A Devil and a Monument: The True Story of Robert Johnson's First Memorial

A Devil and a Monument:
The True Story of Robert Johnson's First Memorial
Director of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund
From the first article on the MZMF in
the Clarksdale Press Register (Nov 1990)   
For years, journalists told stories and spun tales about how three sites claimed to mark the grave of Robert Johnson. Due to laziness, mainly, the stories that you heard were all tourism hype and nonsense to direct attention elsewhere. The first historical marker erected for Robert Johnson at Mt. Zion MB Church near Morgan City never claimed to mark his grave. It did save the church from foreclosure and the cemetery from the encroaching cotton field. It remains open and maintained by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, a Mississippi organization vowed to save abandoned cemeteries by any means necessary--including erecting over twenty-three historical markers in African American cemeteries. This is the true story of the only marker that never claimed to mark a grave, proved a benefit not bane to the community, and represented much more than the mere burial of bones.

In the 1970s, Steve LaVere identified the probable burial location of Robert Johnson based on information from his death certificate and the account of David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who told Blues Unlimited that Johnson had been poisoned at a place called Three Forks outside of Greenwood. About two miles away from a former juke joint and store known as Three Forks near Quito Plantation, LaVere identified the likely burial location of Robert Johnson as the cemetery adjacent to the eighty-two year-old Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist (MB) Church outside Morgan City, Mississippi. “We couldn't find any grave markers for Robert Johnson,” LaVere recalled, “but I figured that had to be it…That was the ‘Zion Church’ closest to the place where he was poisoned.” Rev. Booker T. McSwine, however, warned that many Mt. Zion churches existed in rural Leflore County.

LaVere maintained this opinion about Johnson's final resting place for the next twenty years. He even published his assertions in the liner notes of the newly remastered Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, the hugely popular boxed set released on Columbia Records in 1990, which earned two Grammys for its digital recordings. He maintained this belief until he learned of the correct location of Three Forks. The cemetery, during this time, developed into an unofficial site of pilgrimage for any devotees of the Delta blues who may have learned of his conclusion. None, it seems, ever consulted the congregation on the matter.

Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist (MB) Church
outside Morgan City, Mississippi.
James Ratliff Jr. was born on March 18, 1949 in rural Washington County, Mississippi. Growing up the son of sharecropper James Ratliff, Sr. pastor of the Old Fitler Church in Washington County, he started working in the cotton field at age eleven. “We would work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. chopping and picking out in the bald sun. And for all that work the man would only give us $3 a day, minus 50 cents to pay for our lunch.” Jackie Netterville, who grew up in Greenville, referred their generation as the last of the cotton choppers. The younger son tired of life on the farm, and he left home after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, in Memphis in 1968, telling his sharecropper father that he would not pick anymore cotton. He became a preacher in 1980, and within a few years, he started to preach on a regular basis at Mt. Zion MB Church in Morgan City.

The Mt. Zion MB Church was founded in 1908 outside Morgan City. As the building got older, it required repairs, and eventually, the congregation had decided to rebuild. In the 1980s, the church was struggling with a small congregation—maybe 40 in all—to pay off the expenses it incurred for rebuilding its dilapidated old chapel. Rev. Ratliff presided over several funerals for longtime members in the late 1980s. The church also owed $3,100 on a bank mortgage for new pews. 

Old Fitler Church in Washington County
The fortunes of the church soon turned up when a New Jersey guitar-store owner journeyed down to Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, and was struck by the disparity: The Delta was stark poor, despite its distinction as birthplace of the blues, while Memphis was commercializing every blues connection. Skip Henderson, owner of City Lights Music in New Brunswick, wondered how the blues might raise money for the Delta. Robert Johnson was the first man who came to mind. Johnson's deeply emotional vocals, poetic verse and imaginative guitar work were an inspiration for Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and a generation of rock-and-roll. While looking for the unmarked grave of Robert Johnson and apparently coming to the same reasoning as Steve LaVere, he learned about the financial debt of the struggling church. With the help of a young Clarksdale attorney named J. Walker Sims, he incorporated the Mount Zion-Robert Johnson Memorial Fund in 1989. He organized the non-profit fund to help pay the church's remaining debt, clean up the cemetery and erect a memorial to Johnson.

