I've never felt more like singin' the blues

Tommy Johnson was one of the great bluesmen, an inspiration to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf - and to the makers of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Yet for 50 years he has lain in an unmarked grave. Andrew Buncombe meets the woman who is fighting to keep the guitarist's legacy alive
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The legendary bluesman Tommy Johnson has been in the ground for close to half a century, so when his niece saw him at the foot of her bed - as alive and fresh as a bright Mississippi morning - she was certain that she was being given a message. And she was equally sure that it related to the controversy surrounding old Uncle Tommy's grave.

"I knew that this was my role - this is what I have to do," says Vera Collins, a solid and feisty 44-year-old, who was born three years to the day after her uncle died. "I feel a spiritual connection. I don't know if it is because of my birthday, but I feel something. And I'll not stop until this is done."

It is that unfinished task and connection to an uncle she never knew that has brought Collins back to her birthplace in Mississippi, back to the cotton and soya-bean fields and the poor-as-dirt townships south of the state capital, Jackson; and it is that same connection that has led her, her cousin Rose and me to be trampling through the dense undergrowth of a private wood in search of Uncle Tommy's grave.

"Come on, this way - it's over here," Collins says, pushing aside branches and the cobwebs that hang from them. "It's there, under the oak tree. Just like I told you."

Beneath the large, spreading oak tree, we gather around what Collins assures us is the grave, sunk long ago into the soft earth of what was once a small cemetery but has now been all but lost to the moss, roots and trees of the unmanaged wood. A makeshift wooden marker bearing her uncle's name, which she put on the grave on an earlier visit, has been eaten by termites and blown adrift by the wind.

Standing in the sunlight that breaks through the leaves, Collins tells a story of which her uncle has become the centre. She tells of her struggle to erect a marble headstone on the grave - how the musicians Bonnie Raitt and John Fogerty helped to pay for the stone, and how she has been refused the necessary access to the cemetery; and of alleged racism, the problems she has encountered with the local white landowners, and the apparent indifference - and even hostility - of the local authority.

"It's because they're racist. That is the only thing I can think. Why would anyone want to stop you visiting a grave?" she says. "At first, the landowner was prepared to let us open the road and put up the headstone. But then he found out who Uncle Tommy was - he found out that he was somebody famous."

Tommy Johnson was born in Terry, Mississippi, in 1896, the sixth of the 13 children of Idell and Mary Johnson, sharecroppers on a plantation about 20 miles south of Jackson. It was a hard, desperately poor existence, and by the age of 15, Johnson was looking for a way out. Having been taught to play the guitar by his brother LeDell, Johnson met a young woman, with whom he eloped. The affair was to be short-lived, but, crucially, it led the young man to the Mississippi Delta, home of the blues.

It was in the delta, a wedge-shaped piece of land squeezed between the towns of Clarksdale, Greenville and Greenwood and bordered by the mud-stained waters of the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers, that Johnson honed his skills as a performer. Some say he learnt much of his trade from the celebrated bluesman Charley Patton, but by the time he returned to Terry and the nearby town of Crystal Springs three years later, he had a different story - namely, that he had been granted his skills by the Devil, in exchange for his soul.

"If you want to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroads is," Johnson told his brother LeDell. "Be sure to get there just a little 'fore 12 that night so you know you'll be there. You have your guitar and 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 learnt to play anything I want."

Johnson's talents and his supposed deal with the Devil - a legend, incidentally, most usually associated with his (unrelated) namesake and fellow bluesman Robert Johnson - were to make him one of the most popular and important bluesmen of his time. He and Collins's father, along with other members of the family, were famous in Crystal Springs for the parties and "juke" sessions that would stretch from Friday evening to Monday morning - often at the home of a white patron.

He would influence other, better-known performers, including Muddy Waters, Robert Nighthawk and Howlin' Wolf. His character also featured in the Coen brothers' 2000 Golden Globe-winning film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which took its name from one of his songs.

"In the country blues, I would certainly consider him one of the greatest performers and composers," says David Evans, a professor of music at Memphis University and the author of a biography of Johnson. "He was a great teacher, and therefore many people would learn his songs. He was very generous with his songs and he was important as a disseminator of the blues."

The recorded body of Johnson's work is slight. An album published by Document Records, said to contain his complete works, has just 17 tracks, recorded in two sessions in Memphis in 1928 and a third in Grafton, Wisconsin, in 1929. On those 17 tracks, Johnson's voice moves variously from gentle to coarse - one moment, low-pitched and nasal; the next, soaring into a delicate falsetto. Probably his most famous song is "Canned Heat Blues", which recounts his habit, as an alcoholic, of drinking Sterno, a famous brand of cooking fuel. "Crying, Lord, Lord, I wonder,/ Canned Heat, Lord, killing me./ Take Canned to soothe me. Worrying 'bout my soul./ I should stop this morning, To do this won't be no easy road."

