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The Genius of Blues

He was somehow both obscure and legendary in his own lifetime. The story was that he was an adolescent nuisance hanging around older musicians, banging around ineptly on their instruments when they set them down; then he went away for a while and came back a phenomenon. It was noised about that he had made a pact with the devil, but that was the same story that had been circulating concerning the older and unrelated (and very different) Tommy Johnson, so that it was either misheard or possibly Robert’s own press agentry. He played juke joints and street corners in places that ranged all the way to Chicago and New York City, traveling on freights and by hitchhiking. His big break came when the promoter John Hammond sought him out for his “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in December 1938, intending to present him as the first Delta blues singer to appear before a white, big-city crowd, but unfortunately he had been murdered several months earlier. By the time the first LP of his songs came out, in 1961, the situation could be summed up by Frank Driggs in his liner notes: “Robert Johnson is little, very little more than a name on aging index cards and a few dusty master records in the files of a phonograph company that no longer exists.”

There is a little more now, but not a great deal—Peter Guralnick’s measured and honest small book contains, in sixty-eight pages not counting bibliography, just about everything, or at least everything that’s been brought to light. This does not include the name of his murderer, who was evidently last seen in Key West in 1975, or the one of the three known photographs of Johnson that has never been made public. The pictures weren’t found until 1972 and were promptly copyrighted by a researcher; two of them were finally published fifteen years later, in Rolling Stone and 78 Quarterly, respectively. In the meantime, Robert Johnson captured the imagination of the world. His Complete Recordings won a Grammy in 1990, and the set is presumably owned by many people who have no other acquaintance with acoustic blues.

He is esteemed for his influence on rock ‘n’ roll, to be sure (the Rolling Stones recorded his songs “Love in Vain” and “Stop Breaking Down”), and for his function as a sort of historical funnel (reflecting what went on in blues before him and anticipating much that would happen after his death), but it is the intertwining of his art and his enigma that makes him indelible. It is hard to separate one from the other. During his lifetime he was best known for “Terraplane Blues,” an extended car-as-sex metaphor (and thus a progenitor of a durable American pop-culture motif), and his performance repertoire apparently included Bing Crosby numbers, hillbilly yodels, novelty songs, “My Blue Heaven.” The songs for which he is remembered, though, are devil-haunted, death-obsessed. His lyrics seem to bear out the rumor of his demonic pact and foretell his shadowy end (he was poisoned by a jealous husband):

If I had possession over judgment day
If I had possession over judgment day
The little woman I’m lovin’ wouldn’t have no right to pray

and

You may bury my body down by the highway side
You may bury my body down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride

and

I got to keep on movin’
I got to keep on movin’
blues fallin’ down like hail
blues fallin’ down like hail
And the days keeps on worryin’ me
there’s a hellhound on my trail
hellhound on my trail
hellhound on my trail

Not that the words can really be set apart from Johnson’s timing and his guitar, the alternating growl and sigh of his delivery, the fatalistic way he echoes his lines. In his book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus—who says he finds Johnson the appropriate background music for reading Jonathan Edwards—portrays Johnson as inheritor of the Puritan devil, “the Puritan commitment to extremes, the willingness to live in a world where the claims of God and the devil are truly at odds.”6 This Manichean tension shows up often in American popular music both black and white, a significant element in the lives and works of, for example, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Hank Williams. But these artists all belong to a later era, and all must have been somehow informed by Robert Johnson, who was the first to be explicit about the duality. Johnson was a startling blues poet, a wrenching performer, an eclectic and elastic guitarist whose playing sometimes, in Marcus’s words, “sounds like a complete rock ‘n’ roll band,” and he was also a figure who despite his brief life and meager recorded output managed to embody the spirit and the contradictions of the blues. He is the landscape’s most redoubtable ghost.

His ghostly presence, meanwhile, has been magnificiently rendered in Alan Greenberg’s film script, Love in Vain. First published in 1983 and reissued apparently in anticipation of Martin Scorsese’s screen production, this is no mere biopic. As difficult as it is to depict the life of an artist in movie form without tumbling headlong into ridiculousness, Greenberg has done it by, first of all, not attempting to explain anything. His Johnson is a changeling, flesh-and-blood but mutable and secretive, and he dwells in a world of workaday magic, where his meeting with the devil takes place at the moviehouse in front of a western, and where Charlie Patton’s funeral turns into a ferocious soul-claiming contest between Johnson and the Rev. Sin-Killer Griffin.

