The mystery surrounding bluesman Robert Johnson’s life and death feeds the lingering fascination with his work.
There’s the myth he sold his soul to the devil to create his haunting guitar intonations. There’s the dispute over where he died after his alleged poisoning by a jealous man in 1938. Three different markers claim to be the site of his demise.
His birthplace, however, has been verified. The seminal bluesman came into the world in 1911 in a well-crafted home built by his stepfather in the Mississippi town of Hazlehurst.
Now, 71 years after his death, local officials want to restore the home in hopes of drawing Johnson fans and their tourism dollars to Copiah County, about 100 miles from the Delta region that most bluesmen called home.
Johnson’s life and music have been the subject of multiple books. And producers are shopping a script in Hollywood about him penned by Jimmy White, the screenwriter for the Academy Award-winning film, “Ray.”
“It’s amazing that after all these years, people still talk about Robert Johnson on the level that they do,” said the bluesman’s grandson, Steven Johnson.
Johnson’s influence can be heard in the works of numerous artists, from Muddy Waters to Eric Clapton, who covered 14 of the bluesman’s songs on his 2004 album, Me and Mr. Johnson.
The house is an important piece of Johnson’s legacy, said Grammy-winning pianist George Winston, who will headline a fundraiser for the restoration Monday at the Belhaven College Center for the Arts in Jackson.
“Everything with Robert is mysterious, but the more we can demystify, we can get down to the truth,” said Winston. “He was an inspired musician. He took a quantum leap.” The story goes that Johnson didn’t play all that well at first, then left town for awhile. When he returned, his music had undergone a transformation.
“He came back and everybody couldn’t believe how well he played,” Winston said.
That’s likely what gave rise to the soul-selling rumor, a transaction purportedly taking place at the crossroads of U.S. 61 and U.S. 49 in the Mississippi Delta.
Johnson’s birthplace was verified in a letter from his half-sister years ago, said Janet Schriver, executive director of the Copiah County Office of Cultural Affairs.
The 1,500-square foot home now owned by the county has fallen into disrepair, but it still bears evidence of craftsmanship. Johnson’s stepfather, Charles Dodds, was a furniture maker and a prosperous landowner. The house had a double-parlor, a long front porch and a pump that allowed water to flow into the kitchen, a modern convenience unheard in most homes occupied by blacks in the early 20th century, said Schriver.
Schriver said the county is trying to raise $250,000 for the restoration project, which coincides with efforts to get Johnson’s life story to the screen.
White was commissioned by HBO about three years ago to write the script, but the production company’s management changed and the project was scrapped, said Cathy Gurley, who handles publicity for the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation.
HBO confirmed Thursday a project had been in development, but subsequently producers were allowed to take it elsewhere.
Gurley said “we’re currently shopping the project.”
White, who is based in Santa Monica, Calif., said he was moved by the “sheer genius” of Johnson, who was self-taught on the guitar.
“He was so good that he would literally turn his back when they were recording him. He didn’t want the other musicians to see his fingering technique,” White said.
A restored Johnson birthplace would offer his latter-day fans something rare: a tangible relic linked to the long-dead musician. Few personal artifacts from Johnson’s life remain. Only two photographs of Johnson are known to exist, one known as the “studio portrait” made for Johnson by Hooks Brothers Studios in Memphis, Tenn., and the other referred to as “the dime store portrait” or “the photo booth self portrait” taken by Johnson himself.
White spent months researching Johnson’s life and interviewing other blues artists, including David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who knew Johnson. Little known in their prime, outside of the audience for “race music,” the bluesmen created an enduring musical legacy.
“As a writer, it was exciting for me because nobody has been able to crack the code of how to tell the story of a blues singer from that era, especially the legendary one who sold his soul to the devil,” White said.