Please See That My Grave Is Kept Clean
We had a devil of a time finding Robert Johnson's gravesite, even though we had allegedly good directions and a map.
The directions were good as far as they went, and so was the map, but eventually you get out into the middle of the boondocks, and then you have to notice a dirt track heading off to the west, just south of a bridge over a little slough, which broadens out into a body of water known as Mosquito Lake. Eventually we found the turnoff.
The name of the place is Quito, though there's no sign to say so. It's about 5 miles south of Itta Bena, which is easier to find, on Highway 7. The trick is to watch for the bridge over the slough, right before you hit a string of buildings--a couple of larger ones, with some houses and shacks scattered along on either side of the road. Right after the bridge, you want to make a right turn (headed west) on the dirt road.
Head up the dirt road a tiny bit, and you find the Payne Baptist Church off on your right, up a dirt driveway. There was no marker on the church, though it's right off the road. We missed it on our first pass. (The light was starting to fail, which didn't help.) We parked the car and got out. There was nobody around; we were miles from civilization, though there were some shacks up another road nearby.
The grave gets no special marking, nor does the Johnson family plot get special marking. It's a fairly large graveyard, so you'll walk around a bit as you try to find what you're there for. The grave is on the north side of the graveyard, near the slough, about midway back to the far end.
The coins were already there when we got there. We were there late in the day, but the place did not have a heavily trafficked feel, even though this is one of the most fabled pilgrimages on the blues history trail. We left a guitar pick and a few flowers on the stone.
The Three Forks store, where Robert Johnson was allegedly poisoned, sort of. The sign has been removed and is now in the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale.
After we drove back out to the main road, we wanted to find the store. We drove up and down and up and down, noticing a couple of guys who were watching us, until finally we let one of them approach us (we were out in the boondocks and it was getting dark, so we were a little leery), and he told us the big building right at the side of the road was the store we were looking for.
(Click on the picture for a bigger version.)
The guy came over to us from his shack on the side of the road. He was wearing only socks on his feet. He'd been watching us go by for a while as we tried to figure out which building was the store.
The road back to the church and the grave, by the way, is just off to the right of the store.
By the time we got there it was too dark to see much, but we did use our camera flashes to give us a glimpse inside the store. (Click above for a bigger version.) What we did not note while we were there, though we surely saw it: This is not the Three Forks Store building in which Robert Johnson played his last night. The store was moved into this building after that incident. The store's original building was up the road a ways, but it too was moved down here, some say. There aren't many buildings in this tiny community, so in looking around for this, we must have seen the one in which he drank from the strychnine-laced half-pint bottle.
Other people say the building from the original store was moved somewhere else, and the building that got moved here is a whole different building. This is typical of the confusion around Robert Johnson's death. We're not even sure the spot we saw was his real grave. Another marker is about 2 miles further south on Highway 7, north of Morgan City, as described in Lonely Planet's Deep South, p. 327: "Turn off Hwy 7 at the sign for Mathews Brake National Wildlife Refuge and you'll find the small Mount Zion MB Church nestled in a thicket less than a quarter of a mile up the road. Johnson's memorial takes the shape of a small obelisk and is inscribed with the titles of his songs."
There's a lot of other lore around Robert Johnson, his life, his art and his death. As time permits, I'll complete more of the story.
After seeing this gravesite, we headed out fast for the main road; we were late on our way to New Orleans. After an amusing dinner in a diner in Winona, we drove for several hours and finally made it there.