Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues
By Elijah Wald
(Amistad, 342 pp., $24.95)
Robert Johnson: Lost and Found
By Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch
(University of Illinois Press, 142 pp., $24.95)
Martin Scorcese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey
Edited by Peter Guralnick, Robert Santelli, Holly George-Warren, Christopher John Farley
(Amistad, 287 pp., $27.95)
The legend is known to any blues fan: he was an eager kid sitting at the feet of his musical idols, borrowing the guitar he could scarcely play and generally making a nuisance of himself. Then one midnight he stood at a crossroads near Dockery's plantation, bartered his soul to the devil, and was next seen coaxing sounds from his strings such as no one had ever heard before, sounds that won him the throne in the pantheon of blues deities.
It sounds like the stuff of a bad screenplay, but a surprising number of listeners still cling to this vision of Robert Johnson as a demon-powered freak. Two new revisionist histories, however, espouse the more sober and less romantic view that Johnson was actually a dedicated and highly talented musician who wittingly produced masterful music. Even less popular is their contention that Johnson's current place in blues history is wholly out of proportion with the importance that he was granted by his peers. As Elijah Wald puts it at the outset of his contentious but valuable book, "As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure, and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note."
For the latter-day blues cult, there is no denying that Johnson is considered the ur-bluesman, on a par with such pioneers as Armstrong, Parker, Dylan, and Hendrix in their own genres, and placed well above the musicians who enjoyed far greater influence and success in their day. Despite Johnson's scant and generally unnoticed output (as far as is known, he recorded only twenty- nine sides plus twelve alternate takes, much of it unreleased in his lifetime), he now stands, in Greil Marcus's words, "as the most famous and influential blues musician who ever lived."
If anything, Johnson's long years of obscurity have only heightened his mystique. Until recently, it was virtually impossible to separate the apocryphal from the actual. The man seemed permanently cloaked in seductive mystery. When the only two known photographs of him first surfaced in the 1980s, they were greeted as a major revelation. (A much-contested third photo has recently been put into circulation.) The irony is that this obscurity is also something of a myth: both books stress that despite all the questions surrounding Johnson, his shadowy life, and his equivocal death, more is now known about him than about practically any other blues musician of that era.
The most reliable research indicates that Robert Leroy Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, on May 8, 1911 (though some documents suggest birth dates ranging between 1907 and 1912), the illegitimate son of Julia Major Dodds and a farmhand named Noah Johnson. Julia had ten previous children by her first husband, Charles Dodds, and a few years after Robert's birth she married a man named Dusty Willis. Charles meanwhile moved to Memphis with his ten children by Julia plus two from another woman, having changed his last name to Spencer to avoid a legal dispute. Johnson himself was known variously as Robert Spencer, R. L. Spencer, Little Robert Dusty, or Robert Dodds--further obscuring the few official traces of him that remain.
Much of his childhood was spent living alternately with his mother and stepfather in Robinsonville, Mississippi, and with the Dodds-Spencer brood in Memphis. His schooling, already interrupted by his periodic changes of address, was further hampered by poor eyesight due to a small cataract in his left eye and--no doubt more so--by frequent bouts of truancy during which he played harmonica for his friends. It was most likely in Memphis that he first picked up some rudiments of guitar-playing from an older brother and was exposed to the recordings of the early blues artists, notably Charley Patton. Patton was one of the most popular entertainers around, and Johnson, like many a young man then and since, must have identified the fashionable vogue of guitar blues as a way of escaping the farmwork to which he seemed fated.
By 1930, Johnson, then around nineteen and living with Julia and Willis in Robinsonville, had married a sixteen-year-old girl named Virginia Travis, who died that year in childbirth--an event that some claim started his life of wandering, though in fact he remained in the area for roughly another two years. Soon after Virginia's death, he began seeing a young woman named Vergie Mae Smith, by whom he had a son in December 1931 (Johnson's only legal heir), and while Vergie was still pregnant he married an older divorce named Calletta Craft, whom he abandoned not long afterward.
