Walt's Look Around: Blues Legend Tommy Johnson - WLBT.com - Jackson, MS

Walt's Look Around: Blues Legend Tommy Johnson

Source: WLBT Source: WLBT

Mississippi is the birthplace of the blues and birthplace of many blues legends, including one who recently received an honor from his hometown.

Just a few days ago a stretch of Highway 51 in Copiah County was named for Tommy Johnson. There are a lot of parallels between his life and the infamous Robert Johnson (who, just to add confusion, also has a highway named for HIM in Copiah County.) But here is what we need to know about Tommy.

Tommy Johnson was born in Terry in Hinds County but spent much of his life in Crystal Springs. That's where he has his namesake highway; Highway 51 inside the city limits of Crystal Springs.

Tommy played music along with his brothers, LeDell and Mager Johnson. Mager's daughter, Tommy Johnson's niece, Vera Johnson Collins remembers some of the stories.

"They started out singing gospel, said Vera. "And as my father and them aged and got to become young mens and they kept playing their guitars and everything, they found out they could make a living playing the blues.

Tommy Johnson's addiction to alcohol was not only the topic of many of his songs but a source of family stories, like the night the family was sitting around the fireplace and the fire had died.

"And said that Uncle Tommy just spit in it and said it blazed up like the house was on fire," said Vera.

Tommy Johnson made some solo recordings back in 1928 that in later years became influential with rock groups. His unusual vocal style and his guitar style led some in his time to say he had sold his soul to the devil.

"They really, I think that my father and them really did believe that," added Vera.

Devil or not, alcohol or not, he's considered enough of a founder of the blues to have his name listed on the Blues Marker up at Dockery Plantation at Ruleville as having been directly influenced by Charlie Patton.

"If it had not been for people like Tommy Johnson and Charlie Taylor and Charlie Patton all of these, the first new arrival on the scene of blues, we wouldn't have this good rich music that we have today," added Vera.

Tommy Johnson is buried in Copiah County. Niece Vera feels like his grave would be a tourist attraction for blues fans and would like the county to build a road out to it for easier access.

But baby steps first. Having a highway named for you is a good starter road.

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