognition in his lifetime. (wikipedia)

Johnson synthesized the music of Delta blues pioneers such as Son House with outside traditions. He in turn influenced artists such as Muddy Waters and Elmore James. Johnson’s compositions, notable for their poetic qualities, include the standards “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Dust My Broom.” Johnson’s mysterious life and early death continue to fascinate modern fans. (© Mississippi Blues Commission 2009)

He died at age 27 in Greenwood after being poisoned at the Three Forks Store, by a woman’s husband after his wife’s alleged affair with Johnson. He died in Leflore County, Mississippi. All three grave sites are also in Leflore County.

There were three rumored cemeteries and no one was completely sure which one was the right one and the only clue offered by his death certificate was that he was buried at Zion Baptist Church.

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Grave marker #1 of Robert Johnson

Payne Chapel Memorial Baptist Chapel
32830 County Road 167
Itta Bena, MS
662 254-9650

Stories abound regarding whether or not that this is the cemetery Johnson is buried in. One story has famous bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who was with Johnson when he died, claiming that Johnson’s sister moved his remains to Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in nearby Quito.

In 1990, a small marker with the epitaph “Resting in the Blues” was placed in the cemetery by an Atlanta rock group named the Tombstones, after they saw a photograph in Living Blues magazine of an unmarked spot alleged by one of Johnson’s ex-girlfriends to be Johnson’s burial site.

The name of the place is Quito, though there’s no sign to say so. It’s about 5 miles south of Itta Bena, which is easier to find, on Highway 7.  Eventually you get out into the middle of the boondocks, and then you have to notice a dirt track heading off to the west, just south of a bridge over a little slough, which broadens out into a body of water known as Mosquito Lake. 

The church itself had no sign on the highway, so look for a small dirt road leading to a small white church just past the bridge on Hwy 7. The trick is to watch for the bridge over the slough, right before you hit a string of buildings–a couple of larger ones, with some houses and shacks scattered along on either side of the road. Right after the bridge, you want to make a right turn (headed west) on the dirt road.

Head up the road a tiny bit, and you find the Payne Baptist Church off on your right, up a dirt driveway.

The cemetery is rather large, but flat and reasonably well kept. It might take a little looking to find the headstone. The grave is on the north side of the graveyard, near the slough, about midway back to the far end.

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Grave marker #2 of Robert Johnson

Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church
Phillipston Rd (County Road 511)
Morgan City, MS

Based on his death certificate and research during the 80s and 90s, Sony/Columbia Records (after their release of Johnson’s collection) and the Mt. Zion Fund pitched in and purchased a one-ton cenotaph in the shape of an obelisk and placed it on the grounds in 1991. It lists all of Johnson’s song titles, with a central inscription by Peter Guralnick.

 

Grave marker #3 of Robert Johnson

Gravemarker #3 of Robert Johnson

Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church
Money Road
Greenwood, MS

Another Mt. Zion … another marker. Johnson’s grave is under a tree towards the rear of the cemetery.

Noted historian and record producer Stephen C. LaVere, who has spent over 30 years researching Johnson’s life, believes that Johnson’s actual burial site is at the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church two miles north of Greenwood, so this is probably the true “final” resting place.

Tom “Peter Rabbit” Eskridge dug Robert Johnson’s grave on a hot August day in 1938 according to Mrs. Rosie Eskridge. Tom’s wife Rosie remembers walking from the Luther Wade Plantation bringing water out for her husband to the Little Zion M.B. Church gravesite on this extremely hot day. She recalled her husband Tom digging Johnson’s grave next to a pecan tree at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

At the time, the grave was unmarked but a headstone has since been erected on the very spot that Mrs. Eskridge placed the grave. Since then, this cemetery is now recognized as the most probable final resting spot of the blues legend, based on her testimony and the relative vicinity to the residence at the Star of the West Plantation where Johnson died. The Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church is located about two miles from Greenwood on Money Road (on the left coming from Greenwood).