It was also in 1930 that Johnson met one of his primary inspirations, the legendary bluesman Son House. Not only was House, by all accounts, a mesmerizing performer--in Wald's words, he "played like a man possessed by a fearsome and consuming spirit," and films made of him late in life seem to confirm this--but his success on the local dance circuit showed that one could indeed make a living with a guitar. Johnson grudgingly tried his hand at sharecropping, encouraged by his hardworking but narrow-minded stepfather, but on Saturday nights he would sneak out to hear House and his sideman Willie Brown (the "friend-boy Willie Brown" immortalized in "Cross Road Blues"). As House would tell it many times in later years, whenever he and Brown took five, Johnson would pick up their guitars and try to entertain the audience in their stead, even though his unskilled playing threatened to empty the place.
It was House who contributed one of the earliest and most enduring pieces of the Robert Johnson legend, and a key element in the belief that he acquired his talent in a deal with the devil. According to House, the young man disappeared for about six months, only to return with his own guitar and an exceptional ability to use it. This time, said House, "when that boy started playing, and when he got through, all our mouths were hanging open. All! He was gone!" Actually, most sources remember that Johnson was away from Robinsonville for several years, and that by the time House saw him again he was already an old hand at playing jook joints (small country stores turned into dance halls on the weekend), house parties, and street corners. Far from having gotten a quick fix of hoodoo magic, he had put his talent and considerable drive during this period into learning his craft, and had studied under a guitarist named Ike Zinnerman. House's starry-eyed wannabe had in fact made himself into a seasoned professional.
From this period on, Johnson would live the life of an itinerant musician, rarely staying in one place for more than a few days; as the song goes, hotfoot powder seemed forever sprinkled around his door. He traveled alone or with one or two other guitarists, some of whom have provided much of what is now known about him. Many remembered him as self-possessed, sure of his talent and his ambition, and personable and attractive in public, though also moody and liable to disappear without a word. He was described as slight of stature but a commanding performer, with "sharp, slender fingers that fluttered like a trapped bird" when he played, in the words of his sometime companion Johnny Shines. He was also fastidious about his appearance. "Robert could ride highways and things like that all day long," recalled Shines, "and you'd look down at yourself and you'd be as filthy as a pig and Robert'd be clean." One of the photographs of Johnson shows him in a natty suit and hat, legs crossed, guitar poised, smile brightly flashing. The man was an entertainer, and he knew that in the working-class venues where he appeared, elegance was in itself an attraction.
Escaping the Delta is not a biography, but Wald provides an extended recap of Johnson's life, which largely dovetails with the earlier portrait sketched by Peter Guralnick in Searching for Robert Johnson, published in 1989. Where he differs from many of his predecessors is in presenting Johnson not as a demon- haunted anomaly, but as a man very much of his time and milieu. And unlike generations of critics and musicologists, he treats the blues not as some ethnologically pure form of cultural expression, but as mainstream pop music, like jazz before it and hip-hop in its wake.
The evolution of the blues from the early big-band variety personified by Bessie Smith and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey into the more countrified (and male- dominated) sound of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leroy Carr, and Charley Patton has been amply recounted. What bears repeating is just how much the country sound was developed by record companies seeking a new spin on the genre after the "blues queens" started declining in popularity. By the time Johnson began performing, this sound was already well established and had a familiar vocabulary of its own, comprised of a ready pool of musical riffs and "floating verses" that traveled virtually unchanged from song to song and singer to singer. Rather than the raw moaning of primitive nafs, country blues music was often the work of savvy professionals, who studied one another's records and followed the latest trends just as assiduously as modern rock bands listen to their competitors. And few were more adept at retaining and adapting what they heard than Robert Johnson.
The commonly held image of Johnson is of a desperately shy loner who avoided human contact and couldn't bear to face his audience. This image has proven so durable that it is worth lingering over it for a moment. Many of my generation got our initial taste of Johnson's music from the Columbia LP re-issue of 1961, the liner notes for which cite the producer Don Law's recollections of the terrified young guitarist at his first recording session, facing the corner in order to play--an image so striking that Columbia chose it as the cover illustration of a second re-issue in 1970. Johnson probably did record facing the wall--but it may have had less to do with stage fright than with hiding his technique from the other artists waiting their turn, or perhaps with trying to improve his acoustics by "corner loading." By all reports, he seems to have had no trouble working the crowd at live venues.
