Institute for Studies In American Music
Inside This Issue:
Inside This Issue
Review: Searching for Robert Johnson by Nathan W. Pearson
Review: Searching for Robert Johnson
by Nathan W. Pearson
Album cover of Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, 1961
During his short life Robert Johnson (1911-1938) was a blues musician of minor prominence but great talent. But since the reissue of his songs twenty-three years after his death on the 1961 LP King of the Delta Blues Singers, he has become the most influential and iconic of all the country blues musicians. His “Sweet Home Chicago” emerged as the signature tune of the electric Chicago blues style of the early 1950s, and “Cross Road Blues” became an archetype of blues rock after it was recorded by Eric Clapton’s British rock group Cream in the late 1960s. For decades it has been nearly obligatory for rock blues guitarists to cite Johnson as their inspiration.
Frank Driggs’s notes to the King of the Delta Blues Singers album set in motion a process of myth-making that would endure for decades. Driggs and early blues scholar Sam Charters portrayed Johnson as a deeply tormented artist and an easily victimized primitive who never traveled far from home. Speculations on the violent causes of his unsolved death at the age of twenty-seven enhanced the Johnson mystique. But the mythologizing of Johnson took on grander proportions in 1966 when Pete Welding’s essay entitled “Hell Hound on His Trail: Robert Johnson” included a supposed quote from Johnson’s mentor Son House speculating that Johnson had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for blues greatness. Generations of listeners have in various ways clung to the supernatural tale, finding evidence of Johnson’s ties with the devil in his songs such as “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Me and the Devil Blues,” and “If I Had Possession over Judgment Day.” The mythic aspects of Robert Johnson grew so strong that they began to obscure his music and his impact upon the development of the blues.
Three recent books help correct the historical record while exposing the process by which Johnson’s career was mythologized. Read together, they provide a remarkably full picture of one of the most important but misunderstood American musicians of the twentieth century. Barry Lee Pearson [no relation to the reviewer] and Bill McCulloch’s Robert Johnson: Lost and Found (University of Illinois Press, 2003; $24.95) distills available source material to provide fresh and insightful commentary on Johnson’s life and music. In their preface, the authors warn: “We are suspicious of both the process by which the Johnson legend appears to have been constructed and the timing of the construction project” and argue that “Johnson and his music are best understood in the recollections of his peers and in the context of rural African American culture as it existed during the lean times of the twenties and thirties” (preface, p. x). Pearson and McCulloch’s approach is unromantic, research-driven, and underpinned by a deep understanding of both the music and its cultural context.
Of particular value in this book is a critical analysis of Johnson’s lyrics. Pearson and McCulloch effectively place Johnson’s songs in the context of his time: “Johnson was very much a folk artist, but he was also canny and businesslike in his mastery of the codes of commercial culture, albeit largely within his own culture” (p. 71). An example of their insightful examination of Johnson’s songs is their discussion of “If I had Possession of Judgment Day”: “Paul Oliver claimed to hear evidence of Johnson’s ‘tormented spirit’ here, but the melody is straight out of the blues tradition and is known to most folks as ‘Rolling and Tumbling,’ the Delta national anthem. The verses focus on mistreatment and seduction … but there is no hint of Faustian angst” (p. 75). They demonstrate that Johnson’s songs are strong and emotional, but not more focused on the supernatural or the singer’s own anxieties than other performers of the era. The picture that emerges is of a talented professional musician—well-traveled, sophisticated, focused on his career—not of a primitive.
Pearson and McCulloch are passionate admirers of Johnson who eschew flowery description and romantic images in favor of presenting research that contextualizes Johnson’s life and art. The book persuasively shows how Johnson’s artistry included synthesis as well as innovation. “Johnny Shines claimed Johnson could add a song to his repertoire after hearing it only once … but Johnson did more that just cover the material of other artists; he was remarkably adept at drawing what suited him from an array of sources and then melding the fragments into a personal statement through his own voice, his instrumental innovations, and his ability to project feeling” (p. 72). The reader emerges with renewed appreciation of Johnson’s creativity and a deeper understanding of the contexts in which he worked.
Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta—Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Amistad, 2004; $24.95) draws upon a variety of primary sources in retelling and interpreting the Johnson story. Citing a Fisk University and Library of Congress field research project from the 1940s that describes daily life and musical tastes in the rural South during Johnson’s life, Wald argues that rather than being a place of unrelenting racial oppression and poverty, by the turn of the twentieth century the Mississippi Delta was for many black farmers a land of potential opportunity. The first generation of blues innovators, including Son House and Skip James, who reached prominence in the early 1920s, were thus the products of a relatively stable, even optimistic African American rural world. Wald further observes that by the 1930s many factors, notably the Depression and more mechanized farming, dramatically worsened the economic condition of the Delta. Poverty eventually replaced optimism and stability. The second generation of blues performers, including Robert Johnson, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, would reach maturity during this period of economic decline which was also marked by technological advancement, with radio and the jukebox bringing new sounds and styles to the ears of these younger players.
