An early member of the 27 Club, blues master Robert Johnson has been an object of veneration among such rock luminaries as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards since 16 of the roughly three dozen recordings he made in makeshift studios in the 1930s appeared on a 1961 compilation album, Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers. “Poor Bob” — as the singer, guitarist, and harmonica player referred to himself on “Cross Road Blues” — has also been the subject of numerous biographies, of which Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow’s Up Jumped the Devil is the latest.
Looking to get past the tale of Johnson (1911–1938) selling his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in order to master the guitar, the authors have tracked down birth certificates, land deeds, medical records, and other documentation of the musician’s actual life. They recount interviews with Johnson’s contemporaries and family members, and dive into all manner of books and articles to convey the poverty and racism through which Johnson persevered to become a performer whose dynamic guitar playing and beguiling vocals could make a juke joint jump or turn a house party solemn. The authors give a sense of Johnson’s power with a quote from an occasional collaborator, Johnny Shines: “One time in Saint Louis we were playing one of the songs that Robert would like to play with someone once in a great while, ‘Come on in My Kitchen.’ He was playing very slow and passionately, and when we quit, I noticed no one was saying anything. Then I realized they were crying — both men and women.”
Jimmy Page once said, “The music of Robert Johnson has inspired a million riffs. The myth of Robert Johnson has inspired a million dreams.” In the winter of 1986, Village Voice contributor Greil Marcus related his own first encounter with the legendary musician: “Robert Johnson’s music talked to me as the voice of a new world, where everything was at stake, and nothing was resolved. Every choice was open, made real — what happened was up to me.”
If Conforth and Wardlow’s book looks to sculpt an accurate portrait out of a fog of poorly kept records and embellished memories, Marcus, in his essay below, gets at the poetry of pain, grace, and joy that has kept Robert Johnson alive long after his one-score-and-seven years on this Earth had ended. —R.C. Baker
When You Walk in the Room
Almost exactly 50 years ago, in late November 1936, a 25- year-old blues singer from Mississippi made his first records in San Antonio, Texas: among them “Terraplane Blues,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Walking Blues,” “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” In January 1970, just a month after Altamont, the all-day Rolling Stones rock festival, where I’d witnessed the worst violence I’d ever seen in the flesh, I walked into a record store, not looking for anything in particular; I just wanted to buy a record. I flipped through the blues rack and saw the name Robert Johnson. It didn’t mean much to me; I’d noticed it as a songwriting credit on Cream LPs, for tunes called “Crossroads” and “Four Until Late.” The previous fall, I’d watched the Rolling Stones play a pristine version of “Love in Vain,” a track on their then new Let It Bleed, but I hadn’t known it was Johnson’s — for reasons I’ve never figured out, they credited it to someone called “Woody Payne.”
I was just starting out as a rock critic, though after Altamont I felt a hundred years old; I thought I ought to know where Cream songs came from, so I bought the Robert Johnson album, King of the Delta Blues Singers. It was one of those moments when you get your life changed — like picking a college course that leads you to think for the first time, or walking thoughtlessly into a room and falling in love. I took the record home and put it on: I knew nothing about country blues. I knew almost nothing about the Deep South in the ’30s — I’d never even read Faulkner. All I had were memories of Life magazine photos of lynchings, Richard Wright’s autobiography, the autobiography of one of the Scottsboro Boys (both mediated through the ever-changing Communist Party line on the “race question”). All I had, really, was a liberal upbringing, a lot of socialist realism. I brought virtually no context to the record. I simply took it home, put it on, and had my life changed.
I heard a sound I’d never heard before, but which, for some reason, I connected to. It was what Edmund Wilson called “the shock of recognition” — and for me, the “shock” has always been the realization that you have recognized something nothing could have led you to expect to recognize. The question turns out to be not what-makes-the-music-great, but why you recognized its greatness when, all things considered, you shouldn’t have understood it at all, or even stumbled upon it in the first place. I’ve been married for 20 years; sometimes, like anyone married that long, I wonder what my life would have been like if, on a certain meaningless day, I hadn’t walked into a certain meaningless room. Sometimes I think my life would be more or less the same; sometimes I think I wouldn’t have a life at all. I feel the same way about Robert Johnson. And it’s this sort of connection I want to talk about.
