Saturday, February 25, 2017

Hellhounds, Headstones, Hell & A Lawsuit Against a Church

By Bob Darden - 2001

A crowd of 45 people gathered Thursday at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Money Road to celebrate the erection of a headstone marking the grave of blues great Robert Johnson.

"I think it is going to be real good for the church and the community. This guy was popular,” admitted Sylvester Hoover, chairman of Little Zion's Deacon Board.

The exact location of Johnson’s grave has been a source of disagreement over the years, and the marker probably won’t change a lot of people’s minds about the location of the musician’s final resting place.  

It wasn’t until last year that Little Zion member Rosie Eskridge told blues historian Steve LaVere of Greenwood and the Commonwealth that she remembered that her husband, Tom, was in charge of Johnson's burial Aug. 16, 1938. Gaylon Wardlow of Pensacola, Fla., who describes himself as a “blues investigator,” said with other little-known Eskridge's version fits details of the Johnson case.

Wardlow said he uncovered Johnson's death certificate in 1968. Although the document did not list a doctor, it did list that information about Johnson was provided to the coroner by Jim Moore. Wardlow said Moore had been a worker on Luther Wade's plantation at the time of Johnson's death. The plantation was directly across the Tallahatchie River from Little Zion church, he said.  Wardlow said he picked the Commonwealth's story off the Associated Press wire and wanted to pursue it further.

Two months ago, Wardlow said, he came to Greenwood to interview Eskridge. "She told me she knew Jim Moore.  It fit.”

Eskridge attended Thursday’s ceremony but did not speak with reporters. Wardlow said Eskridge confirmed another detail disclosed on the back of Johnson's death certificate that Johnson was buried in a homemade coffin supplied by the county.  "She didn't know about the back side of the death certificate," which contained the details about the coffin and Moore.

Some confusion was created when the death certificate listed Johnson's burial as taking place in "Zion Church” Cemetery and not Little Zion, he said. Little Zion's Hoover said he knew little about Johnson and his influence on the world of music. "I went to school here, and they didn't teach me nothing about this guy," he said. "I'm glad he's here. He's in the right place."

Wardlow said he believes Johnson was the victim of syphilis and not foul play when he died at the age of 26. One popular story is that Johnson was poisoned by the jealous operator of a juke joint. "Robert Johnson knew he was going to die from complications of syphilis. He had the bad eye," Wardlow said. Wardlow also said the story that Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for supernatural musical talent is a myth. "Robert Johnson did not sell his soul to the devil at the crossroads," he said. When Johnson died, he "went to a spiritual heaven, not with Satan and the devil," Wardlow said. Wardlow said he provided the $684 granite headstone veneered in black. Although an inscription hasn't been made on the marker, Wardlow said he had a few ideas. He’ll probably write 'Legendary Mississippi Bluesman' or 'Most Influential Bluesman of All Time. May He Be in the Heavenly Way,"' he said.

The Rev. McArthur McKinley, pastor of Little Zion, said the celebration of the marker was appropriate. "I'm glad we finally found him.  We'll take it from here," he said. 

"Take it" is right.  The next week, they took it right out of there, allegedly planning to erect a taller marker.

The Greenwood Commonwealth, Aug 27, 2001.

A headstone was finally placed in the early months of 2002.  Whereas Gayle Dean Wardlow had graciously agreed to pay for the first marker as well as contribute to the supposedly massive second marker, Steve LaVere ended up footing the bill for his specialty marker, which contained the highly questionable handwritten letter supposedly written by Robert Johnson. LaVere, however, never allowed anyone to examine the letter to verify its authenticity.  Thus, still today, it remains highly dubious.  Not only that, but his purchase of the marker gave him and the Johnson estate a fair amount of discretion as to how or if the church might maintain its own cemetery.  He was not above filing a lawsuit against the church, which created much tension within the congregation.  Instead of unifying the church by supporting the pastor, who was put in a very precarious situation by supporting the installation of a bluesman's grave marker, LaVere instead thwarted his efforts to prove the marker would be a boon to the church.

The Greenwood Commonwealth, Feb 22, 2004.

No comments:

Post a Comment