Inside the Old Fitler Church

Rev. Ratliff was unimpressed at first. "I never heard of the fellow," recalls the pastor of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, a tiny Mississippi Delta congregation nestled in a soybean field near Morgan City. "I said, 'I don't know if he's buried there or not.'" The pastor came around, however, and soon had a poster of Johnson, with his intense gaze, pin-striped suit and spindly fingers, hanging on the wall in the pastor's study at Mount Zion.

Rev. James Ratliff Jr. in 1998

Once the project got going, momentum grew as Columbia Records released a two-volume set of digitally remastered recordings of Robert Johnson, which won a Grammy in 1991. Columbia expected only modest sales, but demand was staggering amid a swell of interest in Johnson. In December 1990, Don Ienner, president of Columbia, announced that the record company would contribute $10,000 to the memorial fund. A month later, it contributed $7,000 more. "This is our way of acknowledging a debt that's long overdue,” Ienner said in a statement. Warner Bros. also contributed $1,000 and donations came in from fans across the country. As much as twenty thousand dollars had been deposited into the bank account of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund. But then the idea for a memorial got complicated by conflicting stories about Robert Johnson's death. 

Payne Chapel, Peavey, and a Publicity Stunt

In late 1990, Living Blues magazine published an article suggesting, among other things, that Johnson was buried at Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Quito--about 2 miles from Mt. Zion MB Church--Morgan City. At least one woman remembered it that way. Known as Queen, Ms. Elizabeth Thomas claimed she was once Robert Johnson's girlfriend and she even recalled his burial at Payne Chapel. She even pointed out the gravesite--about 30 yards from the white-frame church, near an old tree stump. "It's my gut feeling that it's at Payne," exclaimed Peter Lee, editor of Living Blues, "but I could never prove it. Who knew for sure?" Skip Henderson wasn't sure, but his original plans for a single memorial got scrapped; he now planned to erect two markers--one at each church. He also managed to get Hartley Peavey, founder of Peavey Electronics Inc., to donate and install brand new PA systems in Mt. Zion, Payne Chapel, and New Jerusalem in Holly Ridge, the burial location of Charley Patton.

[Note: Meridian-native Hartley Peavey, president of Peavey Electronics, Inc., vowed to "kno6k the socks off" all competitors in the amplifier field in the 1970s. His determination, coupled with his philosophy of producing a "non-rip off product," made Peavey amplifiers #1 in sales nationally. The success formula is very simple. The Peavey company was not owned by any outside non-music group, which meant no holding companies or investment groups to be paid dividends. Peavey used the most modern of machinery and manufacturing techniques to reduce labor and waste. Peavey fabricated every piece of electronics and all speaker enclosures in their own plant. And he did not produce an overstock of finished products, see (Green Bay, Wisconsin) Press-Gazette, June 12, 1976.]

Several people have suggested Johnson may have been buried at one church, then moved to the other. So Skip Henderson included Payne Chapel Church in the Robert Johnson memorial project. A second, smaller memorial marker will be placed at Payne Chapel church. Henderson says he hopes the two memorials will educate people about the Delta's rich heritage and bring money into both congregations."

In fact, until a day or two before the dedication of the cenotaph, newspapers reported that 2 dedication events were scheduled for "two memorials [that] will be dedicated in Mississippi." "Saturday's ceremony at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Morgan City is private, but the memorial marking Johnson's gravesite will be open to the public in the afternoon. Sunday’s dedication at Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church at nearby Quito immediately after regular services is open to the public.  Some believe his body was moved there." Johnson's "complicated legacy" was also the subject of a lengthy article in the April 1991 edition of The Atlantic magazine.