Predictably, playing the Robert Johnson album, I didn’t like his 1936 version of “Crossroads” as much as Cream’s 1968 version. Cream’s version was a firestorm; this was too quiet. As the album played, I read the liner notes. This is how they began: “Robert Johnson is little, very little more than a name on aging index cards and a few dusty master records in the files of a phonograph company that no longer exists.”
Those lines were poetry to me. I still think the cadence of the prose is pure poetry — the movement from “little, very little” to “no longer exists.” I turned the record over and stopped dead with “Stones in My Passway”; my nice living room was suddenly invaded by absolute terror. To get away from what was happening, I read on: “Robert Johnson appeared and disappeared, in much the same fashion as a sheet of newspaper twisting and twirling down a dark and windy midnight street.” This wasn’t poetry — it was corny — but it reminded me of the cover of Camus’s The Rebel, a picture that has stayed with me with far greater force than almost anything in the book itself. The cover showed a sheet of newspaper, with headlines in half a dozen languages, all carrying reports of revolution, upheaval, blowing down the street to nowhere. The Paris Commune of 1871, the Berlin revolution of 1918, Barcelona in 1936 — all events expelled from history by those with the power to get history written, published, taught, and censored, the incidents appearing, when they appeared in the record at all, like a list of perversions in a sex manual about healthy married life. What I’m trying to say is that I experienced those words on the Robert Johnson album, and Robert Johnson’s music, as an invasion of a world I had taken for granted — of an urban, modern, white, middle-class, educated reality I had taken as complete and finished, as a natural fact.
Robert Johnson‘s music was a rent in that reality, a violent rip, a negation, a no. I suddenly realized that I was sick of rock ’n’ roll; sick, after Altamont, of what it could do and what it had already produced. Altamont showed me blood, and death. I’d seen people beaten to the ground with lead-weighted sticks, seen naked people with their teeth knocked out, and I’d left the place only to hear on the radio that, as I’d stood behind the stage on top of a van to hear the Rolling Stones, a young black man had been knifed, kicked, and bludgeoned to death. There was death in Robert Johnson’s songs — but it always stopped short, stopped short at the point of choice. As I listened, full of ugly memories, Robert Johnson’s music talked to me as the voice of a new world, where everything was at stake, and nothing was resolved. Every choice was open, made real — what happened was up to me.
Now, this was not socialist realism, or even liberal realism, which says that all people are products of great historical forces in a world they never made: that all people are sociology. Robert Johnson’s music wasn’t just a rent in the bourgeois life I’d lived; it was a rent in the theories of the leftists who’d fought against that life, who reached their high point in the ’30s, at the very moment Johnson was singing. The bourgeois view of the world said people like Robert Johnson didn’t count; the socialist realist view of the world said that he’d been made not to count, and that if by some miracle he’d made his voice heard, it was as the voice of the irrepressible will of the people — in other words, as sociology; as an individual, he didn’t even exist. But this wasn’t what I heard. I heard a particular person, someone no sociological construct could have predicted, or even allowed for. Years later I would read Albert Murray’s comments on Bessie Smith — he said, more or less, that writers have tried to tie the expressive power of Bessie Smith’s music to the pain and suffering of black people in America, and then he wondered why, if this were so, 400 years of slavery and oppression, of pain and suffering, had not produced another Bessie Smith. Albert Murray, a black writer, was trying to rescue Bessie Smith from socialist realism; he was trying to grant her the subjectivity, the autonomy, that in the United States is automatically granted any white artist. She was, Murray was saying, a genius. And, as Freud said, everyone knows genius is incomprehensible. Coming from the premier 20th century advocate of rationalism, that is saying something.
I wasn’t ready to deal with this — this sort of autonomy. Instead I tried to understand the form — the genre, the sociology. I became obsessed with Mississippi Delta country blues — primitive blues, it was called in the notes to the Robert Johnson album. I learned a lot about it. I bought everything I could find. I learned about the first country blues performers to record, men much older than Robert Johnson: Charlie Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Skip James, Garfield Akers. I heard a music that was rich, fierce, funny, and bitter. But I kept listening to Robert Johnson, and what I learned still didn’t touch what he was doing.