Greenberg not only evokes Johnson in a way that actually enlarges our view of him, he also depicts the blues world of the time, from Mississippi to Texas, in all its variegated splendor and misery. He makes a point of bringing in the most original and singular musicians, from the flamenco-inflected Buddy Boy Hawkins to the sublime gospel hymnist Washington Phillips, and he ranges beyond music to include a great range of the voices of the black South: chanting street vendors and train callers, itinerant preachers, German-speaking black cowboys in Texas. Through details and suggestions, he succeeds in showing both how this rich culture fed Johnson, and how Johnson assimilated it and transcended it. The screenplay is also much more accessible to the reader than scripts usually are, and it comes with fifty pages of instructive and absorbing notes.

The search for Robert Johnson was also the initial point of departure for the series of expeditions into the Delta that Alan Lomax describes in The Land Where the Blues Began, and he gives a moving account of hearing the sad news of Robert’s death, in Bogalusa, Louisiana, from his religious ecstatic of a mother, Mary Johnson, at her shack in Tunica County. Unfortunately, Johnson’s mother’s name was Julia Dodds, and he died outside Greenwood, Mississippi. There is also some confusion about the timing: Lomax implies that John Hammond put him on to the search, but the recording trip seems to have taken place in 1941, by which time most interested parties knew of Johnson’s death. The point may seem academic, but the muddle is not untypical of Lomax’s book, which despite its many virtues is permeated by a haze of factual uncertainty.

He repeats, for example, the old canard that Bessie Smith bled to death in the wake of a car crash after having been denied admission to a white hospital (in fact, no ambulance driver would have taken a black person to a white hospital in Mississippi in 1937; she died of shock in the Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale). Perhaps it is that the deaths of blues musicians are particularly subject to dubious or imaginative retelling; Lomax quotes Big Bill Broonzy on Blind Blake, who he says slipped and fell late at night during a blizzard in Chicago “and, by him being so fat, he couldn’t get up and he froze to death before anybody found him.” But the only extant photograph of Blind Blake shows him looking rather trim, and the blizzard-demise tale is usually told about Blind Lemon Jefferson, who is fat in the only picture we have of him. In any event, no documents have ever been found concerning the death of either man.

Lomax may not have found Robert Johnson, but he did find the young Muddy Waters, whom he recorded in an important series of performances on Stovall’s Plantation near Clarksdale in 1941 (and who would go on to Chicago and the invention of the electric blues later in the decade), and through him he found Son House, who had known and traded licks with both Johnson and Charlie Patton. But while he thus had a pipeline on the most important strain of the Delta blues, Lomax was perhaps more interested in the work songs and ring chants, the African survivals in the black music of the South. Although many well-known names crop up in the book—Lomax was also the first to record Fred McDowell and David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and in 1946 he taped an extraordinary session in which Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson talked frankly about racial oppression and its role in the music—the narrative is more concerned with the anonymous many who sang part songs while hoeing rows as convicts on Parchman (prison) Farm, or hollered for the benefit of their mules while building levees, or entertained their neighbors in obscure back-country settlements without any thought of recording the songs they made up. His populist faith is absolute, and while it can sometimes have a leveling effect, making the deliberate decisions of innovative artists indistinguishable from the inherited or instinctive moves of people following tradition without questioning or altering it (and here we get back to the “folk music” debate), there is no denying the power of what it led him to find.

But then he was combing the Mississippi Delta and its surrounding hills. Lomax’s view on the origin of the blues is shared widely, even by those who, like Samuel Charters, insist on the role of a single innovator. The blues had to have begun in Mississippi, they claim, because for complex and not altogether explicable reasons that state retained more unassimilated African traditions than any other part of the country. These include dietary, linguistic, and domestic matters (such as the survival of the raked dirt yard), but the amount of musical culture is staggering. As recently as the 1960s, Lomax and others were turning up previously unsuspected vestiges of ancient traditions. Among these were the use of pan-pipes (called “quills”) and the significance of fife and drum bands in the culture of the state’s arid hills. Lomax’s primal scene for the blues, however, involves the Delta-based conjunction of two other phenomena: the holler and the diddley bow, a single-stringed instrument that can be assembled quickly and mounted on any surface, including the side of a house, making the whole house its resonator. It is not difficult to hear that vocal style and that instrument in the chilling wail and slide guitar of Son House’s “Death Letter,” for example, or even in an electric, full-band piece like Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight.” The holler and the diddley bow do not constitute the blues, but they are at least its table setting.7

  1. 6

    Marcus, Mystery Train, pp. 30-31.

  2. 7

    Lomax’s field recordings of the 1940s and 1950s have been reissued in a multi-CD box as Sounds of the South by Atlantic Records, 1993.

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