On top of this, Johnson, like most of his contemporaries, had a far more extensive repertoire than surviving traces would suggest. Although recordings leave the impression that musicians such as House, Johnson, and Patton played all blues all the time, the reality was that, as traveling singers needing to draw a wide variety of listeners, they had to be conversant not only with the current hits but also with a mixed bag of jazz, country, and ethnic standards. "A performer whose entire recorded repertoire consists of blues," notes Wald, "might have been making his or her day-to-day money playing in a jazz group or a country hoedown band, or even plinking out Neapolitan mandolin melodies in Italian restaurants." We can hear this in some of Johnson's own oddities, such as the hillbilly swing number "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" and the up-tempo jive "They're Red Hot," the kind of humorous "hokum" that was common fare for crowd-pleasers like Tampa Red and the Harlem Hamfats. No doubt there were many other such oddities, which never made it onto wax for the simple reason that Johnson was being marketed as a blues singer.
One of the most riveting sections of Wald's book is his song-by-song discussion of Johnson's two recording sessions, which took place in a San Antonio hotel room in November 1936 and in Dallas in June 1937. What comes to the fore, apart from a fascinating dissection of how Johnson crafted (and sometimes re-crafted) his material, is how much both he and the American Record Corporation were, in Wald's phrase, "going for some hits." Both the order of songs recorded and the company's choice of which cuts to release bespeak a conscious attempt to produce a commercially successful record, one that would launch the career of a new and untried artist.
The first session did, in fact, yield Johnson's only relative hit, the double-entendre-laden "Terraplane Blues" ("When I mash down your little starter/ Then your spark will give me a fire"). Listening to the recordings bears out Wald's contention that Johnson before the mike was nothing if not a pro, fully in control of his arrangements. Some of his alternate takes are so similar to the originals as to be virtually identical, with every "whooo" and "mmmm" falling at the exact same time. Others show him rendering the same song in different styles, perhaps as a reflection of how he retooled his own material in live performance, or possibly to see which version would appeal more to the record-buying public. "Phonograph Blues," for instance, was played first with the slow tempo and accompaniment of "Kindhearted Woman Blues," then immediately afterward with the uptempo boogie arrangement of "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom."
But most striking of all, from a post-1960s perspective, is how little original material Johnson actually contributed to the blues idiom. Even leaving aside his covers of recognized standards such as "Walking Blues" and his obvious remakes of recent hits--"Sweet Home Chicago" reprises Kokomo Arnold's "Old Original Kokomo Blues"; "32-20 Blues" is so closely modeled on Skip James's "22-20 Blues" that at one point Johnson mistakenly lapses into James's lyric--we are left with a body of work that constantly draws upon and repeats itself: "Terraplane" resurfaces as "Stones in My Passway" and "Milkcow's Calf Blues"; "Ramblin' on My Mind" is a twin to "Dust My Broom"; "Kindhearted Woman, " Johnson's most characteristic arrangement, returns as "Dead Shrimp Blues," "Little Queen of Spades," "Me and the Devil Blues," "Honeymoon Blues," and "Phonograph Blues"; and so on. With the exception of three or four truly unique pieces, it is not unfair to say that Johnson produced only about half a dozen songs in his career.
He was not alone in this, of course: listening to the collected works of blues artists, whether Tampa Red, Blind Willie McTell, or Lightnin' Hopkins, is often an experience of dj vu all over again. Personal style takes precedence over variety, and that's part of the charm. Moreover, these records were made to be released two songs at a time, not to be compared side by side. Yet the point remains that the more closely we examine the music itself, the harder it is to pinpoint just what sets Johnson apart from his contemporaries. And in fact, as Wald posits, Johnson's legacy in some ways derives more from posthumous perception than from what he accomplished during his life.
