Robert Johnson

Mythmaking and Contemporary American Culture
by Patricia R Schroeder

University of Illinois. ISBN 0 252 02915 1

In the late 1960s, when the present writer started to get interested in this kind of music, Robert Johnson was generally regarded as one of the very finest of the pre-war bluesmen, with an added layer of interest based on the fact that he had died young, as well as a dash of mystique, caused by the fact that (so far as was then known) there existed no photographs of him.  Today, to describe him in such a way is not even vaguely adequate.  Johnson is a global phenomenon, an icon, a mythical, even magical figure, part satyr, part shaman, part progenitor of contemporary music - and any number of other hyperbolic epithets you care to add (and thereís plenty more where those came from, as we shall see as this review proceeds).  Courtesy of the efforts of a number of key researchers, we now know a lot more about him, and after various false starts, we eventually got to see some photographs.  But in the essentials, very little is any different now to what it was 30-odd years ago; thereís no more of his music available (give or take a few alternative takes, generally very similar in most respects to the ones already available).  The availability of information and photographs might have been expected to undermine the mythologizing, but if anything the opposite has happened.

How did all this happen?  What accounts for this massive shift in perception and status?  The fact that, as far as Johnson the man and his music are concerned, nothing much has changed, suggests that itís primarily a matter of external factors.  Looking back, you can make a reasonable assessment of how and where some of the changes happened, if not necessarily why.  One key event would have been the enormously successful release, by Columbia/Sony, of a boxed set of all Johnsonís recordings, which came stickered with endorsements from the likes of Eric Clapton and Keith Richard, which sold enough to merit a platinum disc, and went on to win a Grammy award (for notes and presentation, rather than for the music, which being 50 years old presumably wasnít eligible).  Itís difficult to be sure, though, as to whether that was a cause or a symptom of the massive transformation of Johnsonís cultural status.  rob_john.jpg - 17.50 KTo put it another way, was there a boxed set because Johnson is 'the greatest' or is he 'the greatest' because of the boxed set?  This question isnít intended as facetiously as it might appear.  Over the years, I have encountered - whether in person or in print - all sorts of people who are adamant in asserting Johnsonís primacy over all other bluesmen, but who have apparently never really listened to any others.  The global phenomenon gains a momentum of its own - much like a snowball rolling down a hill, gathering additional volume as it goes - which is only incidentally about Robert Johnsonís music and increasingly about his mythical, iconic status and the perception of him as an inspiration of rock stars.

One interesting little indicator of all this is when you realise that even a professor writing for a University press, even in a work that is about examining and analysing the processes whereby myth is created, seems compelled to employ a phraseology that itself feeds the myth.  Thereís all sorts of aspects of the life of Robert Johnson that we know very little about.  This is hardly surprising - he died before anybody who might have interviewed him about his life and music had an opportunity to do so; he lived in a society in which comparatively few written records would have been kept; and there was a gap of about thirty years before anybody took enough interest in his music to start asking questions about him of his contemporaries.  The same is true of many, many other musicians from that time and place.  But how does Patricia Schroeder express this?  By telling us right on the first page of her introduction that much about Johnsonís life is 'cloaked in mystery'.  Reflect on that phrase for a moment.  Most of us know comparatively little about the lives of family members a generation or two back.  As it happens, I donít know all that much about the lives of my own grandparents - working-class Scots and Irish - and with the death of the generation in between, thereís a great deal that Iím never going to get a chance to find out.  But I donít tend to think of my grannyís life as being 'cloaked in mystery'.  It is almost as if there is something about Johnson and his myth that compels writers to think this way.  A little later she suggests that 'The music that he leftÖ (is) enhanced by the mysteries of his lifeÖ', but it seems far more likely to me that we think we see 'mysteries' in his life, because of what we think we hear in his music.

