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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Dysfunctional Crossroad, Crystal Springs, Mississippi

Tommy Johnson doesn't have a headstone where he is buried. Bonnie Raitt contributed to one ten years ago. Where is it? Caught in the Crossroads of a long conflict, with little progress in the negotiation.

The Family of Tommy Johnson, The owners of a farm, and the Copiah County Board of Supervisors can't seem to come to the table to hammer out a win-win for all parties.

Crystal Springs, Mississippi is the home to 5,873 residents.  Founded in 1823, the Copiah County town became the "Tomatopolis of the World." Over history, many famous blues musicians have stepped foot into Crystal Springs. Significantly more tourists come to see the Robert Johnson Blues Museum and attend the blues festival.

The grave of the Blues Artist is unmarked, as it has been for a half a century at the Warm Springs Methodist Church Cemetery.  The past ten years, the headstone has been stored at the public library for the Tommy Johnson Blues Foundation in Crystal Springs.  Most reasonable people would ask,"Why?" at this point.  It seems the cemetery access road now lies on private property, and the owners (Keating) have denied access to Johnson's family several times, to allow them to place the headstone of their descendant.

Mention Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson in the same sentence, and most assume the conversation will be about the long controversy of which Johnson is "The Johnson," and met the Devil at the Crossroads. There are many articles and books on the subject.'s Blues Guide states: " Robert must have been the better negotiator of the two (unrelated) musicians because Tommy Johnson became a mere footnote in the blues genre.."

How is it that an access road to a cemetery, once maintained by the Copiah County authority, is now private property?  Why would anyone want to deny passage to a cemetery to allow a marker to be placed? What logical basis could possibly exist?  Perhaps the owners are oblivious to the Blues world, and the Blues community.  The one in which Buddy Guy sings "Skin Deep" and the majority of genre fans believe, "There is no black, no white, just blues."

Problems without solutions are whining.  Two solutions might be to engage in an arbitration process and negotiate in good faith to insure the real issues are addressed and a timely outcome would result.  An alternative suggestion could be to have the three parties Come On In My Kitchen and sit around the table and study the meaning behind the lyrics of Canned Heat.  I am certain the issue would be resolved in a relatively shorter time frame.

I was sad to see, as I researched this article, how much has been written about this bizarre conflict over the past nine years, including an excellent blog post in the Sheyboygan Blues Society and an article on this morning's Topix Blues newsfeed from Frost Illustrated.  I read a Mississippi Senate Resolution to commemorate the life and legacy of Tommy Johnson. I saw a website that promoted T-shirts and encouraged readers to write the Governor of Mississippi. There is a deeper sense of injustice behind the story.  One that brings to mind a man, who once a long time ago, simply said, "Do justice."  Then there is the question of how we treat our neighbors in our community. That man, told us to "Love our neighbors as ourselves." The appearance of land deals, inept government, and lack of urgency steeped in bureaucracy, I leave to those who practice Law, and hopefully justice.  I want to acknowledge Andrew Buncombe of the U.K. for shedding further light on the issue in 2003.  

What will it take for a man to be allowed to finally rest in peace?  Do justice. 


  1. This journey began in early 2001, when Vera Johnson Collins came to The Mount Zion memorial Fund for assistance in erecting a headstone for her uncle Tommy Johnson. I knew that the organization had to do something and being aware that Bonnie Raitt had publishing ownership of Tommy Johnson's Big Road Blues, and also acutely aware of Ms. Raitt's honesty and generosity through her actions supporting the families of blues musicians in the past (she has financed in whole or in part, memorials for Memphis Minnie, Fred McDowell, and Sam Chatmon), I asked her to assist us in this effort. She immediately stepped up to help. The City of Crystal Springs was very generous with its resources and proud to assist the effort. Where the problem lies is in the county government structure of Mississippi. Each County government in the Magnolia State is like a country unto itself. It is bound neither to heed the State government nor anyone else. As such, the County Supervisors are like Afgan warlords with their own tribal territories (called Beats)and their own political bases, often extended families and lifelong friends and business partners residing in their counties. No amount of political or moral suasion has been successful in the past nine plus years and now that legal action seems the only recourse left we are in that mode, a lengthy and lonely prospect. Anything anyone can do to help would be appreciated. Skip Henderson. Mount Zion Memorial Fund Inc. See also:

  2. Skip,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment and bring some clarity into what has to be a very frustrating scenario. It is unfortunate that legal action is the only recourse, but please know, you have many supporters in your cause. Please keep us advised, and if there are any actions that you feel would be of help, please let us know.

    J. Renee Hyzy

  3. I know as a BIG Fan of Tommy's music, one who plays all his songs on my guitar, and who thinks he's always been one of the best 1st Generation bluesmen there ever was, that he definitely needs to have his head stone at least placed at his grave. Vera & family have been in a 10 year struggle with this issue. I'm not sure who these people are that own the property, but I would hope that their reasoning is simply to keep people off their land. I am hopeful that there are NO racial tensions dividing this issue. No man be it soldier, sailor, musician or a simple bum should have his grave unmarked. At least let Vera place the stone where it properly belongs.
    Sincerely: Dirk Wissbaum. Writer & Photographer Big City Blues Magazine.


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