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 • Warm Springs Methodist Church Cemetery
 • Crystal Springs
 • Copiah County
 • Mississippi
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Tommy Johnson
Birth: 1896
Terry
Hinds County
Mississippi, USA
Death: Nov. 1, 1956
Crystal Springs
Copiah County
Mississippi, USA

Blues Musician. An important figure in the development of Mississippi Delta blues. He is remembered for a handful of classic recordings he made in the late 1920s, and for claims he sold his soul to the Devil - a myth later imposed on Robert Johnson. His notorious song "Canned Heat Blues" (1928) inspired the name of the blues-rock group Canned Heat. He was elected to the Blues Hall of Fame in 1986. Johnson was born on a farm near Terry, Mississippi, into a musical family. Around 1910 they moved to Crystal Springs in Copiah County, which would be Johnson's home base for the rest of his life. Together with his brothers LeDell (who taught him guitar) and Mager he began performing at local parties and picnics, even though he showed no special talent for it at first. In 1916 he married and moved to Drew, Mississippi, near the Dockery Plantation where the "Father of Delta Blues" Charley Patton lived. Johnson learned much from Patton over the next year or so, then hit the road on his own to spread the Delta sound in juke joints throughout Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. When he returned to Crystal Springs in 1920 he was an accomplished musician with a reputation for flamboyant live performances. In his prime he could belt out blues at the top of his voice for hours, spicing his singing with a trademark falsetto that sounded rather like a deathly yodel, while entertaining the crowd with acrobatic guitar stunts borrowed from Patton. For all the showmanship Johnson seems to have lost his ambition early on. In the 1920s he settled into a pattern of playing when he felt like it or to fund his drinking, gambling and whoring. Especially his drinking. His craving for alcohol was such that when none was available he would drink Sterno, a desperate habit he sang about in "Canned Heat Blues" ("Canned heat, Lord, killin' me"). Johnson's alcoholism also made him unreliable to record producers, limiting his discography to 12 singles released by the Victor and Paramount labels between 1928 and 1930. At his Paramount sessions in December 1929 he was so perpetually hammered he managed to cut only six usable sides in two weeks - a day's work for most blues artists at the time. "Big Road Blues" (1928) scored a sizable hit, however, and "Cool Drink of Water", "Slidin' Delta", "Maggie Campbell's Blues", and "Canned Heat Blues" evolved into standards. And as the first major Delta bluesman to make records he opened the door for the recording careers of Charley Patton, Son House, and several other greats of the genre. He spent the rest of his life in Mississippi shuttling between the Crystal Springs area and Jackson, where he was a popular performer through the 1940s. He died of a heart attack at 60 after playing a house party in Crystal Springs; given his lifestyle it's amazing he lasted that long. In 2001, the Mount Zion Memorial Fund announced it would place a proper headstone (paid for by Bonnie Raitt) over Johnson's neglected grave at Warm Springs Methodist Church Cemetery. The ceremony was stalled for a decade due to a dispute between the MZMF and local landowners and politicians over allowing public access to the burial ground; during that time the headstone was displayed at the Crystal Springs Public Library. It was finally installed in October 2012 - only to be destroyed by vandals four months later. More durable, it seems, is the mythologizing that has stemmed from Johnson over the last 40 years. In the late 1960s, LeDell Johnson (who had become a preacher) gave blues historian David Evans a strange account of how his brother acquired his musical prowess during his first absence from Crystal Springs. He quoted Tommy as telling him: "You take your guitar and you go to...where a crossroads is...be sure to get there just a little 'fore 12 that night...be playing a piece there by yourself...A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he'll tune it. And then he'll play a piece and hand it back to you. That's the way I learned to play anything I want". No talk of Satan or contracts here, because it describes the crossroads ritual in Hoodoo, an African-American folk spirituality strongly rooted in the Delta. According to this belief the "big black man" is not the Devil but a mischievous spirit who seldom arrives when summoned, and does his best to be frightening when he does. If the seeker isn't scared off he'll be granted a desired skill or piece of knowledge, though with no promise it will lead to prosperity. Assuming the quote was genuine, Johnson was no doubt "jiving" the superstitious LeDell. Evans' book "Tommy Johnson" was published in 1971. Subsequent writers on blues conflated the obscure Hoodoo ritual with the better known Faust legend of selling one's soul to the Devil, and then more effectively transferred it to Robert Johnson, whose songs "Cross Road Blues" and "Hellhound On My Trail" could be vaguely interpreted to fit the scenario. There is no evidence either Johnson publicly claimed a demonic connection to promote themselves; the only notable bluesman who did was Peetie Wheatstraw, and it was clearly tongue-in-cheek. The tale of the Devil and Tommy Johnson nevertheless remains part of blues folklore and was used as such in the Coen Brothers' film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000). (bio by: Bobb Edwards) 
 
Burial:
Warm Springs Methodist Church Cemetery
Crystal Springs
Copiah County
Mississippi, USA
 
Maintained by: Find A Grave
Originally Created by: K
Record added: Feb 12, 2007
Find A Grave Memorial# 17907740
Tommy Johnson
Added by: Bobb Edwards
 
Tommy Johnson
Added by: T MO
 
Tommy Johnson
Cemetery Photo
Added by: Mark Blasingame
 
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- R I P
 Added: Nov. 1, 2014

- Janis Coleman
 Added: Nov. 1, 2014

- Cindy
 Added: Nov. 1, 2014
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