Even so, this book is very different to previous works on the subject, as it is not in fact, about Robert Johnson the great bluesman; it is about Robert Johnson the 'contested space', the 'strange attractor', the 'evanescent presence', the 'signifier without semiotic significance', the 'historical figure (transformed) to mythic icon', to quote just a few of the many descriptors that the author uses throughout the text.  In fact, you could say that only the first chapter in the book is actually about Robert Johnson - or as Schroeder puts it, it 'focuses on how Robert Johnson the man became Robert Johnson the sign and how Robert Johnson the sign became Robert Johnson the myth.' (Itís so tempting to insert a Private Eye-style note saying 'Thatís enough Robert Johnsons - Ed').  Not that we get a straightforward account of Johnsonís life - which is fair enough: we donít particularly need another one - and indeed it takes half a page, for example, just to try and pin down in which year the man might have been born.  Having shown how, depending on which source you accept, it could be 1910, 1911, 1912 or 1913, Schroeder suggests that this proves that 'something fundamental about studying Robert Johnson' is that 'even the simplest, most factual details are open to dispute'.  She goes on to say that Johnson was '(s)omething of a chameleonÖ (showing) contradictory aspects of himself and his personality to the different people who kew him'.  In support of this, she quotes various accounts from sources such as Johnny Shines, Son House and Honeyboy Edwards, which could indeed be considered to be inconsistent, but you need to bear in mind that all three of these gentlemen - great bluesmen every one - had to put up for years with being pestered with importunate questions by people who were evidently far more interested in some guy they had known decades before than in themselves, and their responses to such questions have to be seen in that context.

The rest of the first chapter is devoted to analysing the principal 'myths' of Johnsonís life - the alleged supernatural source of what she describes as 'his astonishing musical development', and the dispute around the cause of his death.  First of all, though, she dismisses the story - told by producer Don Law in the sleeve notes to the first album of Johnsonís recordings, issued in the early 1960s - that Johnson had played facing the wall because of 'stage fright' or shyness.  Never mind that Lawís is one of the few first hand accounts of Johnson that dates from before the myth-making started and so might even be seen as having a greater claim to objectivity than many of the others, it is here dismissed as being nothing more than 'racial misunderstanding'.  And it may, indeed, be just that, but how many more 'misunderstandings' have contributed to Johnsonís story?  And anyway the whole concept of credibility seems a pretty shaky one in a context where an academic can write a sentence like this one: 'This sequence of events [i.e.  Johnson seeming to have learned to play guitar very well in a comparatively short time] leads to two questions, both of which are hotly debated among scholars, blues fans and those who knew Robert Johnson: Did Robert Johnson sell his soul to the devil?  And if not, how did he acquire his astonishing guitar prowess?' Do 'scholars' really hotly debate whether Johnson sold his soul to the devil, and the possible effects of this decision on his instrumental skills?  Have they nothing better to do?  Is there a new branch of musicology which takes seriously the possible influences of the supernatural on musical aptitude?  If they listen to a record by some other virtuoso - Django Reinhardt, say, or Michael Coleman or Yehudi Menuhin - do they have similar disputes?  And I thought Cantometrics was wackyÖ

This section goes on for almost 20 pages, looking at this issue from various angles, relevant and not so relevant, but the most sensible observation comes from Honeyboy Edwards which is essentially to the effect that if you sit at a crossroads playing your guitar night after night, while waiting for the devil to turn up, youíll get to be pretty good at the instrument eventually.

The cause of Johnsonís death gets similar (if slightly shorter) treatment.  All the various stories get an airing, as does related stuff like the spat between Peter Guralnick and Julio Finn, in which the former associates Johnson with other mythical, poetic figures like Orpheus, Keats and James Dean, who didnít live long enough to fulfil their youthful promise, while the latter retorts that these are irrelevant and that Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley (being black) are more to the point.  Again, Honeyboy Edwards offers the voice of pragmatic good sense: "Robertís more popular because he died, like everybody else who died young".  Finnís mention of Bob Marley, though, is an interesting one; Marley, too - a great singer and a great songwriter - has been turned into something quite different since his death, both in terms of mythology (all sorts of supernatural tales about him are now common currency) and commercial exploitation (his highly prolific recording career is box-set heaven for all sorts of producers).  And, just as with the Johnson box-set, people can buy one of Marleyís and thereby feel that they have 'done' Jamaican music.  He is 'the greatest of all reggae singers' to many people who could hardly even name another one.