When he died of a heart attack in Crystal Springs on 1 November 1956, broken by drink, womanising and hard living, Johnson had nothing to show for his work. "He got sick and he had to quit playing," says Collins's elder sister, Maynell, who was 17 when Johnson died. "He was a poor man. He never received anything. He thought he had sold the rights to his songs."

It was partly out of a desire to see her uncle properly recognised that Collins contacted Skip Henderson, a New Orleans blues fan who turned his back on his wife and his guitar shop in New Jersey many years ago and dedicated himself to putting up memorials and headstones on the graves of his heroes. After the dream in which her uncle appeared at the foot of her bed, smiling but not saying a word, she knew she had to act.

Tommy Johnson is only the latest blues musician on whose grave Henderson and his organisation, the Mount Zion Fund, have sought to place a headstone. His group took its name from the Baptist church in Morgan City, Mississippi, where it put up a memorial for Robert Johnson, the first of about a dozen artists who have been honoured in this way since 1990.

Tommy Johnson's white marble headstone - inscribed with lyrics from another of his songs, "Big Road Blues" - was delivered to Crystal Springs for an official unveiling on 21 October 2001. Collins had hoped that getting it erected at the grave would be a formality. After all, these days Crystal Springs is a scruffy little town that could do with an injection of money from the tourism that Johnson's grave would probably attract. Instead, two years later, the headstone remains in limbo, in the doorway of the town library. "We've put it in the best place we could," the friendly librarian, Gwen Gallman, tells me when I visit the town, passing by the building that once housed the chemist's shop (Thraxton's) where Johnson bought his Sterno.

The problem, Collins explains, as we make our way out of the woods, is one of access. The cemetery was once attached to a black church, Warm Springs Methodist, which gradually fell into disuse and then was burnt down, about 15 years ago, in a spate of church-burnings across the South. Up until the late 1960s, official maps showed the access track as a road maintained by the local Copiah County authority. But with control of the land having been in effect ceded back to the landowners, who donated it to the church more than a century ago, the question of who is responsible for the long-overgrown access road is a moot point. The nearest landowner, William Keating - on whose property you now have to walk to get to the grave - is said to spend most of his time in Texas. When we knock on his door, there is no answer.

The property opposite is owned by his sister-in-law, Maureen Keating. When we call there, Collins gets into something of a debate with her about access. "My grandfather was brought; he was brought here as a slave," Collins says, increasingly belligerent. Keating retorts: "And if it had not been for some nice white people, there would have been no church and no school."

As we climb back into the car, Collins is seething. "See what I mean? You heard it for yourself. They want us black people to be grateful. They don't like the idea of black people rising up, doing something for themselves. And they should think about what they're doing about this cemetery - we're all going to end up there one day."

The local authority offers no more encouragement. "The problem is that it's private property," says Jimmy Phillips, the member of the Copiah County Board of Supervisors responsible for the land. "The cemetery is not, nor is the church, but the road is." Asked if racism has any part in the dispute, he quickly replies: "Not at all."

Henderson almost laughs as he talks about the problem he and his group have encountered in Crystal Springs. "Johnson's grave should be a state historic landmark," he says. "It's dumbfounding to me, and this is supposed to be the Year of the Blues. It's immoral. But this is Mississippi. I am used to dealing with Mississippi.

"Racism?" he continues. "Absolutely. It's very simple. If this were a white cemetery that contained the grave of a Confederate soldier, by state law it would have to be maintained. But anything to do with black people or black culture - anything other than that romantic idea of the lost cause of the South - anything that brings that to the fore rubs people up the wrong way."

It is mid-afternoon when I drive Collins back to Jackson, and she directs me up Old Highway 51, the "Blues Route" down which Johnson, her father and countless others walked or drove on their way north to fame, notoriety and, often, an early death in the Delta. It was the road of escape.

On the way, we pass the Green Parrot, a long-standing roadside "juke joint", where Johnson and others would play their music, forced to sit outside and buy their beer from a window, because segregation barred them from going inside. It is a warm afternoon, and a cold drink is enticing. We pause briefly, unsure what reception we will be given. "I'm not sure they're used to getting too many black women in here," Collins says. She slams the car door shut and walks toward the entrance.