The Context of Johnson’s Burial
The Difficulty of Locating Pre-War Blues Artists
The bluesman who Keith Richards, Clapton, Dylan, and many others credit as a prime influence. The bluesman who initiated the 27 Club, with a mysterious death by poisoning.
Where is he buried? It’s a recurring question for so many pre-war blues musicians; Johnson is just one of the most prominent of the bunch. From King Solomon Hill, to Blind Lemon Jefferson, to Willie Brown, it’s most likely fair to say that there are more unknown grave locations than known ones. As talented as these musicians were, they often were surprisingly unrecognized within their communities, relative to their talent, and certainly grossly unrecognized by the general public.
The Timeline to Uncovering Johnson’s Whereabouts
Beginning in 1965, with blues historian Gayle Dean Wardlow exploring Johnson’s death, new documents and anecdotes appeared. It took three years, but by 1968 Johnson’s death certificate turned up, noting that the cause of death was simply due to “no doctor” and the location of his burial being “Zion Church” — not so helpful, since most African-American churches were apparently simply given this name.
Interestingly, alongside that death certificate, an investigative report by Leflore County Registrar, Cornelia J. Jordan, showed this anecdote,
I talked with the white man on whose place this negro died and I also talked with a negro woman on the place. The plantation owner said this negro man, seemingly about 26 years old, came from Tunica two or three weeks before he died to play a banjo at a negro dance given there on the plantation. He staid [sic] in the house with some of the negroes saying he wanted to pick cot-ton. The white man did not have a doctor for this negro as he had not worked for him. He was buried in a homemade coffin furnished by the county. The plantation owner said it was his opinion that the negro died of syphilis.
Knowing clues such as this, and the general clue of “Zion Church”, a filtering of churches which were unlikely to contain Johnson’s body was possible. From there, Wardlow was able to narrow down the gravesites which could lay claim to RJ’s body.
Case Nearly Closed: Little Zion Church near Greenwood
But, a discovery breakthrough happened in the late 1980s. Johnson’s half-sister, Carrie Spencer Harris, recalled that she’d arranged for a higher-quality casket (instead of an initial cheap, hastily prepared casket) to be made for Johnson. That undertaker, one of the few African-American undertakers in the area, had the crucial records showing that Little Zion Church in Greenwood was the gravesite. Not just that, but even as late as the year 2000, Rosie Eskridge (who’s husband dug Johnson’s grave) confirmed Harris’ words to a tee.
Still, perhaps gnawing at any remaining uncertainty, two other churches claim to house Johnson’s body, leaving three common answers to the question of where Johnson is buried. Know, however, that the generally accepted answer remains to be Little Zion Church.
- Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church — Greenwood, Mississippi
- Mt. Zion Misisonary Baptist Church — Leflore County, Mississippi
- Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church — Quito, Mississippi
More Photos of Johnson’s Gravesite
For added info, and to put more pictures to this story, you can see the wonderful headstone Johnson has, as well as the beautiful greenery of the surrounding area.
Visiting this Historic Location
If you would care to ever visit this site, here are the exact directions.
How far are you from Johnson’s final resting place?
In case you’d ever like to visit, know that the church is still active, so you could most likely even stop by for along a Mississippi blues tour for a full, walk-in-Robert-Johnson’s-shoes experience. It’s great to see by photos and posts on Little Zion’s Facebook Page that Robert Johnson’s grave is kept quite clean to this day.
The Little Zion Church Facebook page, for more context of this still-running church: Here
Gayle Dean Wardlow’s book, Here
Other helpful articles,