We should not underestimate the power of this kind of mythologizing, nor its commercial potential.  The more you emphasise the ways in which Black musicians are 'different' to white fans, the more attractive they seem to become, at least to some listeners.  A good example of this, even today, is the way in which the Fat Possum label has opened up entirely new markets for their blues recordings, at least partly through their deliberate efforts to present their artists as outlaws and badmen, their personalities and music shaped by violence, crime and the occult.  In his notes on the package of R L Burnsideís Too Bad Jim (Fat Possum 0307-2) Robert Palmer wrote: 'And then there was the time R L drifted past a microphone that just happened to be recording, muttering darkly to himself, ĎThe devil: thatís who Iíve been servingí.  The scary thing is that R L thought nobody was listening'.  At one level, Palmer was simply reporting an incident that we can probably assume did happen just as he says it did, but there seems no doubt that both he and Fat Possumís presiding genius Matthew Johnson knew exactly what they were doing by including that particular anecdote with that disc.  (I should add here that Fat Possumís success also derives from the fact that they have issued by far the best new blues records of the past decade).

Before leaving Chapter 1, Schroeder also looks at the fact that a number or writers have taken pains to show that Johnsonís music was not just the product of his own outstanding musical abilities and imagination, but that it has clearly demonstrable origins in the work of blues singers who came before him.  For some reason, she describes this as something that has only happened 'recently'.  Perhaps that word is open to interpretation, but Paul Garon was writing about this more than 30 years ago (Robert Johnson: Perpetuation of a Myth, in Living Blues, Vol.2 No.  5, Summer 1971).  She acknowledges the validity of these arguments, but apparently determined not to suggest that this might undermine the great man in any way, she has to go on to say that all this shows that 'Robert Johnson anticipated post-modern art: he took pieces of existing music, placed them in different contexts, different keys, and different combinations, added his imaginative and technical powers, and so created something gloriously new yet still familiar and accessible out of inherited bits'.  Now we know what traditional musicians and storytellers have been doing for millennia - theyíve been anticipating post-modern art.

Chapter 2 looks at the ways in which Johnsonís story, or his myth, has been used to create new works - documentaries like Chris Huntís The Search For Robert Johnson, a short story by T Coraghessan Boyleís Stones In My Passway, Hellhound On My Trail, Bill Harrisís stage play Robert Johnson: Trick Of The Devil, and Alan Greenbergís screenplay Love In Vain.  She analyses these works pretty exhaustively, drawing on critical theory, quoting Roland Barthes and so on, but as MT is not really concerned with literary works, there seems little point in dwelling much on this here.  I would say, though, that I found myself closer than usual to agreeing with Ms Schroeder in her conclusing remarks about Boyleís short story.  Most of these works seem to me to tell us 'much about the American mind in the late twentieth centuryÖ the importance of our search for a Ďusableí past that must inevitably reflect our present thinking'.  And, to be clear, I should add that you could happily substitute 'European' or 'Western' for 'American' in that sentence.

Chapter 3 continues along similar lines, this time looking at modern works in which Robert Johnson himself appears as a character in an entirely fictional context.  The best known of these must be Walter Hillís 1986 feature film, Crossroads, a fairly routine rites of passage movie about a white teenager who somehow proves himself through his encounter with blues history.  This is the only point in the book where Schroeder herself seems fairly cynical about one of the works she discusses, although she still manages to eat up nearly 10 pages with it.  Less well-know is Ace Atkinsís novel Crossroads Blues, which gets a similar degree of analysis.  Not having read Atkinsís book, it would be unfair of me to comment on Schroederís analysis of it.  The same goes, Iím afraid, for the three novels covered in Chapter 4 - Alan Rodgersís Bone Music, Sherman Alexieís Reservation Blues and Walter Mosleyís RLís Dream.  Despite consuming both the blues and contemporary fiction in fairly copious quantities, Iíve never felt inclined to read novels about the blues.  When I do - one recent exception was Patrick Neateís Twelve Bar Blues (Penguin, 2001), which covers both New Orleans jazz and country blues - I tend to find the experience frustrating and unsatisfactory.  Neate doesnít (so far as I remember) mention Robert Johnson, which (having read Schroederís book) I think is probably blessed relief - it is impossible not to feel that Johnson is used by writers as a kind of all-purpose blues stereotype.  This is essentially similar to the phenomenon I described at the start of this review, where you get the impression that some people are grateful for the existence of Robert Johnson as the 'greatest' bluesman, because by using his name they can absolve themselves from any possible responsibility they might have to listen to any others.

