Bluesman Robert Johnson died in Greenwood at age 27, but his short life continues to fascinate modern audiences. The latest in a string of books about the blues legend was Tom Graves' Crossroads: The Life and After-life of Robert Johnson (Demers Books).
Graves, a music journalist who teaches at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, divides the book into a summary of the known facts about Johnson's life, and a series of short chapters that address how modern myths about Johnson developed. Graves addresses such topics as Johnson's early family life, personality, and musical career without the romanticism that characterizes—and distorts—so much of our modern understanding of Johnson.
Scott Barretta wrote in 2008 that the "contentious....debates surrounding Johnson after his death...are perhaps best exemplified by the three gravestones for Johnson in the Greenwood area. The establishment—and controversy—over these markers is just one of the many topics that Graves covers in the remainder of the book."
The lack of serious research into this contemporary myth of the three graves--on both Graves' and Barretta's parts--is one of the most problematic elements of both the disc jockey's commentary and this book. [To read the actual story of the cenotaph (memorial to someone buried elsewhere), click HERE]
Interest in Johnson by blues enthusiasts took off shortly before his death, and Graves chronicles step-by-step the growth of legends of Johnson, particularly those concerning his alleged pact with the devil. Graves also details how the modern popularity of myths about Johnson were advanced by the film Crossroads. Other issues addressed here include debates over ownership of the two known photographs of Johnson and the legal proceedings surrounding Johnson's estate.
Barretta claims that "Claud Johnson of Crystal Springs was determined to be Johnson's son," which is not at all accurate. He was declared the heir to the Johnson fortune in a Mississippi court of law based on the dubious testimony of a woman who claimed to have watched his mother have sex with Robert Johnson in the woods. [For more on these proceedings, click HERE]
With a new book coming out about Johnson, which contains some of the most dubious information to date, it might be a good time to go back and look at the work of Graves once again. By this time next year, it's minor flaws will most likely seem tame in comparison to the continuation of the Ike Zimmerman myth and the continued campaign to build up some of the most problematic interviews in blues history as the unrivaled truth. Tom Graves may look better than ever as we enter a new decade, which will also bring the new book on Johnson by Preston Lauterbach that was funded through an online campaign through Kickstarter.