Monday, February 24, 2014
The son of legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson can keep profits from the only two known photographs of his father, the Mississippi supreme court ruled Thursday.
Robert Johnson died at the age of 27 in depression-era Mississippi having lived his brief adult life as an itinerant Delta bluesman. In his life he only recorded 29 songs, and there are only two known photographs of him in existance. He died before he turned 30 and the exact location of his grave is unknown (though there are three markers for him -- one in Morgan City MS, one in Quito MS, and one north of Greenwood MS). After his death, Johnson became one of the most influential guitarists in music history --- in 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Johnson 5th among the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
The case is Aynne Anderson v. Stephen C. Lavere, No. 2012-CA-00601-SCT (Miss., February 20, 2012). Mississippi courts had previously declared Robert Johnson's son, Claud Johnson, to be his sole heir in 1998. This case turns on the relevant federal and state statute of limitations' application to the facts. The case is interesting not only for its historical significance to music fans, but also as illustrating how testimony in once case case turn fatal in a subsequent claim.
According to the case, Plaintiffs Anderson, et al., initially believed they were the heirs to the Robert Johnson Estate -- Johnson died intestate in 1938 and left no estate of value, or so anyone then thought. Plaintiffs opened Johnson's estate in 1989 believing themselves to be the bluesman's only heirs. During the proceedings, they testified under oath that the recordings and two photographs were the Johnson Estate's property. However, Mississippi courts ultimately found Claud Johnson to be Robert Johnson's only heir.
In this subsequent litigation over rights to the two photographs, Plaintiffs' asserted the those same photographs belonged to them personally. The court wrote:
Also, we note that during the [prior] heirship proceedings, Anderson and Harris did not claim the photographs belonged to Thompson. Rather, they claimed the photographs were assets of the Johnson estate. They assert that they did not bring a separate action because they thought they were the only heirs to the Johnson estate, and thus they were entitled to the photographs as Johnson’s heirs. So, only after losing the estate case did Anderson and Harris bring a separate action claiming that Thompson – and not the estate – owned the photographs. This strategy cannot serve to toll the statute of limitations.
A collection of Robert Johnson's recordings, "The Complete Recordings" won a Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Historical Album.