The three graves of Robert Johnson


Story and photos by Barney Burke

Blues pioneer Robert Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, Miss. on May 8, 1911. He wrote “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Love in Vain,” “Cross Road Blues,” and other blues standards.

Johnson made just 41 recordings, all of which are included in Columbia’s boxed CD set released in 1990. Only two photos of Johnson are known to exist.

The legend is that Johnson went to a crossroads and traded his soul to the devil for the ability to play the guitar. Whether or not that’s true, plenty of blues fans make the pilgrimage to Clarksdale, Miss., to see the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61.

Unlike the crossroads, there’s no doubt about the history of the former Greyhound bus station in Clarksdale. Now a visitor information center, it’s claim to fame is that a truck driver named McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters) boarded a bus there for Chicago, where he became famous.

If you visit Clarksdale, be sure to stop by Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero blues club, which is near the old Greyhound station and the Delta Blues Museum.

Which one’s the real grave?

Johnson died on August 16 1938, several days after being poisoned at the Three Forks jook joint in Greenwood, Miss. It’s believed that he was poisoned by the owner of that venue after Johnson took an interest in the owner’s wife. No one was ever prosecuted.

Apparently, Johnson was buried in an unmarked grave. But in the last 20 years, no less than three gravestones have been installed in three different towns on the Mississippi Delta.

The first one was erected in Morgan City by Columbia Records.

Subsequently, a gravestone was installed in Quito based on the recollections of a woman who had known Johnson.

The third grave marker was installed in Greenwood, not far from the site of Johnson’s poisoning. Stephen LaVere, who co-produced the Columbia CD, had it installed after researching the issue in some depth. He says he interviewed a local woman, Rosie Eskridge, whose husband Tom dug the grave.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence that the grave in Greenwood may be the right one is a set of aerial photos taken in the 1930s and displayed at LaVere’s Greenwood Blues Heritage Museum. This grave is not far from the plantation where Johnson was taken after being poisoned. Looking at the aerial photos, it’s clear that this grave is the closest to where Johnson died.

The Greenwood Blues Heritage Museum has a guitar very similar to the one used by Johnson and a Terraplane car. A trendy ride in its time, Johnson memorialized it in his song “Terraplane Blues.” My favorite interpretation of that song is “Dynaflow Blues” by Johnny Shines, another Delta bluesman.

Finding the three graves is not easy. The best guide is Steve Cheseborough’s book, “Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues,” which documents various historical sites in the Mississippi Delta.

In “Me and the Devil Blues,” Johnson wrote, “Babe, I don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead and gone.”

Muddy Waters took a bus to Chicago from this Clarksdale, Miss. Greyhound station

Robert Johnson grave in Quito, Miss - note the guitar picks left by fans

Robert Johnson monument, Hazelhurst, Miss.

The Robert Johnson grave in Morgan City, Miss., erected by Columbia Records

The crossroads, Clarksdale, Miss.

Evidence suggests that this grave in Greenwood, Miss. may be where Robert Johnson lies

This is the view from the Robert Johnson grave in Greenwood, Miss.

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