Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch, Robert Johnson: Lost and Found (University of Illinois Press, 2003)
They call him the "legendary" Robert Johnson. And they have done so for as long as I can remember. There's been a mystique about Robert Johnson that has separated him from all other blues musicians. When I first heard him, it was on the recommendations of a variety of musicians. Eric Clapton, among others, listed him as their favorite. So, I hunted down King of the Delta Blues Singers on Columbia Records, and listened. There was a haunted quality to his voice. There was a mysterious side to his lyrics. But was that because it was what I had been conditioned to expect? Or was it really there? These are some of the questions which are asked and addressed by Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch in their new book Robert Johnson: Lost and Found.
Pearson is a professor of English and American Studies at the University of Maryland (and the author of two other books on the blues); McCulloch is a career journalist and one-time blues musician. Together they have set out to debunk the myths which have surrounded Johnson like a thick vine, to trim off the suckers, and to look directly at Johnson's accomplishments as a blues musician. They want the world to appreciate Johnson in the same way we hear Bukka White, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and other bluesmen. They want to eradicate the misinterpretations and reinventions which have turned Robert Johnson into an archetype and view the man behind the myth.
I bought into the myth myself, using Johnson and his story as the basis for a novella called Me & the Devil Blues. Hollywood used the story as the basis for Crossroads (the Ralph Macchio film, not the Britney Spears one). An unfilmed screenplay has been published, a couple of pseudo-documentaries produced, several books have retold the story and album liner notes, and magazine articles galore have repeated the familiar "facts." The legend is that Robert Johnson was an untalented young guitar player, who sold his soul to the Devil (down at the crossroads) in return for a unique and spectacular gift. According to the authors this is all based on a one sentence quote from Son House, which may or may not have been manipulated to mean what others wanted it to mean. Of course, there is also the internal proof in his songs. Pearson and McCulloch are quick to point out that this "proof" stems from only two of the twenty-nine songs he recorded.
The late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen authors who love to debunk myths. To find the "real" story. To "humanize" their subjects. People who were seen as heroes before, became deeply flawed and dysfunctional as modernists and post-modernists dissected their lives. I don't have a problem with this, but I wonder if we all took the Robert Johnson story literally anyway. Or was it just a compelling tale that gave us a reason to listen to a compelling artist?
Bukka White, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, even Leadbelly never achieved the legendary status that Robert Johnson did. Without the myth would we have chosen to listen to Johnson? Or would thousands of casual blues fans have passed him by as they have passed by so many others? There is, as I mentioned, a special quality about Johnson's recordings. But is it real or imagined? Does it stem from the caché of legend? The recordings of Bukka White are powerful and unique ... but hard to find. I bought a Skip James album for 39 cents one time. Brand new, and sealed. 39 cents! The Johnson albums have not been deleted; but rather they've been remastered, repackaged, reshaped, remythologized.
Robert Johnson: Lost and Found provides a good foundation for making your own decision about Johnson. Until long-time Johnson scholar Mack MacCormick publishes his essential biography, each slim volume that comes along just adds to the piecemeal understanding we have. The most essential document that exists for understanding Robert Johnson is his body of recordings. Thirty songs, a guitar and a voice. Did he know the Devil personally? I guess it depends on whether you accept the Devil's existence. Does it matter? As one who has never put too much stock in the "autobiographical" interpretation of songwriters' efforts, I am not sure. Johnson's songs provide enough reasons to listen without the metaphysical gobbledegook. And yet there will always be something about the story that haunts me, and resonates beyond the repertoire alone.
Pearson and McCulloch make convincing arguments, but in the end you have to wonder ... does it matter?