Robert Johnson Cenotaph

The Mount Zion Memorial Fund was officially incorporated in the fall of 1989 as the Robert Johnson Mount Zion Memorial Fund to raise money to save the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church from foreclosure and to place a cenotaph historic marker (not a grave stone as is often mistaken- the memorial bears no Birth-Death dates) in the Mt. Zion cemetery in honor of Robert Johnson whose death certificate, discovered by blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow, lists “Zion Church” as a burial site. 

This goal was accomplished on April 20th, 1991, in partnership with Columbia Records through the work of Columbia A&R man Arthur Levy, with the support of Columbia President Don Ienner, and with the cooperation of the Mt. Zion congregation under the guidance of Pastor Rev. James Ratliff. 

The ceremony was attended by over 300 people, including Malcolm Rockwell, who is a member of a blues band in Hawaii and brought a lei for Johnson's grave. Asked why he traveled so far, Rockwell said, "I came to honor Robert Johnson."  Other blues admirers, recording company executives, and musicians traveled from New York, Memphis and Massachusetts. Kenny Holladay of New Orleans and Robbie Phillips of Cambridge, Mass., paid tribute to Johnson by playing some of his tunes.

Several Lenore County officials were on hand, including David Jordan, president of the Greenwood City Council; Dr. William Sutton, president of Mississippi Valley State University; Janice Moor, executive vice president of the Greenwood-Lenore County Chamber of Commerce; Ray Heidel, executive director of the Greenwood-Leflore-Carroll Economic Development Foundation, and Jondi Brackeen, Perry Smith and their staff at the Greenwood Convention and Visitors Bureau. John Horn, associate director for the Division of Tourism Development, said there is a growing awareness of Johnson's vast influence on the music world. "This is indicated by the fact that this year the Chicago Inter-national Blues Festival in June will pay special tribute to him by featuring Mississippi Delta blues artists playing his music," Horn said.

Historian Gayle Dean Wardlow, the first Mississippian to research the lives and music of Mississippi blues singers, and who located Johnson's death certificate in 1968, was also present.

They all packed into the Mount Zion Church and the vent was covered by Billboard Magazine, Rolling Stone Magazine, Newsweek Magazine and numerous local media.The granite, one ton obelisk has a central inscription by noted music author Peter Guralnick, side inscriptions by Skip Henderson which were later used with permission on the Robert Johnson marker in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, and all of Johnson’s known recordings added at the behest of Columbia Records. At the request of church members, the song titles, several of which mention the devil, were positioned facing away from the church entrance. This marker has been vandalized on at least three occasions, apparently by souvenir seekers.

Guralnick, letter to Skip Henderson, 1991.
Peter Guralnick, Thank You letter to Skip Henderson, 1991
Rev. Ratliff became a fixture at the dedications 

Feature Story

More than a Memorial to the Voice of the Delta

Charley Patton’s Grave: More than a Memorial in Holly Ridge Mississippi Folklife