CLASSIC SOUL: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ROBERT JOHNSON
If there are any Soul Patrollers who are big Robert Johnson fans (like myself), I happen to know some things about his life, and death, that are not widely known … such as;
What is the exact location of his home in Robinsonville.
What is the exact location of his death in Greenwood.
How did he really die … it wasn’t from the poison in his drink (although it didn’t help)
What is the exact locations of ”The Crossroads” … it’s not US 61& US 49
The Life and Death of Robert Johnson – Pt.1
Back in the early ’90’s, I decided to visit the land of the blues, and ended up spending a couple of weeks in Memphis and northern Mississippi. I did this for several years in a row.
As I headed south, on a narrow Highway 61 leaving Memphis, I noticed a huge wooden sign between the trees ”WELCOME TO MISSISSIPPI”. I went down a small hill and… Wow! Nothing but flat cotton fields for miles and miles. It could have been 1965 or 1935, it was timeless.
I was going to Robinsonville to find the location of Robert Johnson’s boyhood home. As I drove west on Commerce Road (Route 304), I noticed the homes going from huge to shacks. I stepped into the post office (the size of a candy store) and met the town’s only postal employee – Melvin.
I explained about my search for Robert Johnson’s home site, but all he could tell me was that it was on the Leatherman Plantation – which I already knew. He mentioned, a few months prior, someone else asked the same question… it was Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin.
So, as we were chatting, in walked a man to which Melvin said to me ” Here’s the man you’re looking for … meet Robert Leatherman”. It was the grandson of the man Robert Johnson’s mother and stepfather had ”worked” for. It was somewhat strange. However Bob Leatherman was very nice and told me the exact location.
Basically, as you head west towards Commerce on 304, just before the levee, it’s down the hill on your left about 100 yards. When I got there I recognized it from a quick shot in a documentary I had seen. I imagined little Robert playing jacks in front of that levee …. timeless again.
I then noticed something out of place, diagonally across the levee — something ”growing in the cotton field”. It was the construction of Sam’s Town Casino. You see, gambling had been recently legalized in Mississippi. Sam’s Town was about the third casino to go up in the delta. There was about to be a BIG change in Tunica County.
Part 2: What Probably Killed Robert Johnson
In the mid ’70’s a man named Steve LaVere had discovered, that Robert Johnson’s songs were NOT public domain, and any surviving family members were entitled to royalties. At the time, he could only find Robert’s half sister, Carrie Spencer, who was living in Washington, DC. She agreed to hire LaVere as the agent for the Robert Johnson Estate. He proceeded to have artists charged, that had recorded and profited from Johnson’s songs. One of the artists charged, was Eric Clapton — who was more than happy to pay up, as soon as he was informed.
Apparently, during research for a 1998 trial involving a possible heir to the Johnson Estate, LaVere came across a document with something on it, that would shed new light about the cause of death.
Prior to this, it was known that in 1938 Robert Johnson was having intimate relations with a woman in Greenwood, MS. It appeared that someone had put some poison (possibly strychnine) into a bottle of whiskey, Johnson was about to drink — for revenge. Later, he complained of feeling ill, and was taken to the home of an acquaintance, by his buddy & fellow musician Honeyboy Edwards, in the section known as ”Baptist Town”. Three days later, he died.
On the official Mississippi coroner’s report, it stated: Cause Of Death ”No doctor”.
Poisoning, was the generally accepted reason, until LaVere came across a document which had a statement from the landowner on which Johnson died. He stated that Robert Johnson had died from complications of syphilis. LaVere interviewed several people about this, including Robert’s friend Willie Coffee, and no one strongly denied it. Most people probably felt the poison story – better suited the legends surrounding Robert Johnson.
Even though he may have been a loner, a philanderer, and a real charmer, let’s not forget that Robert Johnson wrote a lot from his experiences.
Combine that with original music writing talents, so amazing and unique – he was, and is, in a class by himself.
”His voice is so eerie, so compelling… and the guitar playing — it’s like Bach.” Keith Richards
”I think he’s the greatest folk blues guitar player, writer, and singer that ever lived.” Eric Clapton
”He is a perfect example of what anybody should listen to if they want to get an understanding of the blues… and American history.” Robert Cray
Part 3 : Where Are ”The Crossroads”
Much has been associated with Robert Johnson and The Crossroads.
To those familiar with his music, one of the first songs that comes to mind is Cross Road Blues. It became a very popular song when it was covered by Eric Clapton & Cream in 1966. Crossroads almost became a household word, after the film release of the same name.
Since the 1930s, rumors and legends grew, surrounding Robert Johnson and how he’d sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, at midnight, in exchange for superior musical abilities. Johnson never actually said that. So how did this association begin?
When Robert left Robinsonville in 1931, to look for his real father, he met Ike Zinnerman. Ike was an amazing guitar player in southern Mississippi and befriended Robert during his stay there. He picked up some amazing techniques from Ike at that time — and played obsessively. When Robert returned to Robinsonville, he was a master at his craft, and everyone was amazed. Son House, who was another outstanding blues musician in the delta area, said – the only way he could have become so good in such a short period of time was to have sold his soul to the devil.
