GREENWOOD, MISS. (AP) - When bluesman Robert Johnson died broke and all but unknown in a tiny Mississippi crossroads town, he was buried in a homemade coffin and an unmarked grave. Yet, a century after he came into this world, his eerie blues still influence artists from Eric Clapton to John Mayer, and his legacy continues to be celebrated.
His posthumous CD sales number well over a million. His name moves merchandise.
To mark Johnson’s centennial, Sony Music Entertainment has re-released his recordings in “Robert Johnson: The Complete Original Masters _ Centennial Edition,” which includes replicas of his original singles and a 1997 documentary. He’s also being recognized this week at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis, Tenn.
Delaware-based Dogfish Head Craft Brewery has created a wicked concoction, “Hellhound On My Ale,” a title that’s a nod to one of Johnson’s songs.
“I’m amazed by it after all these years,” Steven Johnson said of his grandfather’s musical legacy. “It seems like it just passed down from generation to generation.”
Steven Johnson will be part of a big party that begins Thursday in Greenwood, the small Mississippi Delta town, where Johnson had been playing his music on a street corner shortly before his death.
The free celebration will feature an art exhibit, tours of Johnson’s haunts and other historic blues sites, as well as live music Friday and Saturday from Bobby Rush, The Cedric Burnside Project, Keb’ Mo’, Alvin Youngblood Hart and others. The event is sponsored by the Greenwood Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Steven Johnson, who’s also a minister and plays his grandfather’s music onstage, will deliver a sermon Sunday inspired by the myth that Robert Johnson stood at a Delta crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the devil in return for his talent. He will preach it at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where Johnson is thought to be buried, although there are two other reputed gravesites in the area.
The Robert Johnson Blues Foundation has other events planned throughout the year, including an international salute to Johnson May 13-17 in Lyon, France.
Robert Leroy Johnson was born May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Miss.
For years after Johnson’s death, little was known about his life. With the scant details, the enduring mystery of the crossroads legend and the handful of powerful recorded songs, Johnson slipped into myth.
Few are still alive who knew him, save the nearly 96-year-old bluesman Honeyboy Edwards, who was unable to give an interview.
“Of course, he died when he was 27. He didn’t give a whole lot of people much of a chance to get to know him,” said Steve LaVere, a blues historian and Grammy-winning record producer who once held the publishing rights to Johnson’s music.
LaVere’s website, Delta Haze, has a biography of Johnson’s life culled over the years from interviews of musicians, friends and relatives of the bluesman.
“Johnny Shines said he was very quiet, very much to himself. Robert Lockwood said he was a strange person. If you know any real artistic people, they think a whole lot and they just don’t express themselves a lot except through their art,” said LaVere, who’s curating the exhibit at Cottonlandia.
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.
“I think there are blues historians and aficionados who recognize his place in the firmament, but I think there are music lovers today who might love Jack White or Keith Richards and not recognize they owe a debt to Robert Johnson,” he said.