His life was already close to an end by the time Johnson first entered the studio. He had spent the previous five years roaming the South and as far north as Chicago and Detroit, making the kind of modest but viable living that any traveling musician can recognize. In other words, he had traced for himself a career that was respectable but not remarkable. As Wald points out, even after his first recordings were released, they elicited more admiration for a local boy made good than recognition of a unique genius:
In Mississippi, Johnson's work was hardly greeted as revolutionary. His most celebrated talent, if we are to judge by the reports of his contemporaries, was his versatility, his ability to pick up new guitar parts as if by magic and to command a vast range of styles. . . . No one would have asked him to be more passionate than Son House and more soulful than Skip James [the two bluesmen to whom Johnson is most often compared today]. In fact, at that time there would have been hardly any listeners who were familiar with both House's and James's work, since they came from opposite ends of the Delta and their records sold poorly. It was much more impressive to be able to sound like Leroy Carr, Peetie Wheatstraw, and Kokomo Arnold, national stars familiar to every blues fan.
Wald prefaces these remarks by describing a class that he once taught, in which he played for his students a number of the great Delta figures who had preceded Johnson, and finally Johnson himself as the epitome of country blues. But instead of being duly impressed, the class "looked at me blankly. What was so special about this? ... My students' reaction, far from being stupid or ill-informed, was closer to the reaction of most 1930s blues fans than mine was.... Which is to say [they] were in the rare position of approaching Johnson by way of the records that preceded and surrounded him, rather than coming to him by traveling backward from the Rolling Stones via Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters--the path taken by virtually all modern listeners." These sentences contain the kernel of Wald's thesis, which is that Johnson, while indisputably "a unique and extraordinary artist," is heard these days through so many filters--musical, mythical, promotional--that we have all but lost sight of his true artistry.
The story of how this came to be constitutes the final section of Wald's book. It is populated by well-meaning nafs such as the aforementioned Don Law and the wealthy jazz collector John Hammond, both of whom helped to launch the myth of Robert Johnson as an untutored wunderkind; a host of later-generation enthusiasts such as Samuel Charters, Peter Guralnick, and Pete Welding; and on through the mainly British blues-rock guitarists of the 1960s. Hammond, as is well known, had thought to include Johnson in his landmark Carnegie Hall concert "From Spirituals to Swing" in December 1938, only to find that Johnson had died several months before. He instead played two of Johnson's records at the concert, thereby establishing a definition of the "Delta blues style" that, for white audiences, has remained virtually unchanged and unchallenged for sixty-five years.
By the time of his resurgence, Johnson's fan base had become almost exclusively white, while black fans were listening either to more contemporary blues artists such as B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and Etta James, or to newer currents such as soul and funk. The dichotomy, according to Wald, simply extended a divide that had always existed:
Black fans in the 1930s heard [in Johnson] a good singer and writer in the contemporary blues mainstream, with a solid beat, interesting lyrics, but little to distinguish him from a lot of similar and far-better-known stars. The few white fans who heard him at that time seem to have considered him a brilliant rural primitive. In the 1960s, mainstream black blues buyers who stumbled across an LP reissue of his work would have heard a guy who sounded like the old-fashioned countrified music their parents or grandparents might have liked. Meanwhile, young white fans were embracing the same recordings as the dark, mysterious, and fascinating roots of rock 'n' roll.
In other words, while a generation of white college boys, music critics, and rock musicians was rhapsodizing about Robert Johnson, the children of his original fans ignored him the way their white counterparts ignored Perry Como.
For Johnson fanatics of my generation, what turned us on even before the original versions were the reinterpretations that we all knew by heart: "Crossroads" by Cream, "Love in Vain" by the Rolling Stones (oddly credited to "Woody Payne"), or "Traveling Riverside" by Led Zeppelin, not to mention the enticing glimpse of the Columbia re-issue on the cover of Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home. Not only did Johnson's reputation precede him, but so did the reputations of our most hallowed rock heroes. It was Dylan, in fact, who once made the shrewd comment that (in Wald's paraphrase) "the difference between the old blues singers and the young interpreters of the 1960s was that the young performers sang as if they were trying to get into the blues, while the older artists had been singing to get out of them." Wald takes this a bit further, suggesting that while Johnson was seen by his black contemporaries mainly as a bridge out of rural poverty, for modern white audiences "he has been the dark king of a strange and haunting world, lost in the Mississippi mists and harried by demons--a legend more earthy, violent, and passionate than anything in our daily lives."
