Peter Guralnick, Searching for Robert Johnson: The Life and Legend of the “King of the Delta Blues Singers”
Greil Marcus, “Robert Johnson,” in Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music
Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
People joke about Elvis still being alive. I believe so strongly that the King is still around that I make jokes about his death.
That’s not true, the part about me thinking Elvis never kicked the can. Anyone and everyone around Elvis the couple years before he died would tell you that it was a wonder he didn’t pass away sooner. And besides, if Elvis were alive, it wouldn’t fit his story: an idiot savant who does one thing well (sing) walks into the right man’s studio at the right time in 1954, records “That’s All Right,” and unleashes a power upon the world that he only vaguely grasps—if he had grasped it, he wouldn’t and couldn’t have sung it. Year after year later, the more Elvis tries to sing, a) the more poorly he does so, b) the more remote or forgotten his brilliance seems, and c) the more he becomes his own grotesque caricature. Elvis’ downfall was that he couldn’t escape the conviction that he was his own morality play, all the while blind to the fact that his was actually a tragedy. His decline was too perfect not to be consumed by it. Elvis had to die, so of course he’s still dead.
The old, dead bluesman Robert Johnson is the one that may yet be around. He died in 1938 at 27 years old, but he was a man of mystery even before his death; since then, he’s become the largest enigma in 20th century popular music.
Consider: Robert Johnson released only eleven records (78 singles) in his lifetime, and they didn’t sell very well. Still, many considered him the greatest blues performer of his generation, although others were skeptical of his talents. Robert Johnson was murdered by poisoning, but there are differing accounts as to the murderer and motive; was it a juke joint owner whose wife Johnson preyed upon, a jealous husband, or an accident? Johnson is buried in three different places, each claiming it’s the one. We do have his birth certificate, except that it was found 30 years after he died. He was never interviewed during his life, and contemporaries that spoke of him decades later gave widely varying accounts of him: he was boisterous, he was withdrawn, he performed with bands, he preferred playing solo, he’d stay in one city for a long time, he was always train hopping somewhere else, he was underrated, he was overrated, he was a best friend, he was a rascal. (All of Johnson’s contemporaries are dead now, too.) As white college students rediscovered blues music in general and Johnson 78’s specifically in the 1960’s, Columbia issued an LP of his sides; Johnson was then declared “King of the Delta Blues Singers.” But why did some blues singers that actually performed in the old Delta barely remember him, even if others lionized him?
Is Robert Johnson simply a product of revisionist history? Were his singles themselves mastered at the wrong speed, so that we really have no idea what he sounded like? Why was a major and supposedly authoritative biography of Robert Johnson, in the making since the 1970’s, never published? How is it that the liner notes that accompanied Columbia’s 1990 CD box set of Johnson’s recordings are considered full of falsities by many other blues scholars? Are the two known photographs of Johnson really him, and what to make of the new one that surfaced in 2008, which may or may not be authentic?
Oh, and the only thing that Robert Johnson’s friends could agree upon about him is that he made a deal with the Devil at the crossroads. At least no one questions whether he sold his soul in order to learn guitar.
If anyone would fake his death just to laugh at the decades of reflection upon him to follow, it would be Robert Johnson. Who was this guy? It’s fitting that such a mysterious presence lingers on so long in our collective, musical unconscious: only a person that never lived can never die.
In truth, so little can be established about Robert Johnson that scholars’ opinions about him reveal more about the latter than the former. Nevertheless, we still have these 20-odd songs recorded (and presumably written by) a man named “Robert Johnson,” and those tracks are chilling. Songs like his “Me and the Devil Blues” leave little to the imagination but much for us to fear. On the other hand, a lyric such as “I have a bird to whistle, and I have a bird to sing / I’ve got a woman I’m loving, but she don’t mean a thing” (“Stones in My Passway”) combines pathos with an exquisite delicacy and lightness of feeling that serves to highlight the heartbreak that creaks through the melody.