Iím more familiar with the territory explored in Chapter 5, Virtual Robert Johnson, in which the vast range of websites that feature Robert Johnson get the authorís attention.  These range from the Delta Haze site (www.deltahaze.com) in the Johnson section of which - I kid you not - your cursor turns into a devil with a pitchfork, but which does include an excellent biography, to The Robert Johnson Notebooks (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MUSIC/rjhome.html) where students analyse the lyrics of Johnsonís songs as poetry.  Thereís also attention given to the way in which discussions about Johnson feature on internet bulletin boards.  The author, she tells us, 'spent several days searching through Blues-Lís archives from 1999 through to May 2002 and reading all messages that mention Robert Johnson'.  For that, she deserves some kind of medal, I reckon, and while it clearly told her a lot about how people behave in those kinds of environments, I doubt very much if it increased her knowledge or understanding of Robert Johnson or the blues to any great extent.  There are several pages devoted to one particular discussion, and the role played in it by someone using the pseudonym 'Ocky Milkman'.  This chapter also includes a short section about the film fragment that suddenly surfaced a few years back, and that was - for a while - thought to show Robert Johnson.  It didnít - somebody eventually realised that the film advertised in the poster behind the musician featured wasnít released until some years after Johnsonís death.  All clearly just wishful thinking, but still sufficiently compelling to leave a certain amount of egg on some faces.  Again, all of this tells us more about 'the American mind in the late twentieth century' than about Robert Johnson or the blues.

In her concluding chapter, the author draws on Chaos Theory, and I find her suggestion that Johnson constitutes a 'strange attractor' as defined by that theory, quite appealing.  It does, indeed, sometimes feel like Robert Johnson - or at least 'Robert Johnson', if I can make that distinction, is 'a presence indicated only by the activity around it' - 'the hole on the donut'.  I felt this when reading about the plays and novels (and even Suzanne Noguereís excellent poem, which is quoted in its entirety) throughout this book, and also at other points.  At one point in the book, for example, Schroeder quotes what various people - Greil Marcus, Peter Guralnick, Eric Clapton - have recalled about their first experience of hearing Robert Johnson.  Interestingly, she seems to take these at face value, whereas she had previously indicated - quite rightly - that some of those from whom we have acquired the 'facts' about Johnson might have been shaping their recollections in order to 'promote idiosyncratic agendas'.  Writers and rock stars also have their own idiosyncratic agenda, and while I have no reason to doubt that hearing Johnsonís music can and does have a particular kind of effect on people, we will never really know how far we can have faith in Eric Clapton telling us that when he first heard Johnson he experienced 'shockÖ that there could be anything that powerful', or if itís just part of Claptonís own self-mythologizing.  Maybe he feels he needs it, given that he has to put up with the fact that everybody assumes he got to be a great guitar player by doing lots of practicing, rather than by infernal visitation.

The author lists some of the things that have been generated by this 'strange attractor' - he has been 'used to honor the blues, to propagate supernatural myths, to create a usable pastÖ to expose racial inequitiesÖ to inspire personal quests and ambitionsÖto promote an ethics of careÖ to attract celebrity and to sell T-shirts'.  The list is much longer than I have quoted here.  She is absolutely right in all this, and again - reflecting the subtitle of the book - we can see that this is much more about contemporary American culture (and again, for 'American', read 'Western', or whatever) than about Johnson or his music.  Elsewhere in the book, having rehearsed the various attempts to recount the facts of Johnsonís life, she observes that 'once a figure has been thoroughly mythologized - as Robert Johnson surely has - it may be impossible to uncover the historical person that first gave rise to these myths'.  I can see what she means, but we mustnít lose sight of the fact that the historical person (or what is actually in that hole in the donut) was a man who made some great music.  Maybe by returning to the point at which we can accept that that is all he was - as if that isnít enough in itself - we can recover the man, and appreciate what was truly great about him.

Ray Templeton - 9.1.05

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