Wald thus provides an alternative picture of the social and musical context of Robert Johnson. Rather than comprising a group of primitive tradition-bearers, Johnson and his contemporaries, including Elmore James and Muddy Waters, emerged in the late 1930s as progressives who would eventually relocate geographically and evolve musically. James and Muddy Waters would become the progenitors of the electric Chicago blues style, and as Wald persuasively argues, it is likely that Johnson’s music would have evolved in similar fashion had he lived longer. Wald reinforces this claim with compelling evidence that Johnson, like his contemporaries, was inspired by the popular tunes of his day as much as by the blues.
Wald’s discussion of Johnson’s songs is the most thorough assessment I have encountered, providing insightful, detailed musical portraits. In describing “Me and the Devil Blues,” Wald notes that “There is a good deal of dark humor mixed in with the fine singing, the brilliantly understated guitar work … that make this one of Johnson’s most fully conceived performances. The range of tone he can pack into a few lines is astonishing. The first verse starts with his voice sounding tight and forced … Then he steps aside, … talking in a normal, conversational tone … then he is again singing the opening line again, but now in a comfortable middle range, sounding like a more muscular Leroy Carr” (pp. 178-179). By providing such perceptive musical discussions and situating Johnson’s music in its historical and cultural contexts, Wald’s book is the most accessible and broadly informative account of Johnson and his music to date.
Patricia Schroeder’s Robert Johnson, Mythmaking and Contemporary American Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2004; $24.95) has a different goal from the aforementioned studies. Rather than attempting to assemble a historically accurate story of Johnson’s life, Schroeder interprets the process of mythologizing that turned Johnson into an iconic figure. She is highly skeptical about the validity of any historical accounts regarding Johnson’s life, noting “… even the simplest, most apparently factual details are open to dispute” (p. 19), and consequently dismisses efforts to uncover the reality behind the myth as neither particularly interesting nor valuable. Instead, she seeks to offer “a better understanding of how Robert Johnson’s image has been used and what those uses tell us about American society in general and postmodern culture in particular” (p. 64).
Schroeder offers as an example the U.S. Postal Service’s 1994 release of a Robert Johnson commemorative stamp. She argues that originally Johnson’s image on the stamp was used to signify America’s historical appreciation of jazz and blues music, but that the stamp was eventually highjacked by various interest groups including advocates of smokers’ rights, public health, and censorship. Schroeder concludes: “In this process, Robert Johnson the artist was all but erased, his image used to create cultural myths that reveal the ideologies of different interest groups. The truth about Robert Johnson hardly matters. We invest the images of and stories about Robert Johnson with our own values leaving Johnson as another ‘evanescent presence,’ drained of his own history as he comes to signify something about ours” (p. 13). She also explores some of other ways writers, musicians, and filmmakers have appropriated the Robert Johnson myth, turning the musician into someone quite different from who he actually was.
Schroeder frames her commentary by drawing upon Marxist theory, John Fiske’s writings about the influence of “power bloc” authority on culture, and other social and cultural theories. Unfortunately, focus on these particular political or socio-economic points of view regarding the creation and promulgation of Johnson’s myth does not always illuminate as much as create a set of political strawmen. If some of Schroeder’s assertions had been supported by the kind of historical research that she largely rejects, they would have been much more convincing. For example, in examining the various stories about Johnson’s violent death, she suggests “that this veiling of history includes underestimating the violence of the Depression-era Jim Crow South, violence that … was pervasive and profound, stemmed from a variety of sources, and becomes visible in Johnson’s life once we resituate it in its original time and place” (p. 48). Yet Johnson’s researchers have not in general avoided acknowledging the violent, racist nature of the Depression Era south. Much of the writing that Schroeder accurately describes as romanticizing Johnson in the 1960s indeed reinforces the notion that he was the victim of violent times.
Much of Schroeder’s book is devoted to critical analysis of works of art, including books, films, and plays that re-imagine Johnson or use the Johnson of legend as a key dramatic device. She notes that in novels such as Alan Rodger’s Bone Music, Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues, and Walter Mosley’s RL’s Dream, the authors “all depict Johnson’s blues and their own art of storytelling as powerful agents of multicultural transmission…” (p. 114). Her book is valuable for this observation alone, but it would have been more useful if its explorations of myth and culture had not been so tightly circumscribed by the politics of critical theory and if it had offered more evidence to back up suppositions about how Johnson’s image was constructed and used.
The brilliance of Robert Johnson need not be mythologized to be widely appreciated, but nearly all those who are familiar with the musician have encountered aspects of the Johnson myth. And while that romance will always play some part of how he and his music are perceived, we benefit from the research, interpretation, and contextualization that Pearson and McCulloch, Wald, and Schroeder provide. Together these three books paint a rich picture of Johnson’s life and music as well as his transformation into an American icon, and will serve as benchmarks for future research into Johnson and the country blues.
—Nathan W. Pearson, Jr.
Rye, New York
Copyright © 2005
Institute for Studies in American Music, Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn
College. All Rights Reserved.