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Everything I know about Robert Johnson
Wish me luck, gang…..in trying to shed light on one of the most discussed figures in music history, I am legitimately fearful that I might add to, rather than subtract from, the mystery (which partially means misunderstanding) that surrounds this iconic artist. Here goes, nonetheless.
I was reminded of this topic when a Facebook discussion broke out about the validity of sentiments often expressed in the Blues world, along the lines of “if a guitar ain’t been in no pawn shop, it can’t play no blues”…..which, after a few clever exchanges, led me to Providence College…..I know, hardly the most blues place on earth…..but humor me.
One of the central tenets we discussed in my time at P.C. was this: What is important in art, is what is inherently in the art object itself. Attempts to analyze by the author’s life situation, or historical context tend to lead us to fool’s gold almost every time. What’s important is how the spaghetti tastes, not its country of origin, technology of the stove, or whether the chef was having a bad day.
Thinking about my time at P.C. brought me back to my discovery while there of Paul Oliver, British architecture writer turned Blues expert……he got an awful lot of stuff backwards, but at least made Blues a topic of worthwhile study. Picture me, if you will, in the Providence library, alternating between devouring the only book on the subject, and being puzzled when his descriptions rang so incredibly false with the little bit of playing I had then learned. I sincerely hope I can pass along the little bit I’ve learned about Robert Johnson ( you remember Robert Johnson….this is a story about Robert Johnson….get to the point soon, promise) while neither posing as an “expert”, nor bringing the wrath of the reader down on my head when I attempt to elucidate how our understanding of him got poisoned by racial misunderstandings. Without making more.
Anyhow…… We all know the story, recounted by many, that Robert was an annoying low level musician, hanging around Charley Patton, Son House and Willie Brown….what we would call a “wingnut jammer”. He left town, and returned a year later, with chops that amazed and outstripped anything the local legends were doing. Now, we might consider that he had, in the interim, been exposed to every type of playing in the country, while working on his chops all day, every day, just to survive. Nope, that was too easy…..all concerned went with the “sold his soul to the devil….at midnight……at the crossroads” When the Library of Congress recordings with Alan Lomax came along, or other white “historians”, the story had taken root, encouraged by Johnson himself, who was not unaware of professional advancement, working the “bad Boy” angle like a modern day rapper would. Insert pontificating about what the words “good” and “Bad” would mean in a culture of slavery if you wish…if that helps our understanding…go ahead, I’ll wait………ok? Those might work a little backwards? Got it!
The legend itself was pure West African folklore. Legba, the god of music in their polytheistic world, was a trickster god, always pulling the wool over someone’s eyes as if he was the Signifyin’ Monkey (recurring “cartoon-like” African character)……a short leap for white Christians to identify him with our Lucifer (they would have been pretty suspicious of polytheism in general!), and reinforcing that association, the traveling musicians of West Africa, called griots, were the proverbial “stranger in town”…. everywhere they went (sometimes sleeping in the hollow baobab tree when caught short of lodging enroute to the next village…..occasionally being discovered dead there, adding to their mysterious and possibly sinister reputations)…..it was ”lock up your women, the griot’s in town!”. The crossroads of the deep South, isolated and dangerous as they might be, suggested, after dark, a vaguely familiar image of where one might meet one of Legba’s untrustworthy disciples. And quoting the historical legend was both a sign of legitimacy to African American listeners, and exotic catnip to white, would-be Paul Olivers. So, they took the traditional legend, and ran with it!
Now for my comic “big Finish”…..told to me by two different white blues fans, who did not, as best I can determine, know each other. Both of these had gone on “The Blues Tour” in Mississippi, where, among the sites visited, is the supposed crossroads where Robert sold his soul…..along with some roadhouse jukes….where both gentlemen consumed a fair amount of whiskey (where the Irish enter Blues history, but that’s another article). They had both heard that sun RISE was the time to meet the devil (more often, it’s sun SET, or sometimes Midnight, depending on the source)…anyhow, each of these blues fans showed up, hung over, at the appropriate crossroads, holding a guitar, presumably to be tuned by Legba, thus imparting musical prowess. Not fully believing the legend, they were nonetheless astonished to see a large black man……dressed all in black…….approaching them…….”Are You?”.......they asked hesitantly……..”Are You?......Are You who I think……you are?” “Sure”, the man replied….” I’m Supa Chikan” (actually a local bluesman)…..”Wanna buy a CD?”
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Blues jam, starting with the " honey-toned" (Living Blues magazine) Merrill Shepard
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