I learned that blues had come into being — was invented, was discovered, I don’t know the right word — around 1900, probably in the Mississippi Delta; wherever it came from, the sound was soon heard across the South. Everyone, black and white, who heard this new sound — all those with enough education to write down their thoughts on what they heard — said the same thing. It didn’t matter if it was some benevolent rich white woman or W.C. Handy of Memphis, who later named himself “the Father of the Blues.” They all had the same reaction, used the same words: “Weird.” “Strange.” “Eerie.” “Unearthly.” “Devilish.” “Terrifying.” “Not of this world.”
The blues was something new. Just as Robert Johnson’s music had made a breach in my white, middle-class, modern world, around 1900 blues had made a breach in the known world of southern blacks. It wasn’t like the old field hollers, work songs, animal fables, ring shouts, gospel music, though musicologists have traced the lines back so that you’d think a breach had never been made. A leads to B and B leads to C, and who can deny it? But the testimony of those who were there is what counts — and what those who were there said was that they’d never heard anything like this before, and they weren’t sure they ever wanted to hear it again. A white woman heard her teenage maid moaning to herself as she folded laundry — whatever the song was about, if it was a song, it wasn’t about laundry. W.C. Handy was waiting for a train late one night; two men sat down beside him and began to play; later he wondered if it hadn’t been a dream.
What was this? Robert Johnson attracted international attention in his lifetime; Melody Maker ran a short item about him, bemoaning the fact that his record company wasn’t known for encouraging protest songs. Obviously, blues was full of pain and suffering; therefore at its heart it had to be a protest against white oppression. On the page, that wasn’t hard to understand — why was the sound so hard to understand?
It was hard to understand because blues was not music born of oppression, but of freedom. It was not a protest against “conditions” — against racism, lynching, sharecropping, and worse — it was, like The Sound and the Fury, a protest against life.
Blues was invented by one of the first generations of black Americans not to be born slaves — to be born with the freedom of movement that from the time of Daniel Boone had been enshrined as the first principle of American life. They were among the first Afro-Americans to escape of their own free will the ties of hometown, home plantation, family, church — and, most important, work. The black church as well as white sheriffs pushed them back — and they pushed back against the black church no less than against white sheriffs. No, they said, I do what I like.
A whole new, common language grew up around that negation, that affirmation — “No, I do what I like.” It was a shared language of guitar riffs and lyric phrases (“My black mama’s face shines like the sun,” “The sun gonna shine in my back door someday,” “Minutes seem like hours, hours seem just like days”), a set of fragments reaching for some all-encompassing blues parable that every blues singer presented in pieces. You could say, as Peter Guralnick has, that the tradition itself, not the individual artist, was the poet, and the tradition grew up as a poetic opposition to playing by the rules. In that sense, of course, blues was a protest, but blues singers didn’t see it that way. They considered themselves free men, as good as anybody, better than most — if not better than most, freer than most. Their music was made out of a conviction that, like all Americans, they were masters of their own lives — or should be. When they ran into the limits of that mastery — the inability to hold a woman, to keep a dollar in hand, to live without fear — they found themselves face-to-face not merely with the particular racial, economic, or social conditions of the Deep South in the ’20s or ’30s, but with the facts of life. Those facts could be summed up in one: men and women are not at home in this world. It was the same fact that Herman Melville had discovered in Moby Dick, that Faulkner was raging against in The Sound and the Fury, that the writers of Greek tragedies had chewed over more than 2000 years before. That was why, to those who heard it around 1900, the sound was strange, scary, confusing: the new blues singers were singing about things people had never wanted to talk about. For the first time, they were acting like free people, and running into the wall that separates desire from its realization.