In his memoir of Johnson, Peter Guralnick speaks of the "apocalyptic effect" the music had on him and his friends, and points in particular to the terror produced by songs such as "Hellhound on My Trail." The fact is, the song is terrifying, and stark, and thrilling, as few others in the blues idiom can claim to be. When Johnson sings in a voice of high-pitched desperation, with hard-bent strings weeping behind him, "I can tell the wind is risin'/The leaves tremblin' on the tree," who doesn't feel the loneliness and panic of someone standing alone in a storm at night, with no shelter and nowhere to go? The song works because, whatever the specific context, it is a terror that we have all felt, and when we hear it, we really hear it. The sheer emotion of it can be overwhelming. Eric Clapton and Keith Richards can find an outlet for that emotion by absorbing Johnson's music into their own; but for writers such as Guralnick and Welding, the outlet is words, and when trying to convey something so raw, it is difficult not to tip into hyperbole. Only an outsized legend seems big enough to carry it all, made larger with every retelling.
But what the legend hides is that many of these songs were, at bottom, less a cry de profundis than a plea for sympathy or, more to the point, a seduction attempt. Enormously attractive to women--one girlfriend called him "the cutest little brown thing you've ever seen in your life"--Johnson had a well-deserved reputation for his ability to score one-night stands, though perhaps not so much for the sex as for the meal and warm bed that went with it. "Women, to Robert, were like motel or hotel rooms," recalled Johnny Shines. "Heaven help him, he was not discriminating. Probably a bit like Christ, he loved them all. He preferred older women in their thirties over the younger ones, because the older ones would pay his way."
As Wald points out, blues music before the 1960s revival had a primarily female audience, and Johnson's alternate emphasis in his lyrics on sexual braggadocio and self-commiseration shows that he knew his public. Even "Hellhound," for all the genuine depth of its distress (or perhaps aided by it), contains the unmistakable message that if only some "little sweet rider" among the crowd would take him in for the night and "keep his company," everything would be fine. It might please us today to think that this was a vain hope and that no human love could cure the singer's soul-sickness, but it no doubt pleased Johnson more when the strategy worked, as apparently it often did.
And finally too often. A central element of the Johnson legend concerns his mysterious death, variously attributed to gunshot, stab wound, or syphilis, but always involving a woman. The most credited version holds that Johnson was killed by the manager of a small jook joint near Greenwood, Mississippi, where he was playing an extended gig. On Saturday, August 13, 1938, believing that Johnson was sleeping with his wife, the manager (or, in some tellings, the wife herself) slipped him poisoned moonshine after one of his sets. According to David "Honeyboy" Edwards, who was traveling with him at the time:
About one o'clock Robert taken sick when he was playing. All the people ... was begging him to play, and he played sick. And they said he told the public, he said, "Well, I'm sick, y'all see, but I'm playing, but I'm still sick. I'm not able to play." And they said he played on and about two o'clock he got so sick they had to bring him back to town [about fifteen miles away].
Other accounts described Johnson, driven mad by the poison, "crawling around the floor and barking like a dog." Johnson died the following Tuesday, August 16, and in the end it probably wasn't so much the poison that killed him as a bout of pneumonia that attacked his body when it was too weak to resist. The details remain uncertain, but what seems clear is that the death caused very little stir, most locals figuring that Johnson was just a wife-stealing dandy who got what he deserved. The blues historian Mack McCormick, who reportedly has been writing a full-length biography of Johnson, cut to the heart of the matter when he termed the incident "a casual killing that no one took very seriously." The police did not investigate the murder, and no one was ever charged.
Escaping the Delta has the merit of presenting a thesis that contradicts much of the received wisdom about the most honored figure in blues history and making it sound like common sense. Wald offers a persuasive and unconventional portrait of Johnson as a skillful, ambitious creative artist rather than the anti-social misfit of folklore. More, he traces the twin evolutions of Johnson's reputation among his peers and among the predominantly white fans who began to co-opt him almost from the moment of his premature death. "When Robert Johnson became a mythic, god-like figure, it was as part of the European religion of art, not any African-American spiritual tradition," he notes. He re- inserts "classic blues" back into the current of mainstream pop music from which it sprang, showing how Johnson and his contemporaries were striving for the same success and acceptance that teenage garage bands dream of today. And if Wald states his point somewhat repetitively, and with an occasional touch of didacticism, he can be forgiven: the Johnson myth is well protected, and Wald will doubtless encounter a fair amount of resistance.
