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Miss. officials hope to restore birthplace of legendary bluesman

By Shelia Byrd
Associated Press / November 13, 2009

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JACKSON, Miss. - The mystery surrounding bluesman Robert Johnson’s life and death feeds the lingering fascination with his work.

There’s the myth he sold his soul to the devil to create his haunting guitar intonations. There’s the dispute over where he died after his alleged poisoning by a jealous man in 1938. Three different markers claim to be the site of his demise.

His birthplace, however, has been verified. The seminal bluesman came into the world in 1911 in a well-crafted home built by his stepfather in the Mississippi town of Hazlehurst.

Now, 71 years after his death, local officials want to restore the home in hopes of drawing Johnson fans and their tourism dollars to Copiah County, about 100 miles from the Delta region that most bluesmen called home.

Johnson’s life and music have been the subject of multiple books. And producers are shopping a script in Hollywood about him penned by Jimmy White, the screenwriter for the Academy Award-winning film, “Ray.’’

“It’s amazing that after all these years, people still talk about Robert Johnson on the level that they do,’’ said the bluesman’s grandson, Steven Johnson.

Johnson’s influence can be heard in the works of numerous artists, from Muddy Waters to Eric Clapton, who covered 14 of the bluesman’s songs on his 2004 album, “Me and Mr. Johnson.’’

The house is an important piece of Johnson’s legacy, said Grammy-winning pianist George Winston, who will headline a fund-raiser for the restoration Monday in Jackson.

“He was an inspired musician. He took a quantum leap,’’ said Winston. The story goes that Johnson didn’t play all that well at first, then left town for a while. When he returned, his music had undergone a transformation.

“He came back and everybody couldn’t believe how well he played,’’ Winston said.

That’s likely what gave rise to the soul-selling rumor, a transaction purportedly taking place at the crossroads of US 61 and US 49 in the Mississippi Delta.

Johnson’s birthplace was verified in a letter from his half-sister years ago, said Janet Schriver, executive director of the Copiah County Office of Cultural Affairs.

The 1,500-square-foot home now owned by the county has fallen into disrepair, but it still bears evidence of craftsmanship. Johnson’s stepfather, Charles Dodds, was a furniture maker and a prosperous landowner. The house had a double-parlor, a long front porch and a pump that allowed water to flow into the kitchen, a modern convenience unheard in most homes occupied by blacks in the early 20th century, said Schriver.

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