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Eric Clapton described the power of Johnson’s music in his autobiography.

“At first the music almost repelled me, it was so intense, and this man made no attempt to sugarcoat what he was trying to say or play. It was hard-core, more than anything I had ever heard. After a few listenings, I realized that on some level, I had found the master, and that following this man’s example would be my life’s work,” Clapton wrote.

The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richard told The Associated Press in 2008 that Johnson was so deft that when he first heard the bluesman’s solo guitar work, he thought two people were playing.

LaVere credits Johnson’s talent not to a soul-selling crossroads deal, but to a self-imposed apprenticeship under another little-known musician, Ike Zimmerman.

“Ike showed him how to play and Ike was a studied musician. They used to spend all night knees to knees, and Ike would teach him how to sing and present himself,” LaVere said. “He left the blues early on and became a sanctified preacher and died in Los Angeles in 1965.”

Glimpses of Johnson’s life can be found at the exhibit, including aged photographs of Johnson’s second wife, Callie Craft, and one of his girlfriends, Willie Mae Cross Powell, who’s mentioned in Johnson’s tune, “Love in Vain Blues.”

A copy of the scrap of linen where Johnson may have scribbled his last words is under glass. It reads in part, “I know that my redeemer liveth and he will call me from the grave.”

During his lifetime, Robert Johnson’s best-known song, “Terraplane Blues,” sold only a few thousand copies. After Columbia Records, one of Sony’s labels, released a two-CD Robert Johnson box-set in 1990, it sold over 1 million copies and snagged a Grammy Award.

Thirty-one gold records for Johnson’s music, recorded by him and other artists, are part of the display. This year, John Mayer was nominated for a 2010 Grammy Award for his cover of Johnson’s “Crossroads.”

In Greenwood, Baptist Town is the poverty-plagued neighborhood where Johnson once played. It’s a few miles from where he’s believed to have been poisoned by either a jealous man or a woman scorned.

Sylvester Hoover, a neighborhood blues historian and tour guide, likes to point to the now vacant lot where Johnson briefly lived and where he’d play guitar on Saturday mornings and draw a crowd.

Hoover theorizes Johnson was poisoned by a jealous woman, not a jealous husband.

“A man from the Delta would’ve shot him, not give him poison,” Hoover said.

Robert Johnson’s drink was whiskey, but today his name will be associated with beer. “Hellhound On My Ale,” hits shelves this week in 25 states, but not Mississippi. Its alcohol content is too strong to sell there.

Sam Calagione, president of Dogfish Brewery, said he believes Johnson continues to be underappreciated.

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