Robert L. Johnson

Illegitimate Son Of Long-Dead Blues Singer Receives Royalties

JUNE 26, 2000 VOLUME 7, NUMBER 52

When Robert L. Johnson died in Mississippi in 1938, he was largely unknown. The 27-year-old had a musical gift, and he left a number of blues recordings. There did not appear to be any valuable property in his estate at the time, though, so no probate was initiated.

In 1991, after a resurgence of interest in Mississippi blues Mr. Johnson earned his first royalties. A probate estate was started to handle the payments and determine Mr. Johnson’s heirs.

Caroline Thompson had been Mr. Johnson’s last surviving sister, but she died in 1983. She left a will naming two of her relatives to receive her entire estate, and they claimed that they were entitled to Mr. Johnson’s estate as well, since it would have passed to Ms. Thompson.

Claud L. Johnson disagreed. Although his mother was unmarried when he was born, Claud Johnson had always been told that his father was blues singer Robert L. Johnson. His birth certificate even listed “R.L. Johnson” as the father.

The probate court at first refused to accept Claud Johnson’s claim, finding that it was too late to determine paternity of a 60-year-old man more than a half century after the death of the alleged father. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed that decision and ordered the probate court to hold a hearing on Claud Johnson’s petition.

In addition to testimony from Claud Johnson himself the probate court received a deposition from Claud’s mother. She insisted that Robert L. Johnson was Claud’s father, that she had not had sex with anyone else at the time of conception, and that Robert L. Johnson acknowledged that he was the father. Two other friends testified that they had seen Robert L. Johnson with Claud and his mother.

Most poignantly, the court heard from a childhood friend of Claud’s mother, Eula Mae Williams. Ms. Williams testified that she and her then boyfriend spent time with Robert L. Johnson and Claud’s mother. She testified that the two couples went for a walk in the woods in the spring of 1931, and ended up having sex within sight of one another. When the lawyer for the other family members challenged her by suggesting that he would never have watched another couple making love, Ms. Williams retorted: “I’m sorry for you.”

Claud L. Johnson was found to be Robert L. Johnson’s son, and entitled to his estate. The other claimants appealed. The Mississippi Supreme Court, saying that Ms. Williams’ testimony “rings true,” agreed that the evidence in favor of Claud Johnson’s claim was clear and convincing. Estate of Robert L. Johnson, June 15, 2000.

In 1936 Robert L. Johnson recorded “Hellhound On My Trail” (among other blues songs). “You sprinkled hot foot powder all around your daddy’s door,” he sang. Indeed.

You can listen to (or purchase copies of) Robert Johnson’s recordings. Or you can listen to Eric Clapton covering the Robert Johnson oeuvre. Think of Claud L. Johnson as you do.

Update: Claud L. Johnson died in 2015. You can read more about his life, both before and after the estate litigation, at the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation.

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