Category Archive '“Up Jumped the Devil”'

26 Oct 2019

Robert Johnson’s Grave

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Mt. Zion MB could make as fair a case as any. Conveniently, the church is located just off of Highway 7, so its memorial can winkingly quote Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues,” in which he sang, “You may bury my body / Down by the highway side.”

Atlas Obscura argues that the new biographer of Robert Johnson has solved the long-argued mystery of the Blues giant’s burial place.

For blues fans around the world, the name Robert Johnson has grown synonymous with mystery, even sorcery. Throughout his short life, he moved around between Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee, and didn’t leave much of a trail. His entire body of recorded work consists of just 29 songs (plus 13 alternate takes), recorded during two sessions in Texas. Those songs, however, include some of the most canonical in all the blues—such as “Sweet Home Chicago,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and, of course, “Cross Road Blues.”

For more than half a century, fans and researchers have rhapsodized and hypothesized about Johnson’s itinerant lifestyle, untimely death, and iconic songbook. The mythology that swirls around this one man from Hazlehurst, Mississippi, has created its own “cottage industry” of publishing and tourism, says Bruce Conforth, coauthor with Gayle Dean Wardlow of the new biography Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson. As Johnson’s life story seems more elusive, his place in blues history seems more secure.

The most famous myth surrounding Johnson concerns his alleged “deal with the Devil” at a Mississippi crossroads, where it’s said he traded his soul for guitar virtuosity. The Devil legend entered popular consciousness in the 1960s (long after Johnson died, in 1938), and is in many ways the wellspring of rock ‘n’ roll’s satanic motifs—from the Rolling Stones through Iron Maiden and beyond. The story’s obviously not true, but that’s hardly the point. The point is that the Devil is in rock music’s DNA, and the stories around Johnson helped put it there.

Steven Johnson, Robert’s grandson and vice president of the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation, says he first became aware of some of his grandfather’s mythology when he was a teenager. He found the stories neither scary nor particularly alluring, but he always felt, he says, that they were concealing or misleading, “that there was truth that hadn’t been told.”

Some decades later, a new yarn was spun—not about Johnson’s life, but his afterlife. No one seemed to know exactly where his mortal remains were buried, and the idea took hold that there were at least three possible gravesites. Though the actual mystery has been cleared up over the years, the myth rolls on. The New York Times boosted it in September 2019, the National Park Service still provides an outdated account, and the rumor continues to travel easily among tourists and blues pilgrims. It just seems to fit: Robert Johnson, that perfectly unknowable spirit of the blues, can’t find eternal rest.

Whatever Robert Johnson’s life lacked in actual magic, it certainly made up for in pure human drama. According to Up Jumped the Devil, Johnson died from poisoning. He was having an affair with Beatrice Davis, a married woman whose jealous husband, Ralph, dosed Johnson’s whiskey with naphthalin—likely without the intention to kill. (The drug was commonly used to subdue rowdy patrons at bars.) What Ralph didn’t know was that Johnson had recently been diagnosed with an ulcer, and the spiked drink proved too much for him in his weakened state. As with all things Johnson, it’s not so simple, since his death certificate names syphilis as the cause of death. Conforth and Wardlow think it’s likelier that the disease was listed to obscure the foul play.

That death certificate—discovered by Wardlow in 1968—states that Johnson was buried at “Zion Church” in Leflore County, Mississippi. But it provides no more information than that, and actually just raises more questions. Was it Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Morgan City, Mississippi? Little Zion Church in Greenwood? The other Mt. Zion Church, which is also in Greenwood? Leflore County is small, but there was a world of possibilities within it—any one of those places, or somewhere else entirely. For decades, the true gravesite was an open question, with scattered anecdotes in place of answers. All that anyone knew for sure was that Johnson was buried in an unmarked grave—just like most African Americans from his region and era.

RTWT


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