Blues historian Gayle Dean Wardlow, who spent more than three decades searching for the location of Robert Johnson’s grave, is initiating the first annual Robert Johnson Cross Road Memorial Days celebration of the blues giant’s life and music.
The two-day event is scheduled for August 16th and 17th, beginning at the Little Zion Baptist Church near Greenwood, Mississippi, which includes the Little Zion Baptist Church Cemetery, where Johnson was buried, sixty-three years earlier to the day. The festivities include a ninety-minute discussion of Johnson’s recordings by Wardlow (who penned the book Chasin’ That Devil Music), Frank Driggs and Larry Cohn. Driggs was responsible for the production of the first Johnson reissue on Columbia in 1961, and Cohn put together the Grammy-winning 1991 box set that collected all of Johnson’s known recordings. The day’s events will also feature testimony from more than forty musicians about Johnson’s work and influence, and the unveiling of a new headstone for Johnson’s previously unmarked burial site.
On August 17th, blues fans will take a tour of the Delta Bar-B-Que at a nearby plantation where Johnson actually died, before taking a tour of Mississippi blues gravesites, which includes the final resting places of Mississippi John Hurt and Willie Brown.
Wardlow’s lengthy search began in 1968 when he discovered the front page of Johnson’s death certificate. He found the backside of the certificate in 1996, which was filed without the benefit of an attending physician, and included the opinion (of a plantation owner) that Johnson died of syphilis. Shortly afterwards, Wardlow was led to Johnson’s actual burial site by eighty-six-year-old Rosie Eskridge, whose husband dug Johnson’s grave on August 16, 1938.