It took me a long time to understand this — or to believe it. For a long time, what I heard in Mississippi country blues, and always most intensely in Robert Johnson, was a contradiction: the music reached me directly, went straight to the heart, seemed to call forth responses from the blood; but at the same time that music was impossibly distant, odd, and old. For black people in the ’20s and ’30s the Mississippi Delta was full of horses and wagons and ruled by peonage. There weren’t any telephones and there weren’t any toilets. No one was allowed to vote, and most couldn’t even dream of learning to read and write. The first contact most of these people would have with a world outside the one into which they were born was when their sons were drafted to fight in World War II — and many of their sons were given farm deferments, arranged by white landowners partly to insure that they never would see a world outside the one into which they were born.
But I’ve fallen back into sociology — the opposite of what I’m trying to talk about. I’m trying to talk about a different sort of distance, a different sort of oldness, a different sort of oddness. I was raised on The Twilight Zone TV show — Mississippi blues was twilight zone stuff. The singers, recorded in their twenties and thirties, seemed in their voices to have been old before they were born. Robert Johnson was a ghost — out of a past I had never expected to confront, he was years ahead of me every time I listened to his music, waiting for me to catch up.
I am writing about Robert Johnson because if any of the things I have been saying are true, they are overwhelmingly, titanically more true of him and his music than they are of any other Mississippi blues singer one might mention. Once one has been through the tradition, many of the great singers and most of the countless minor ones — and scores of black men made records in the South in the ’20s and ’30s — recede into that tradition: the tradition speaks for them: this means they become sociological. Their music makes sense sociologically — and after that, it may not make any other kind of sense, or, more important, make non-sense out of whatever preconceptions a listener might bring to it. Charlie Patton, considered the founder of Mississippi Delta blues, sounds like a founder. Son House sounds like an exponent. Skip James and Tommy Johnson, both of them with highly developed individual styles, sound like eccentrics, like isolates within a tradition itself isolated from the American mainstream, be it political or artistic, where history is supposedly made.
Now, compared to Skip James or Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson does not sound particularly individualistic. Compared to them, he sounds very traditional — and also as if the tradition, this particular social/economic/religious/aesthetic happenstance, is meaningless, as if it had never existed. In his music you seem to hear what everyone else was reaching for, what everyone else was trying to say, what no one else could touch, what no one else could put into words, into the twist of a vocal, the curl of a guitar line — or for that matter into the momentum of a passage of prose, the scene of a play, the detail of a painting. Robert Johnson takes the tradition as a given, in the same way we take it as a given that people we meet will speak, eat, and sleep, and then goes beyond the tradition to such an extent that the concepts of speech, eating, and sleeping lose their meanings, or acquire entirely new ones.
Robert Johnson, his music says, worked and lived with a deeper autonomy than any other bluesman, all of whom came forth to affirm autonomy. He made his music against the limits of that autonomy, limits he discovered and made real, and he did so with more ferocity, and more tenderness, than any other bluesman, all of whom encountered similar limits. The difference is this: all the other bluesmen dealt with that problem within the bounds of the tradition, within the bounds of the form of Mississippi Delta blues, speaking that common language. If the tradition allowed them to refuse the limits on their life, they accepted the limited power of the tradition to deal with those limits, to make sense of them.
Robert Johnson did not do this. As an individual, sparked by the blues tradition to want more out of life than he might have otherwise demanded, he refused to accept the limits of the blues tradition itself — a tradition that, as an aesthetic form, at once inspired and limited his ability to make demands on life, to protest it. It’s said that when he started out he was a pest, a teenager making noise at houseparties and juke joints, a complete incompetent on the guitar, a joke. Then he went away, and a year later came back, still demanding that Son House and Willie Brown give him a chance to play in public. They laughed at him and left the room; he started to play. They turned around — and what they heard sounded as strange to them as the first blues had sounded decades before. It was like Vasily Rozanov’s metaphor for nihilism: “The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn round… No more coats and no more home.” Right there, in the heart of the tradition, in the sociology of its everyday life, no one knew what was going on.
