Robert Johnson has haunted my life for a long time. The first
blues I heard, real blues that is, was Muddy Waters' The Real Folk Blues
album. Vinyl. Black'n'white picture of Muddy on the front. I was drinking
coffee (which I never drank) at a friend's apartment, and I responded so strongly
to this music that he gave me the record. From there it was a short jump to
Howlin' Wolf, Bukka White, Skip James and Robert Johnson.
The mysterious Robert Johnson. Sold his soul to the devil down at the crossroads. Last month we looked at a new book about this whole mythology and today a film (now out on DVD) addresses the same issues.
Combining eyewitness interviews and skillfully edited re-enactments, director Peter Meyer has created an almost definitive portrait of the essential blues singer. Johnson is portrayed in a series of black and white film clips by modern bluesman Keb Mo', who is absolutely convincing in the role. Danny Glover narrates the film, and contemporary bluesmen Honeyboy Edwards, Johnny Shines, Robert Junior Lockwood and Henry Townshend share their remembrances. Shines actually travelled with Johnson back in the early thirties. Perhaps of more interest are interviews with a local sharecropper and a woman who dated Johnson. They remember him fondly. Don Law II recalls tales passed on by his father (who produced the original sessions) of recording Johnson in hotel rooms, and bailing him out of jail.
The DVD doesn't include much in the way of bonuses, but for the real blues afficionado it doesn't need them. The story and the music is enough. The facts are familiar, but are filled out by the visuals. You see the land where this story took place. The people who lived and worked there. You understand the juke-joints, the lifestyle. It's fascinating.
The "sold his soul to the devil" myth is discussed, and left for the viewer to ponder. The film dwells on the person of Robert Johnson, his travels, his songs, his influence. Keith Richards and Eric Clapton are interviewed and talk about how listening to the first King of the Delta Blues LP changed their lives. As the years pass the layers of mystery surrounding Robert Johnson are being stripped away, but still there remains an extraordinary body of work.
Can't You Hear the Wind Howl is a brief but exhilarating glimpse of a brief and important life. Skillfully made, and a delight to watch.
Robert Johnson also features prominently in
one of Charles de Lint's
finest books, Spirits in the Wires