One of the originators of the delta blues style was Charley Patton, who was also the first local ”blues superstar”, if you will (however this was the 1920s). Patton had an enormous impact on many early delta musicians. He grew up on Dockery Plantation near Cleveland, Mississippi. Many blues historians feel that this is where the blues began. The land where slaves, and later, sharecroppers began to communicate and sing in a style know as ”field hollering”, which gave way to the blues.
Highway 61 runs south, right through the middle of the delta. It intersects Highway 49 at Clarksdale, MS. Clarksdale was the home to such people Muddy Waters, W.C. Handy, Junior Parker and John Lee Hooker, just to name a few.
Over the years, Clarksdale has become the home of the blues, so it was just assumed that this is where The Crossroads was. In later years, the ”61/49 Clarksdale” thing was also heavily advertised as The Crossroads.
However, when I was in Memphis in the mid-90s (asking a lot of questions) I heard from two different sources, that 61 and 49 were not The Crossroads. The legend supposedly began around the turn of the century from the originators of the blues … at Dockery Farms. The location I was given by both people is ”WHERE DOCKERY ROAD CROSSES OLD HIGHWAY 8” This would be between Cleveland and Ruleville. The ”Old 8” runs parallel to the current Highway 8, just south of it. I saw it – it’s still there – it’s a dirt road. The Crossroads doesn’t look like you would think – too many trees … but it was a unique experience, just standing there.
Part 4: Where Did Robert Johnson Die
On the night of Saturday, August 13, 1938, Robert Johnson was playing in a juke joint on the outskirts of Greenwood, Mississippi. It was in the back room of Shaples General Store at Three Forks. Shaples is long gone and Three Forks is now where highways 82 and 49E cross, (it’s actually a traffic circle). Rumor has it, this was the time and place where he was poisoned by a jealous man with either strychnine or lye. At around 2:30 AM he was taken to a house in Greenwood, where his sickness grew. Three days later he died of pneumonia, probably caused by syphilis. The location of the house was never published. I wanted to find it.
In the documentary ”Looking For Robert Johnson”, Honeyboy Edwards is seen in a car, riding through the Baptist Town section of Greenwood. As he points to the right and says ”That’s the house where Robert died — the long yellow one.”, you can see several distinct storefronts across the street. With a handful of freeze-frame photos, I drove up and down Baptist Town, looking for those storefronts, until… Bingo! I looked across the street to see the only yellow house. 109 YOUNG STREET.
Later that week, I mentioned it to blues historian Jim O’Neal, who eventually printed it in his Delta Blues Map & Guide.
My last trip to Memphis and the Mississippi Delta was in 1996 – that’s when I noticed a big change. In the early ’90s, when gambling had become legal in Mississippi, much hope was given to the people of Tunica County (the poorest county in the poorest state). There was hope of hundreds of new jobs in the casinos, hope of improved roads, hope of new county services, hope of affordable living for all who wanted it. However, things took a turn in a strange direction.
As I drove south on Highway 61, out of Memphis, that cute wooden ”Welcome To Mississippi” sign, was gone … so were all the trees. This was to make way for the new 4-lane, super Highway 61. As I crossed the state line, the first thing I noticed were all the large billboards, like; COME TO HARRAHS! and WELCOME TO THE GOOD OLD DAYS AT BALLYS. No longer did it look timeless.
Over the years, I had gotten used to that right turn onto 304 (or Robinsonville/Commerce Rd) — it was closed . In its place was another 4-lane highway. Several new small hotels had replaced the cotton fields. I’d noticed, Robinsonville had a brand new post office to accommodate the casinos. Melvin and I were now talking about all the changes that had taken place. I left the post office and headed towards the Mississippi River — it just got too strange for me. That once empty landscape, now really looked like Las Vegas. So much happening, so overbearing, so many cars. No longer, could I hear the wind howl.
From reading the local newspapers, and talking to the local folk, certain things were very clear now … about those hopes. Many new jobs did come to the people of Tunica County. However, most of them were not very high paying jobs. Most of the jobs on the casino floors went to the people from the Memphis suburbs, and across the nation. Tunica’s ”new” roads had become filled with tourists — some of which were rather intoxicated, causing major crashes. Unemployed parents, now had jobs in the hotels and casinos — but who was watching the children? Sadly, the juvenile crime rate had risen dramatically. Maybe the offer of jobs, hit Tunica too quickly. And finally, imagine growing up poor, in an extremely poor area, and in two short years your neighborhood is filled with multimillion dollar hotels and seeing people with money to burn, driving up and down your streets, and everywhere you turn you got ”$$$ WIN WIN WIN $$$” in your face. Tragically, a fair amount of Tunica’s people got the gambling bug, and some of them went from living in poverty to living in debt. This is what happened to the people, in the land where blues began.
I brought these points up, because I feel it’s something that all Soul Patrollers should think about. Something that happened, to the people, who are descendants of the blues, and something that happened to the land, that was the birthplace of the music — we listen to.
I’d like to thank those you who gave me positive response, as I wrote this series. In the future, I may do other articles, on topics such as;
— My search for the true location of the AFRICAN SLAVE landing dock in the Charleston area. This may be of special interest to those of you who have deep roots in South Carolina.
— How Memphis really is SOULSVILLE. I’ll tell where to go and how easy it is to meet some of soul’s true giants… Memphis folk are so friendly.
photo booth self-portrait, early 1930’s
(c) 1986 Delta Haze Corporation All Rights Reserved.
Used By Permission