Most notably, Wald parses the mix of originality and derivation that has brought Johnson's music so strongly into the present day. He examines the crucial connection between the more "moodily soulful" pieces, such as "Hellhound on My Trail" and "Come On in My Kitchen," and works such as Skip James's eerily idiosyncratic "Devil Got My Woman," pointing out how atypical and unrecognized such now-acknowledged classics were at the time of their recording. Conversely, he notes how one of Johnson's primary contributions to the blues idiom--the rapid slide triplets and driving one-two bass rhythm, derived from boogie-woogie piano, that to Johnson's audience "must have sounded astonishingly modern and exciting"--has since been used by so many guitarists that it has become a nameless cliche.
One might not agree with all of Wald's assertions. One can even reject his entire argument, though I find much of it convincing. But there is a distinct pleasure to be had from listening to the man expound. Wald is a professional guitarist, as well as a music teacher and a critic. He has spent many years absorbing not only the blues, but also the venues in which it is played and the life that surrounds it. And while he is admittedly one of those later- generation white fans he describes, he also demonstrates an understanding and an objectivity about Johnson's songs that lets them stand on their own merits, while clearing away much of the hocus-pocus that has been applied to them over the decades. More than anything, what shines through this book is the sheer, informed love of the music.
This sense of enjoyment marks one of the primary differences between Escaping the Delta and Robert Johnson: Lost and Found by Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch. Published only months before Wald's book, it covers much of the same ground and cites many of the same sources, as if the authors had kept peeking over each other's shoulders. At the same time, there is an evident difference in tone and purpose between the two: where Wald is mainly interested in replacing Johnson in his original context, in allowing us to see him as his contemporaries did, Pearson and McCulloch are out to indict the mythmakers and to debunk the legends that now surround him. And while Wald approaches his topic with the ease of a man certain of his beliefs (or, in some cases, comfortable with his uncertainties), Pearson and McCulloch frequently display the vehemence of proselytizers, almost an exasperation. Like the Blues Brothers, they are on a mission from God.
Admittedly, there is cause for exasperation. The myth of Robert Johnson is thick-hided and seemingly impervious to contradictory evidence. It surfaces in such mainstream tripe as the film Crossroads (1986) and in the work of serious scholars such as Guralnick, who should know better, as well as in Alan Greenberg's screenplay Love in Vain from 1983, in which the taciturn Johnson comes off as a guitar-toting High Plains Drifter. Most recently it has been seen hovering behind Martin Scorsese's series of documentaries for PBS, modestly titled Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues. Both the stuffy series and its well-stuffed companion book are full of good intentions and a true reverence for the music, but they are tainted by Scorsese's pomposity about American popular culture, and one need only recall his earlier description of Johnson as a "haunted prophet who must go into the desert to find his voice" to know which side of the myth he is on. (That said, the Scorsese anthology does contain some fine pieces, notably a howlingly funny essay on lyrics bawdy enough to make lines like Johnson's "You can squeeze my lemon 'til the juice runs down my leg" sound like a picnic recipe.)
Pearson and McCulloch examine a number of the commentaries on Johnson since his death, tracing the origins of the various myths the better to deflate them, but they reserve the bulk of their prosecution for the devil-at-the-crossroads legend. That legend did not originate with Johnson, of course: the huckster Legba and his demonic bargain are fixtures in African folklore, and similar pacts were ascribed to a number of bluesmen, from Peetie Wheatstraw, the "Devil's son-in-law," to Howlin' Wolf. In Johnson's case, however, it has become such common coin that even those not normally given to such fancy have been caught defending it. Guralnick, for instance, as paraphrased by Pearson and McCulloch, absurdly claims that "the soul-selling legend is the highest tribute that could possibly be paid to Johnson." Isn't it more of a tribute to recognize that the man had talent, and that he was able to convey that talent despite all the stones that poverty, hardship, and self-destructive behavior set in his passway?
