A man who died nearly a century ago is still a household name in the Delta.
Robert Johnson was a mere 27 years old when he died near Greenwood. Some say that he was poisoned by an angry husband seeking revenge; some say he was just unwell and died of a disease.
However, most people can agree that Johnson influenced people long after his death and played a heavy hand in shaping the modern blues tradition in the world.
“He was somebody who was influential on a number of other artists who went on to create the Chicago blues style, like Elmore James and Muddy Waters, to a certain degree,” said Scott Barretta, a local blues expert.
The peak of Johnson’s career was amidst the Great Depression, which didn’t bring many record sales from people trying to survive financial crisis. His posthumous launch to fame began in the 1960s when blues was being integrated more heavily into pop culture with rock and roll.
“It’s difficult to say how much he affected Greenwood during his own day because he was locally famous, but he wasn’t someone who had sold a whole lot of records at his time,” Barretta said.
“I think he was important to this area in the sense that he was a performer, he was somebody that was always on the move and this is just one of the places that he played,” he added.
Sylvester Hoover is continuing to educate people on Johnson’s legacy with a museum dedicated to African American history in Baptist Town.
Baptist Town is reportedly the last place Johnson lived.
The museum is just a few yards away from where Johnson last lived, according to Hoover.
“He’s influenced the entire world,” Hoover said. “People come over here who can’t speak English, but they would say ‘Robert Johnson’ and play his music.”
Hoover also offers a Robert Johnson tour, which goes from the last place he lived to his final resting place, which many believe to be under a pecan tree in the cemetery at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church.
Rosie Eskridge, who Hoover said was the last person to see him, was married to the man who dug Johnson’s grave. Hoover spoke with Eskridge and said that she confirmed Johnson’s burial site and saw him get lowered into the ground.
Steve LaVere, a historian who dedicated his life’s work to researching Johnson, moved to Greenwood and eventually uncovered the spot where Johnson is believed to rest. LaVere also spoke to Eskridge to confirm his hunch. Afterward, he worked with Sony Music to release Johnson’s music and place the tombstone that sits at Little Zion today. Both his and Sony’s names are on the grave.
Johnson “is really the only artist from that era that such a mystery was created with this mythology of him selling himself to the devil,” Barretta said.
Legend has it that one night, Johnson, then a mediocre musician, went to the crossroads in Clarksdale and sold his soul to the devil in order to become a famous musician.
A man close to Johnson said that “he didn’t know exactly what Robert Johnson did at the crossroads, but he never was the same again,” Hoover said.
Johnson’s reputation extends further than the Delta. Musicians such as Eric Clapton, Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin all mentioned Johnson being an integral building block for the blues and rock and roll.
“When I heard ... Robert Johnson, it blew my mind. It was something I’d been missing my whole life,” said Jack White of the White Stripes to Rolling Stone magazine. “That music made me discard everything else and just get down to the soul and honesty of the blues.”
Country artist Marty Stuart told Billboard, “If I go into the Mississippi Delta at pitch black midnight and put on a Robert Johnson record, it’s hard to sit in the car because it’s pretty powerful.”
“I kind of got hooked on (Johnson’s music) because it was so much more powerful than anything else I had heard or was listening to,” Eric Clapton said to NPR.
Johnson’s legacy breeds a wealth of tourism to the Delta for any blues enthusiast.
“He’s a good ambassador for blues tourism and making the Delta a mystical place,” Barretta said.
•Contact Kerrigan Herret at 581-7233 or email@example.com.