My two favorite resources for learning more about Robert Johnson are Peter Guralnick’s Searching for Robert Johnson: The Life and Legend of the “King of the Delta Blues Singers” and Johnson’s eponymous chapter in Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music. Guralnick offers a brief account of Johnson with a whiff of romance and mystery, while Marcus majors on the romance and mystery while sprinkling in a little fact. Take both of them and call me in the morning.
If you spend some time with Johnson’s songs, two aspects immediately grab you: alienation and space. The two go together. No one has ever communicated the sense of being alone and yet made it so personal and singular like Robert Johnson. Marcus comments, “The power of [Robert Johnson’s] music comes in part from Johnson’s ability to shape the loneliness and chaos of his betrayal, or ours. Listening to Johnson’s songs, one almost feels at home in [a] desolate America; one feels able to take some strength from it, right along with the promises we could not give up if we wanted to.” At the same time, it’s the very isolation of his songs that opens the vistas to larger questions; Marcus again: “Robert Johnson lived with. . . intensity, and he asked old questions: What is our place in the world? Why are we cursed with the power to want more than we can have? What separates men and women from each other? Why must we suffer guilt not only for our sins, but for the failure of our best hopes?” These are good questions, ones which Johnson doesn’t attempt to answer, although he’s either crazy or brilliant (or both) to raise them.
Many scholars, including some religious ones, have attempted to frame Robert Johnson’s blues in some type of spiritual, or even Christian, system. I believe these endeavors to be highly misguided. I have no idea what Johnson the man believed, and it’s not my place to guess, but his music only shows Christianity in a photo-negative; with his lyrics and music, Johnson paints a picture of nothing more than a vacuum, albeit a vacuum well suited to be filled by Christ. Marcus is correct in writing that “Johnson’s vision was of a world without salvation, redemption, or rest; it was a vision he resisted, laughed at, to which he gave himself over, but most of all it was a vision he pursued. He walked his road like a failed, orphaned Puritan, looking for women and a good night, but never convinced, whether he found such things or not, that they really were what he wanted, and so framing his tales with old echoes of sin and damnation.” The blues of Robert Johnson create a world that God has left behind and which the Devil now owns.
Well, if this is true of Robert Johnson, what should I say about it? Ought I to proclaim, “Don’t listen to him, he’s tetched!”? Not at all; I’d have trouble completely disavowing any art as resonant as Johnson’s. Instead, I’d suggest that few have excelled like Robert Johnson at portraying the Fall. What’s more, he never exults in a broken world for long; even at his most bawdy, Johnson’s songs of release are filled with regret. Greil Marcus understands this when he writes, “All the beauty of the world and all the terror of losing it is there. . . Robert Johnson’s music is proof that beauty can be wrung from the terror itself. When Johnson sang his darkest songs, terror was a fact, beauty only a glimmer; but that glimmer, and its dying away, lie beneath everything else, beneath all the images that hit home and make a home.” I’d want to follow up with Marcus, however, or Johnson, and ask, “If our world is only darkness, why are we terrified of losing beauty?” Or Marcus again, “The moments of perfect pleasure in Johnson’s songs, and the beauty of those songs, remind one that it is not the simple presence of evil that is unbearable; what is unbearable is the impossibility of reconciling the facts of evil with the beauty of the world.” But I’d wonder, “But why then does beauty exist at all? Doesn’t Robert Johnson’s darkness only make sense in the context of a world that God created as good and beautiful?”
Which brings us to the cross of Jesus. The cross tells us many things: Our good world is worth sacrificing for. Suffering, pain, sorrow, and sin are not illusions but realities that demand a reckoning. God finally deals with evil in such way that he absorbs its pain and price in himself (Jesus crucified) and yet triumphs over it (Jesus resurrected). A new world of beauty is coming, and has already begun.
Robert Johnson gives us a world without Jesus, but still a world that cries out for him.