ALTHOUGH the great blues singer and guitarist Robert Johnson died 60 years ago, swallowed up at 27 by the rural Mississippi demiworld of juke joints and barrelhouses that spawned him, he looms ever larger in America’s imagination.
Johnson had been dead for 23 years when an LP of his songs, ”King of the Delta Blues Singers,” was released in 1961. It became a sacred text to 60’s folk and blues revivalists as well as to rock-and-rollers curious about rock’s origins. ”There has not been a better album in the history of the recording industry,” wrote the critic Greil Marcus in 1975.
In 1990, after protracted legal wrangling, came ”Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings”: two CD’s, 29 songs and 12 outtakes. Improbably, it became the record-business phenomenon of the winter of 1990-91, briefly outselling Madonna, winning a Grammy and going on to sell more than a million copies worldwide. Fifty-three years after his death, Robert Johnson was a pop star.
The stewards of culture and entertainment are eager to tap his new audience. ”King of the Delta Blues Singers” was reissued earlier this month, featuring a newly discovered outtake of one of Johnson’s best songs, ”Traveling Riverside Blues.” Today, the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame kicks off a weeklong Johnson celebration in and around its Cleveland headquarters: concerts, a conference of scholars and writers (including this one) and a pre-release showing of ”Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl,” a documentary about Johnson narrated by Danny Glover.
The better known Johnson’s music becomes, the more there is at stake in scraping away the myths and distortions that encrust it, distractions from the only question about Johnson that really matters: What makes his music great? His apocryphal pact with the Devil, easily the best-known aspect of his legend, has little relevance to his music. Although it’s hip, especially since his rise to pop iconhood, to call him ”the original rock-and-roller,” the notion is unilluminating at best. More sophisticated, but in the end just as mistaken, is the argument of revisionist blues scholars that Johnson is merely a link in the chain of Delta bluesmen. The only antidote to these misconceptions is to listen to Robert Johnson’s music with as fresh an ear as possible. The more I listen to Johnson, and I’ve listened for 30 years now, the surer I am that he is a crucial American artist, whose work invites comparison with our greatest novelists, poets, visual artists and composers.
In the 60’s, writers tended to see Johnson as sui generis, an isolated visionary. Since then, we’ve have acquired a nuanced understanding of the blues style that flowered in northwest Mississippi and eastern Arkansas in the 20’s and 30’s. Far from developing in isolation, say a number of contemporary researchers, Johnson was very much part of a tradition: the Mississippi Delta blues.
Indeed, the extent to which Johnson absorbed the styles of earlier bluesmen is only now being appreciated. But to listen to Johnson’s precursors — Charley Patton, Son House and others — and then to Johnson is to become aware of an unbridgeable gulf, the distance between mastery and genius. Patton and House were of the Delta blues tradition; Johnson rose above it. The music of Patton, House or Skip James seems to issue from a distant time and place. Johnson sounds utterly contemporary — rather, timeless. For what you hear in Johnson’s music is the same naked confrontation with the cosmos, with the awful, elemental facts of love, betrayal, isolation and death, that you find in all great art. Creators like Johnson may build on tradition, but at transcendent moments they kick it away; it becomes irrelevant, and their pure, urgent message burns through.
Listen to the first stanza of ”Crossroads Blues.” Johnson walks down to a country crossroads, looking to hitch a ride. Does he stick out his thumb? No, he flings himself on his knees, ”asked the Lord above, ‘Have mercy/ Save poor Bob if you please.’ ” It’s an image of the most desperate supplication, which could easily turn into fist-shaking rage: at God, the universe, fate. The lyrics, moreover, do only half the job; Johnson’s knifelike bottleneck-guitar lines screw the intensity level a notch higher.
Against powerful evidence like ”Crossroads Blues,” a few recent writers have tried to reduce Johnson entirely to his influences. The work of the blues historian Stephen Calt typifies this crude reductionism. In Mr. Calt’s liner notes to an otherwise useful album, ”The Roots of Robert Johnson,” almost every Johnson song is seen as an appropriation (and as often as not, an inferior one) of an earlier tune. ”If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” is nothing but a ”rendition” of the old dance tune ”Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” and ”Hellhound on My Trail” a mere ”version” of Skip James’s ”Devil Got My Woman.”
