Miss. bluesman getting long overdue grave marker

October 26, 2012 • Entertainment

In this photograph released by the Mississippi House of Representatives Information Office, a painting of the late Mississippi blues singer Tommy Johnson is displayed Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012, at the Mississippi Capitol. Johnson’s niece Vera Johnson-Collins helped organize a ceremony Friday in which a headstone will be placed on her uncle’s gravesite in Copiah County, Miss. Johnson died Nov. 1, 1956. (AP Photo/The Mississippi House of Representatives Information Office, Meg Annison)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi blues musician Tommy Johnson is finally getting a headstone on his grave, more than a half century after he died.

Johnson was an influential blues singer and guitarist in the 1920s and ’30s but was ravaged by alcoholism before dying in 1956. He sang in a falsetto, often yodeling. And he was known for playing the guitar behind his head.

Singer Bonnie Raitt helped buy Johnson’s headstone in 2001 but it’s been sitting in the library in Crystal Springs, about 25 [auth] miles south of Jackson, because the cemetery where he’s buried sits between two privately owned pieces of land. The only road to the cemetery deteriorated, and it took years for Copiah County supervisors to rebuild the road.

On Friday, the Warm Springs Methodist Church Cemetery near Crystal Springs will be rededicated, with Johnson’s headstone in place.

“Even in the period when he was living, he never got his due recognition,” said Johnson’s niece, Vera Johnson-Collins of Jackson, who was born three years to the day after he died.

Tommy Johnson is no relation to his now more famous contemporary, the late Robert Johnson, even though both men had roots in Copiah County.

Tommy Johnson was born in about 1896 in on a plantation near Terry, Miss., and his sharecropping family moved down the road to Crystal Springs in about 1910. He strengthened his skills as a blues artist when he moved north to the Mississippi Delta as a teenager.

Robert Johnson was born in 1911 in Hazlehurst and also improved as a blues singer and guitarist during a sojourn in the Delta. He died in 1938, and his fame increased when his recordings were reissued in the 1960s and 1990s, influencing Eric Clapton and other rock ‘n’ roll icons.

Although Robert Johnson is widely known now for a tale that he sold his soul to the devil at a Delta crossroads, historians say the legend originated with Tommy Johnson.

Tommy Johnson’s brother, LeDell, told people that Tommy went to the crossroads and a mysterious figure tuned his guitar.

“Tommy Johnson even said, ‘I’m the son of the devil,'” said William Woods, chairman of the history department at Tougaloo College in Jackson.

About two dozen people attended a ceremony at the Mississippi Capitol on Thursday, where Woods talked about Tommy Johnson’s legacy and a local blues artist, Ben Peyton, played guitar and sang Tommy Johnson’s “Canned Heat Blues.”

“Mama, mama, Sterno is killing me …,” Peyton sang.

Peyton said Tommy Johnson would take the cans of jelled combustibles, burn some off, drain it through a cloth, let the alcohol run into a glass and mix it with sugar and water. It was a cheap though toxic drink in the Prohibition era.

Tommy Johnson died with little money, and his estate has not had the financial success that Robert Johnson’s posthumous fame brought his own family.

Bob Long of Southampton, England, a retired businessman who’s now a blues singer and guitarist, travels to Mississippi a couple of times a year. He said blues aficionados in Europe and other places appreciate Tommy Johnson’s legacy. He offered a brief prayer during the ceremony Thursday, noting the placement of the long overdue headstone on Johnson’s grave.

“Justice has been done,” Long said. “Recognition has been achieved. The world is a better place. Amen.”

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