Blues was Robert Johnson’s language. It’s unclear whether he could read or write, but if he could, it was at a rudimentary level; blues was his only chance at self-expression, or making a mark on the world, of leaving it even slightly different than he had found it. He mastered the tradition — he formally extended its guitar language, formally raised the level of song composition, deepened its formal possibilities for vocal strength and delicacy. Yet he also found the tradition inadequate — and you can hear this in his greatest songs, in “Stones in My Passway,” “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Traveling Riverside Blues.” The tension of wanting to say more than the tradition can allow explodes the tradition. “Stones in My Passway” and “Hellhound” do not sound like any other blues. It doesn’t matter how well any musicologist can trace their melodies or their lyrics back to any other performers. You run into a wall of emotional, aesthetic fact: sociology can explain the Mississippi Delta blues, but it cannot explain Robert Johnson any more than 400 years of pain and suffering can produce two Bessie Smiths.
Most traditions of any sort decay, fall into ruin, wear out. It’s rare to see, to hear, any tradition actually be exploded — to be taken to a critical mass of possibility and desire and then be destroyed. That’s what happens in Robert Johnson’s last recordings, made in 1937, the year before he died. It seems impossible that there could be any Mississippi blues after those last recordings — and, in a way, there weren’t. Nothing new; just refinements, revivals, footnotes. Many of Johnson’s more conventional compositions — “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Dust My Broom,” “Crossroads” — became blues and then rock ’n’ roll standards in the years and decades after Robert Johnson’s death; it’s interesting that almost no one has even tried to make a new version of “Stones in My Passway” or “Hellhound on My Trail.”
Once it’s really heard, Robert Johnson’s music takes shape as a mystery — and, confronted with a mystery, the human impulse is to try and solve it. Robert Johnson is no longer a name on an index card; since King of the Delta Blues Singers was released, 25 years ago, almost every fact one might care to know about him has been discovered. There are enough facts for a full biography; not long ago there was mostly legend, tall tales, superstition. And yet Robert Johnson’s music has not been reduced, has not been contained, has not been made sense of, not one bit. You hear a man going farther than he could ever have been expected to go — even if you know nothing of the particular limits of Mississippi blues, you can hear those limits being smashed, or hear a man fall back violently before them. What you hear is a struggle more extreme, and more fully shaped, than you can accept. So you begin to ask: what would it mean to want that much? What would it mean to lose that much?
Carlos Fuentes once spoke about the difference between literature that can be contained within the bounds of sociology and ethnography and literature that cannot. “Perhaps Babbitt and Main Street could only have been written by a perfectly determined North American writer born in Sauk Center, Minnesota, in the year of grace 1885,” Fuentes said of Sinclair Lewis. “But Absalom, Absalom!, Light in August or The Sound and the Fury could, in their mythic essence, have been told by a wise savage in central Africa, an ancient guardian of memory in the Himalayas, an amnesiac demon, or a remorseful god.” Sam Charters, one of the first to write in detail about Mississippi blues, once wrote that only a black man living in the Mississippi Delta in the first third of the century could possibly understand what Son House meant when he sang, “My black mama’s face shines like the sun.” Maybe that is true, in the same way that Fuentes’s words about Sinclair Lewis may be true. But nothing similar could ever be true about Robert Johnson, just as one does not have to be anything like Faulkner to understand what he wrote.
For all this, Robert Johnson remains a figure in a story that, as it is usually told, is already completed: that is, he is a sociological exemplar of an ethnographic cultural incident that makes complete sense within the bounds of American sociocultural ethnography. No one talks about Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson (or even D.W. Griffith, John Ford, and Howard Hawks) this way. They are discussed as people who took on the world and, for whatever reasons, made something of it; what they made of it is what gets discussed, and discussed in the most wide-ranging way, connected to and informing anything that might connect to or inform it. Such talk makes their work richer, and the world richer, more interesting. But there are few American black artists discussed in these terms, and no blues singers. Formal objections are easy — how can you compare a handful of two-and-a-half-minute songs to Melville’s books, or just Moby Dick? Can you actually say that there is a labyrinth as deep, as complex, in “Stones in My Passway” as in The Sound and the Fury? Maybe not. But one can say that Robert Johnson went as far, went far enough that the question becomes not how he got there, but what goes on there. ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 16, 2019