The Time We Went to Visit Robert Johnson

It was just this time of year when the Butcher and I went in search of Robert Johnson’s graves. Armed only with the University of Mississippi’s awesome book, Blues Traveling (you know–if you buy it, try to buy it from them), and an outdated atlas provided to some ancestor by State Farm, we headed off to rural Mississippi.

The Delta is a lot like rural Illinois, especially in late February, early March. Filled with small towns with a John Deere dealership at one end and an International Harvester dealership at the other end, and, between the towns, flat, black fields in which stalks not quite turned to dust yet occasionally make their last stand against time. As a Midwesterner, you can go there for the first time and almost drive it blindfolded.

The main difference, through, between the Delta and Illinois, aside from the racial make-up of the place is that in Mississippi, you can get lost and end up in places you read about in history books or hear about in songs. We ended up in Money, on accident, and both found that it affected us more than we thought–that Emmett Till would end up dead in so ordinary a place seemed almost unbearable.

And driving through Itta Beana down towards two of Johnson’s three potential resting places was a similar kind of striking. Here were towns we almost knew, with an empty school at one end and a highway at the other and dogs laying in the road, unmoved by your horn and your hurry. You could almost say for certain, without looking, that somewhere there was a young man working on a car while a girl who liked him watched and someplace else someone was baking and getting ready for the week. In at least one house, kids were piled in front of the TV playing Grand Theft Auto and in some other house, a man is waiting for his wife to get back from the grocery store.

And yet, this is also the place that gave us just about every famous blues musician you can think of and there is no place in Illinois where every small town can boast at least one person important to our culture.

The first two of Johnson’s graves are very near each other. One is behind a church on the right side of the road and the other is in front of a church on the other side of the road. The grave on the right side of the road is marked by a small flat stone on which people have left coins and guitar picks and, in one case, a chip from one of the Tunica casinos.

It was at that cemetery that the Butcher and I saw something strange. It had been raining so long in the Delta that the ground was saturated. Even though it wasn’t raining the day we were there, there were still puddles everywhere and the ground was muddy enough that you would sink into the low spots. It had rained so much that the coffins in the ground had become buoyant and were causing the ground over them to rise up. It reminded me of loaves of bread, rows of similar sized humps in front of almost all of the grave markers.

Except one.

Now, it could be that there’s nothing left of Johnson, and that’s why his grave seemed to be sinking in, instead of rising up, but, since every other grave stone had a bump, it seemed unlikely. Still, we scooped up some grave dirt and left a few coins.

The other marked grave is an obelisk at the front of another church yard cemetery. Again, the other graves were rising up, but nothing by this marker. As a little girl swung back and forth on the church door, we took pictures and took some dirt and left a few more coins.

The third spot that is considered a potential burial spot is out north of Greenwood–an unmarked grave in another church yard. When we first drove by, they were finishing up a funeral, so we kept driving and ended up in the aforementioned Money. We turned around, came back to Greenwood, got gas and took the dog out for a walk along the river. When we went back again, folks were gone and the only people left were the two guys with the backhoe. We pulled in.

Since there’s no marker, there’s not as much to look at, but the Butcher and I counted at least twelve rises in the ground that weren’t marked by stones, so it seemed to us a more likely place for someone to be buried and then lost. We took some more dirt, and left some more coins and headed home.

Now, up on my bedroom bookcase is a small glass jelly jar full of graveyard dirt that probably doesn’t contain anything of Robert Johnson. And it’s probably a weird souvenir of a strange day. Under circumstances I can’t quite recall, I promised the Legal Eagle’s brother I’d give him some. I never did.

It seemed like a generous thing to offer before we went, but once we got back, it didn’t seem right anymore.