Robert Johnson blazed the blues trail in the early 20th century, leaving us with some of the genre’s most important blues recordings, many of which influenced later musicians and helped develop other genres such as rock ‘n’ roll. Just ask Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, and Keith Richards — they all honor Johnson's contributions as influences on their work.
Legend has it that Johnson's ambition drove him to meet the devil near Mississippi’s Dockery Plantation, deep in the Delta, south of Memphis. The devil reportedly tuned Johnson's guitar and endowed the musician with great talent in exchange for his soul.
Today, visitors can easily find this “Crossroads” in Clarksdale, Mississippi, at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49. It's hard to miss: guitars on three sides and a massive sign marking the spot.
Whether this story is true of Johnson selling his soul, you be the judge. Robert Johnson and the “Crossroads” have spurred numerous discussions over its origins and truth. Musicians who admire and emulate Johnson's style and technique chalk his talents up to, well, talent! The devil not much needed.
The indisputable reality was that Robert Johnston died way too young, at the age of 27 in 1938 outside Greenwood, Mississippi.
Where he’s buried is quite another mystery. There are three sites within the Mississippi Delta claiming to have the final remains of the famed blues musician and songwriter.
The three gravesites of Robert Johnson in Mississippi are:
Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Morgan City, where an obelisk headstone exists with a photo, discography, biography, and the following inscription, “Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, his music struck a chord that continues to resonate. His blues addressed generations he would never know and made poetry of his visions and fears.” It’s believed Johnson was buried here in an unmarked grave and the marker was later placed by Columbia Records.
Payne Chapel Memorial Baptist Church in Quito, with a small headstone that reads, “Robert Johnson, May 8, 1911-August 16, 1938, resting in the blues.” An Atlanta rock group named the Tombstones placed this headstone here upon learning of it being Johnson’s burial site.
Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church (shown above) is the most likely place, about two miles north of Greenwood. The story of Johnson's death near Greenwood seems to hold the most credence and there’s a copy of his death certificate stating as much floating around the Internet. The little cemetery next to a quaint church on the banks of the Tallahatchie River is nestled beneath trees and offers a nice headstone to the bluesman with a stone copy of his handwriting stating, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem. I know that my Redeemer liveth and that He will call me from the Grave.” Around his grave were items placed in reverence by fans. And a few empty whiskey bottles. Want to follow in Robert Johnson’s footsteps and solve the mystery yourself? Greenwood tourism offers a self-guided legacy tour. According to their brochure, "Early on the morning of Wednesday, August 17, 1938, Tom Eskridge was summoned by plantation owner Luther Wade to prepare a grave. According to eyewitness Rose Eskridge, it was here around noon that words were said over bluesman Robert Johnson, and he was laid to rest."
Want to know more about Mississippi blues? For a tour of Mississippi blues legends, follow the Mississippi Blues Trail.