All Delta bluesmen, Johnson included, shared a floating stock of lyrics, melodies and rhythmic figures. The magnificent (and magnificently titled) ”If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” indeed takes its skeletal form, and even some of its lyrics, from ”Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ,” but the result, in its apocalyptic fury, is irreducibly Johnson’s. ”Hellhound on My Trail” may or may not be based on ”Devil Got My Woman”; regardless, it travels its own chilling path. What Mr. Calt misses entirely, in other words, is the inner fire that lights Johnson’s music (a failure that is cause for concern, since Mr. Calt is writing a full-length Johnson biography; when it appears, it will be the first). Woody Guthrie built his songs on earlier ones too, but nobody would call ”This Land Is Your Land” a rendition of ”You Are My Sunshine.” The interesting question is not what makes Robert Johnson’s music the same as his forebears’, but what makes it different.
Johnson’s fame has always rested largely on extramusical grounds: his short life, its lurid end (he was reputedly poisoned by a jealous husband) and, above all, the legend that he bargained with Satan for his talent. The myth of Johnson’s deal with the Devil may deliver a frisson to the casually curious, but it tells us next to nothing about his music. To rural Mississippians in the 30’s, all musicians who practiced their craft outside the church were in league with Satan. Johnson may well have advertised an intimacy with Satan as a way of impressing superstitious locals — plenty of bluesmen did. Of much greater interest is how his few recourses to supernatural imagery work as metaphor, as instances of the artful way Johnson packed his songs with layers of meaning. It doesn’t even matter whether Johnson himself believed in the Devil; a lyric like ”Me and the Devil/Was walking side by side” endures as a beautifully terse image for the divided soul, unable to choose between good and evil.
Almost as ritually repeated as the notion of Johnson as a latter-day Faust is the idea that he was somehow the first rock-and-roller. Rock critics’ efforts to see Johnson as a sort of proto-James Dean, an outcast rebel with a guitar, have little substance. The rock-and-roll rebel is an icon born of postwar, urban affluence. The personal and cultural rebellion that the figure embodied was impossible, even in embryonic form, to an African-American of Johnson’s time and place. He moved through a world of plantations and sharecroppers, where flaunting the social order was not an option; the only choice was between total conformity and swift punishment. It’s true that the itinerant bluesman, thumbing his nose at respectability, was a sort of rebel within the black community. But Johnson certainly wasn’t unique in this sense. One might as well call Charley Patton or Blind Lemon Jefferson the first rock-and-roller.
Musicologically, claims of Johnson’s impact on rock make a bit more sense. He was, if not the first, one of the first blues guitarists to use a technique adapted from boogie-woogie piano: the so-called boogie bass, with which he propels tunes like ”Ramblin’ on My Mind” and ”I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.” In the hands of guitarists like Elmore James, Johnson’s boogie shuffle became a staple of 50’s Chicago blues. Appropriated by white blues enthusiasts of the 60’s, the technique found its way into blues-based rock bands like Canned Heat and ZZ Top.
But take the boogie bass out of Johnson, and you’re still left with his greatest songs: ”If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” ”Crossroads Blues,” ”Terraplane Blues” and a half-dozen others. Johnson’s best-known boogie tunes are fine, jaunty blues, but they lack the hair-raising intensity, the reverberating layers of meaning, of his finest work. To focus on Johnson’s impact on rock is to miss what makes his art compelling.
Appreciating Johnson’s art is easy (once you’ve seen through the myths and fallacies); understanding its genesis is not. The latter effort will always involve a paradox: perceiving the boundaries — the crossroads, if you will — that our understanding can’t penetrate. What we’re left with is a mystery: How did a child of peonage, an ignorant hobo, create music of such nuance and power? How can a few scratchy old records, the singer’s Mississippi drawl so thick, so full of forgotten idioms and local references that it’s impossible to understand him half the time — how can these records, cut for an audience that no longer exists, vault so far beyond their original nexus and appeal to the ages?
Call it the riddle of genius. To rephrase the point: folk music is not necessarily primitive. Underestimating its complexity is a mistake Bob Dylan, for one, never made. ”Folk music,” Mr. Dylan once said, ”is the only music where it isn’t simple.” And he certainly knows his Robert Johnson. There, tucked away in the jacket photo of the great Dylan album ”Bringing It All Back Home,” is a copy of Johnson’s even greater ”King of the Delta Blues Singers.”
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