The crossroads legend has fed on numerous pieces of "evidence," ranging from Son House's offhand innuendo about "Little Robert's" sudden mastery to Johnson's own song titles ("Hellhound," "Me and the Devil Blues"). Still, very little of this holds up to serious scrutiny, and Pearson and McCulloch's argument that "supernatural themes haunted not Johnson's music itself but discussions of Johnson's music" has a resonant ring to it: one would have to be extremely invested in the story to keep believing in it after reading these two books. But modern blues fans do like their brimstone, and many will no doubt find it hard to release Johnson from his Faustian bargain.
Much more unfortunately for Pearson and McCulloch, their book seems a bit redundant in comparison with Wald's fine volume. The research appears solid, and in some instances they make their point more completely than Wald does, but the prose and the structure also have a slightly plodding, academic feel, not helped by the authors' occasional dips into condescension and humorlessness. It is their very zeal that helps make their book sound flat by comparison.
At one point, Pearson and McCulloch cite a question posed by the magazine editor Peter Lee: "Would we still be as mesmerized by [Johnson's] music," Lee wonders, "if there were no mystery surrounding his life?" Both books argue that, for many, the answer would be no. But it might be more accurate to say that many simply wouldn't have heard Johnson's records at all. Or, like Wald's students, they would have taken these records simply as part of the long blues tradition, and guiltlessly preferred the work of Memphis Minnie, or Blind Willie Johnson, or Buddy Woods, or Bukka White.
And yet there is something undeniably potent about Robert Johnson's music that cuts through the noise of decades and the static of hype. His records contain moments of near perfection that quietly reveal themselves after repeated listenings: the delicate solo in the first take of "Kindhearted Woman, " the lilting slide break and murmured aside in "Come On in My Kitchen," the sexy swagger of some of his middle eights. One truly gets a sense of this when listening to anthologies like the Smithsonian's compilation The Blues, a four- CD overview that stretches from Blind Lemon Jefferson to Ray Charles. The set contains many memorable performances, but Johnson's stand out as few others can, commanding your attention and daring you to confuse him with his peers. Does it matter whether he sold his soul or worked his long fingers to the bone to best his competitors? The fact is, he bested them.
Myths are born for a reason. Well before the posthumous Grammy award and Hall of Fame induction, before the double-CD packages and the websites, there was something about Johnson's small body of work that set imaginations whirring. Researchers have ferreted out obscure town records and cloudy recollections; critics have added layer upon romantic layer to the legend, not because they sensed a good story but because the music forces one not to leave it alone, to do more than simply listen and appreciate. Something so emotionally stirring must have sprouted from unearthly roots, it seems to say. No one could have been that good without a boost from the beyond. The reality is, no one is that good, and therein lies the sad danger: the more Johnson's music is hyped, the more difficult it becomes to appreciate its actual beauties.
Similarly, we resist the image of Johnson making music as a career, rather than out of some dark compulsion. The idea of a man producing those sounds largely out of a desire to sell records seems unthinkable. His persona seems able to accommodate nearly every sin in the book--Satanism, womanizing, murder ("32-20 Blues"), pimping ("Little Queen of Spades"), alcoholism ("Drunken Hearted Man"), fecklessness--except for one: venality. Likewise, our own sense of romance rebels at the idea of creative genius coexisting with a banal drive to carve out a living.
In this regard, perhaps the most honest comment on the Johnson legend comes not from the many pages written about it but from Eric Clapton's recently released CD of covers, Me and Mr. Johnson--not from the record itself, which is competent though rarely inspired, but from the small insert that advertises Clapton apparel, key rings, and other paraphernalia. It is easy to dismiss this as base commercialism: many artists have made that particular pact with the devil. In recent years, Robert Johnson has become a similar industry through no doing of his own, to the enrichment of his copyright holders and the Sony Music Corporation. But there is no point in fantasizing that he was too pure or too haunted to indulge in such self-promotion. If Johnson had had access to these marketing tactics during his lifetime, I have little doubt that he would have exploited them to the fullest. And his music would have been just as brilliant-- no more, no less.
This article originally ran in the June 7, 2004, issue of the magazine.