Miss. bluesman getting long overdue grave marker

October 26, 2012 11:26:59 AM



JACKSON -- Mississippi blues musician Tommy Johnson is finally getting a headstone on his grave, more than a half century after he died. 


Johnson was an influential blues singer and guitarist in the 1920s and '30s but was ravaged by alcoholism before dying in 1956. He sang in a falsetto, often yodeling. And he was known for playing the guitar behind his head. 


Singer Bonnie Raitt helped buy Johnson's headstone in 2001 but it's been sitting in the library in Crystal Springs, about 25 miles south of Jackson, because the cemetery where he's buried sits between two privately owned pieces of land. The only road to the cemetery deteriorated, and it took years for Copiah County supervisors to rebuild the road. 


On Friday, the Warm Springs Methodist Church Cemetery near Crystal Springs will be rededicated, with Johnson's headstone in place. 


"Even in the period when he was living, he never got his due recognition," said Johnson's niece, Vera Johnson-Collins of Jackson, who was born three years to the day after he died. 


Tommy Johnson is no relation to his now more famous contemporary, the late Robert Johnson, even though both men had roots in Copiah County. 


Tommy Johnson was born in about 1896 in on a plantation near Terry, Miss., and his sharecropping family moved down the road to Crystal Springs in about 1910. He strengthened his skills as a blues artist when he moved north to the Mississippi Delta as a teenager. 


Robert Johnson was born in 1911 in Hazlehurst and also improved as a blues singer and guitarist during a sojourn in the Delta. He died in 1938, and his fame increased when his recordings were reissued in the 1960s and 1990s, influencing Eric Clapton and other rock 'n' roll icons. 


Although Robert Johnson is widely known now for a tale that he sold his soul to the devil at a Delta crossroads, historians say the legend originated with Tommy Johnson. 


Tommy Johnson's brother, LeDell, told people that Tommy went to the crossroads and a mysterious figure tuned his guitar. 


"Tommy Johnson even said, 'I'm the son of the devil,"' said William Woods, chairman of the history department at Tougaloo College in Jackson.