Friday, March 15, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Country Bluesman's Legacy Gives New Life To Music's Birthplace

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

MORGAN CITY, Miss. - The church cemetery was thick with weeds and covered with tangled vines, its scattered tombstones overturned and unattended, when 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 buried under the rubble and brush, according to state records.

At first, the Rev. James Ratliff Jr. was unimpressed.

``I never heard of the fellow,'' Ratliff, pastor of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, remembers telling a caller. His is 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.' ''

These days, a poster of Johnson, with his intense gaze, pin-striped suit and spindly fingers, hangs on the wall in the pastor's study at Mount Zion. The church's red-cushioned pews have been paid off, thanks to the bluesman. And at long last, the cemetery has been cleared - after $1,100 of hard labor - thanks to Johnson's recording legacy.

Yet it's been an odd mix of blessing and bewilderment.

The convergence of Baptist church and rambling bluesman started after 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, N.J., 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. Clapton recently wrote of him, ``. . . I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice, really.''

Johnson also was a mythical figure - a hard-living man who traveled from town to town, perfected his musical genius largely in isolation, kept fleeting company with dozens of women and was murdered at age 26 - reportedly by a jealous husband - in 1938.

It was Johnson's death certificate that led Skip Henderson to Mount Zion church.

But there, almost no one knew about Johnson. The cemetery was overgrown and obscured. And 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. Mount Zion church still owed $3,100 on a bank mortgage for new pews.

Henderson decided the answer was the Mount Zion-Robert Johnson Memorial Fund. He organized the nonprofit fund to help pay the church's remaining debt, clear out the cemetery and erect a memorial to Johnson.

Momentum grew as Columbia Records released a two-volume set of digitally remastered recordings of Robert Johnson, which won a Grammy this year. Columbia expected modest sales. But demand was staggering amid a swell of interest in Johnson. More than 400,000 copies have been sold.

Last December, Don Ienner, president of Columbia, announced 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. About $19,000 has been collected all told.

But then the idea for a memorial got complicated by conflicting stories about Robert Johnson's death. How he died is - and has always been - shrouded in mystery.

According to blues artist Honeyboy Edwards, who was there, Robert Johnson was poisoned in a juke joint by his lover's jealous husband. Johnson's death certificate says he was buried at Mount Zion church, and one researcher has said Johnson's mother and brother-in-law attended burial services at the church.

But further details always have been hard to confirm. And late last year, a different story was published in Living Blues magazine. It suggested, among other things, that Johnson was buried two miles from Mount Zion, at Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Quito. Some residents remembered it that way, particularly a woman known as Queen Elizabeth.

``Queen'' Elizabeth Thomas says she was once Robert Johnson's girlfriend and she recalls his burial at Payne Chapel, about 30 yards from the white-frame church, near an old tree stump, says Peter Lee, editor of Living Blues.

Who knew for sure? 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. The granite Mount Zion memorial to Robert Johnson will be dedicated April 20, and Henderson envisions both churches may eventually set hours for visitors - and then raise funds by selling refreshments or crafts in their churchyards.

Looking over the graves - most unmarked - Ratliff says 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, ooh

down by the highway side

So my old evil spirit

can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.''

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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