Meridian Star

October 26, 2012

Tommy Johnson headstone dedication set for today

By Steve Gillespie / Managing Editor
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN — A dedication is being held today for the headstone that will finally be placed on blues pioneer Tommy Johnson's grave.

    The ceremony is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. at the Wisteria Inn Bed & Breakfast in Crystal Springs.

    On Saturday the 7th Annual Tommy Johnson Blues Festival will be held in Jackson in conjunction with the Mississippi International Film Festival this weekend.

    Vera Collins, Johnson's niece, is happy to see her uncle honored, and takes comfort in knowing his headstone will be in its rightful place.

    "It took us 11 years to get the easement, and the cemetery reopened," Collins said in a telephone interview this week.

    Collins said the headstone was paid for with the help of singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt and other musical artists through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund in 2000.

    Legal battles over getting the cemetery reopened, and property issues, kept Johnson's headstone on public display in the J.T. Biggs Jr. Memorial Library in Crystal Springs all these years.

    Aside from the music of Tommy Johnson, there is the legend. It is a story that has been twisted, embellished, and attributed more publicly to bluesman Robert Johnson, rather than Tommy Johnson (no relation). The legend behind both of these men is that they sold their souls to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for their musical abilities. The erie encounter happened at midnight.

    "He never said he met the devil at the crossroads. He said he met a man," Collins said of her uncle. "He handed the man his guitar. He played a tune, then handed it back to Tommy, and then he played a tune. He said he knew he'd be playing that music for the rest of his life. That's why he said he sold his soul to the devil, because they called it (blues) the devil's music back then."

    Tommy Johnson's crossroads story predates that of Robert Johnson's. Tommy Johnson was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1986. In 2000 he was portrayed in the Coen brothers film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" by Chris Thomas King.

    Johnson was born in 1896 on George Miller's Plantation near Terry, about 20 miles south of Jackson. His family moved to Crystal Springs in 1910. He was one of 13 children in a musical family. According to the National Park Service, he and his brothers Mager and LeDell were supplementing their sharecropping incomes by playing parties in the Crystal Springs area by 1914.

    Collins is Mager's daughter. She remembers listening to her father and her Uncle LeDell talk about the old times.

    "They talked about Tommy quite a bit," she said. "When he died, they put their guitars down for two years."

    In 1916 Tommy Johnson moved to the Delta. He crossed paths with bluesman Charley Patton and other artists, and traveled through Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. His first recordings were for the Victor label out of Memphis, Tenn., in 1928. He died of a heart attack after playing a party on Nov. 1, 1956.

    For more than 50 years, his grave has been unmarked in the Warm Springs Cemetery in Crystal Springs.

    "It feels good," Collins said of getting her uncle's headstone where it belongs. "We'll be soliciting for a lot of help for ongoing cleanup at the cemetery."