The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund never installed a marker at Payne Chapel, however.  Peavey had the new PA installed inside the white-frame church at Quito, but a band from Atlanta had plans of their own for the burial ground [click here to learn more about the marker at Payne Chapel]  

Click HERE for Johnson's actual burial site and Steve Lavere's Lawsuit against the Church

Dedication Day

The Invitation sent out to all media
 and special guests before the event 
On Saturday April 20, 1991, half singing and half preaching about not judging others, Rev. James Ratliff, pastor of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, told the largest crowd (as many as two hundred, including writers from Billboard Magazine, Rolling Stone Magazine, Newsweek Magazine and numerous local media) he’d ever had in the church:

“If you got a religion that cannot stand a blues song, you in bad shape. Who can rightfully sit here and judge someone else? There’s nothing wrong with the blues. The thing that gets wrong is when you take it to heart, put it above God. As long as your heart is right, it doesn’t matter what you sing.”

Ratliffe was a tolerant man in his early forties. He was also the pastor for several church congregations, a teacher for young children in Head Start classes, and a bus driver for Head Start. He also had plans to renovate the church building with new: carpeting, air conditioning, and a classroom. According to the church treasurer, the church collected $419 for the church during the ceremonies.

Kenny Holladay of New Orleans and Robbie Phillips of Cambridge, Mass., paid tribute to Johnson by playing some of his tunes. Malcolm Rockwell, a member of a blues band in Hawaii, hopped on a plane and brought a Lei to place on the marker. He had traveled so far for a single purpose: “I came to honor Robert Johnson.” Many other blues admirers, recording company executives, and musicians traveled from such cities as New York, Memphis and Boston. Several Leflore 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 Horhn, associate director for the Division of Tourism Development, spoke about the growing awareness of Johnson’s vast influence on the music world. “This is indicated," he argued, "by the fact that this year the Chicago International Blues Festival in June will pay special tribute to him by featuring Mississippi Delta blues artists playing his music.” 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. Skip Henderson, who spearheaded the movement for more than a year to pay tribute to Johnson, had attracted the contributions from Warner Bros., Peavey Electronics and Columbia Records, which made it all possible.

Most of the people gathered in the rural church that day to honor a blues musician who supposedly sold his soul to the devil. Rev. Ratliff mentioned the myth that Johnson gained his proficient abilities on the guitar after he made a deal with the devil at a crossroads. He acknowledged that many people think it's a sin to honor a man who supposedly made a pact with the devil. Ratliff told the crowd, however. "I don't know what Johnson told the Lord. We all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." He encouraged his congregation to welcome the link to Johnson. "I told them, 'It's just a blessing from the Lord,'" he said. "They did a good deed way back in 1938 by burying Johnson, and it's paying off." Looking over the graves--most unmarked--Rev. Ratliff says that if he had to guess where Johnson was buried, he'd say near the edge, possibly beside the road, the area where charity cases generally are laid to rest. And if Johnson's own words were any indication, that may have been where he wanted it. Listen to his Me and the Devil Blues:
You can bury my body,
Down by the highway side 
So my old evil spirit 
Can catch a Greyhound bus and ride...
Yet, the burial ground had been full of weeds and covered with tangled vines.  The scattered, overturned and unattended grave markers and unmarked depressions were obscured beneath trees planted on the site when the congregation erected the original church in the early twentieth century.  Now, somewhat unexpectedly, it became famous for a man no one remembered.  Robert Johnson, the legendary musician who some recall as the greatest country blues artist in history, was NOT buried under the rubble and brush, or the cenotaph.  The cenotaph erected by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, nevertheless, helped the church pay off its red-cushioned pews. And at long last, the cemetery received some love and attention--after $1,100 of hard labor--thanks to Johnson's recording legacy.

“The Mississippi Delta is responsible for the majority of what is considered American music," said Skip Henderson, 40, president of City Lights Music of New Brunswick and director of the Mount Zion-Robert Johnson Memorial Fund. The inequity of record company proļ¬ts and Delta poverty prompted Henderson to start the fund. “I just wanted to bring some of the rewards back to the Delta,” Henderson said. “These musicians got ripped off from the beginning.”

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.

The crowd at Mt. Zion MB Church on April 20, 1991.