- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 12, 2004

JACKSON, Miss. - The Mississippi Supreme Court has reopened litigation over who owns photographs and writings of bluesman Robert Johnson, nearly two months after declaring his son sole heir to royalties from the memorabilia.

The justices said a claim by his heirs to pictures and a note should be decided by a trial in the county where Robert Johnson died at age 27 in 1938. He left no will.

Presiding Justice Kay Cobb, writing Thursday for the Supreme Court, said there is a legal question about whether the photographs — only two are known to exist — and writings were part of the estate at the time of the singer’s death, and therefore the property of his son, Claud Johnson.

Robert Johnson, a traveling musician who recorded “Cross Road Blues,” “Rambling on My Mind” and “Hellhound on My Trail,” is considered the first modern bluesman, linking the country blues of the Mississippi Delta with the city blues of post-World War II. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

Eric Clapton’s latest album, “Me and Mr. Johnson,” is a tribute to the Mississippi bluesman that was nominated last week for a Grammy.

When Robert Johnson died, Carrie Harris Thompson, his half-sister, said she was his sole living heir and took possession of his photographs. In 1974, she signed a contract with a promoter to assign all of her purported rights to copyrights of work, photographs and any other material concerning Robert Johnson she might have. In return, the promoter was to pay her 50 percent of all royalties collected by him.

Annye C. Anderson and Robert M. Harris laid claim to the royalties through Mrs. Thompson. Mrs. Anderson is Mrs. Thompson’s half-sister, though she is not related to Robert Johnson. Mr. Harris is Mrs. Thompson’s grandson. They claim they were willed Mrs. Thompson’s royalties when she died in 1983.

In October, the state Supreme Court said the contractual obligation to pay the Johnson estate royalties earned from licensing of the photographs created a relationship that carried over to Claud Johnson when he was declared to be Robert Johnson’s lawful heir.

But on Thursday, Justice Cobb said a trial will have to determine if the pictures were part of the estate.

“While they [Mrs. Anderson and Mr. Harris] make no claim to the property which belonged to Robert Johnson at his death,” Justice Cobb said, “they do claim pictures and a note, all of which they claim were the personal property of Carrie Thompson and not the Johnson estate. There is no evidence that this claim has ever been litigated or that it should have been.”

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