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Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson: Lost and Found

Barry Lee Pearson
Bill McCulloch
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    Robert Johnson
    Book Description:

    With just forty-one recordings to his credit, Robert Johnson (1911-38) is a giant in the history of blues music. Johnson's vast influence on twentieth-century American music, combined with his mysterious death at the age of twenty-seven, has allowed speculation and myths to obscure the facts of his life. The most famous of these legends depicts a young Johnson meeting the Devil at a dusty Mississippi crossroads at midnight and selling his soul in exchange for prodigious guitar skills. _x000B__x000B_In this volume, Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch examine the full range of writings about Johnson and sift fact from fiction. They compare conflicting accounts of Johnson's life, weighing them against interviews with blues musicians and others who knew the man. Through their extensive research Pearson and McCulloch uncover a life every bit as compelling as the fabrications and exaggerations that have sprung up around it. In examining Johnson's life and music, and the ways in which both have been reinvented and interpreted by other artists, critics, and fans, Robert Johnson: Lost and Found charts the broader cultural forces that have mediated the expression of African American artistic traditions.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09212-1
    Subjects: Music, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1 The Making of a Paper Trail
    (pp. 1-4)

    Lord knows, he tried to be a family man, but something always drew him back—or drove him back—to the road. He spent most of his adult life traveling from town to town, playing guitar and singing for gatherings on street corners, at suppers and house parties, and in rural roadhouses and urban clubs. Although his travels took him to most regions of the United States, he remained a virtual unknown outside the racially segregated venues of the Deep South, where his music was most at home. He made a few records, but only one of them sold very...

  6. 2 Our Hero
    (pp. 5-10)

    Even as the body of romantic mythology about Robert Johnson grew in the decades following his death, so, too, did the volume of carefully researched facts and first-person recollections. For readers who know little or nothing about this storied blues artist, this chapter offers a short biographical outline. Based on public records, court documents, the memories of Johnson’s contemporaries, and the work of such biographers as Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow, Mack McCormick, Peter Guralnick, Jas Obrecht, Stephen LaVere, and Tom Freeland, the outline is intended to provide helpful reference points for the investigation that follows. Readers who are...

  7. 3 The Anecdotes
    (pp. 11-17)

    Don Law, the British producer who recorded Johnson, was a key source of early information about the blues artist. H. C. Speir and Ernie Oertle, the two talent scouts who put Johnson in touch with Law, also provided recollections, but Law was the initial and primary source. His anecdotes, unchallenged for thirty years, were recycled over and over again by Johnson’s early biographers.

    By the time he recorded Johnson, Law had already presided over a number of blues sessions in both Mississippi and Texas. He had also tried his hand at promoting blues to merchants who sold “race records,” the...

  8. 4 Early Notices
    (pp. 18-26)

    The first extended print reference to Robert Johnson outside of music industry communications appeared in the March 2, 1937, issue ofThe New Masses, a left-wing periodical based in New York.¹ Following notices for two plays, titledChainsandMarching Song, a lecture on “The Moscow Treason Trial,” a fund-raiser to aid leftist opposition in Spain, and ads for tours of the Soviet Union, a column by Henry Johnson—possibly a pen name for the jazz record producer and critic John H. Hammond Jr.—heralded the arrival of a new blues voice: “We cannot help but call your attention to...

  9. 5 The Reissue Project, Phase One
    (pp. 27-32)

    The Johnson legend was greatly influenced by Columbia’s two-stage reissue of the artist’s recordings in 1961 and 1970. The first of these two albums,King of the Delta Blues Singers(CL 1654), was released during a wave of popular interest in American folk music. The folk revival, as it was called, started in the late fifties and peaked in the early sixties, bringing new recognition and in some cases new careers to dozens of artists who performed old-time music, including a number of “rediscovered” blues artists from the twenties and thirties. Spurred by the revival, the acoustic guitar became the...

  10. 6 Reissue, Phase Two
    (pp. 33-45)

    The second installment of Columbia’s vinyl reissue series showed a significant shift. It was now 1970, the popularity of traditional folk music had waned, the Beatles and other British groups had pumped new life into the rock movement, and Robert Johnson was being recast as an inventor of rock and roll. In an introduction on the back of the second album’s cover, Jon Waxman, a Columbia marketing manager who had been under contract to the label as a rock musician when still in his teens, wrote: “As rock has gradually begun to incorporate new elements from other music forms, both...

  11. 7 Myth Eclipses Reality
    (pp. 46-52)

    The first publication of a Johnson photograph came forty-eight years after the artist’s death. The photo proved that Johnson’s image could be recorded by conventional means, unlike, say, a vampire, whose body cannot be reflected in a mirror. More significantly, the photo showed that Johnson’s face revealed no evidence of the anguish and inner torment that critics professed to hear in Johnson’s music.

    Rumors concerning the existence of Johnson photographs had circulated for years, and fans had become desperate for some likeness other than the drawings on Columbia’s record jackets. The demand for a picture—any picture—was initially addressed...

  12. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  13. 8 Reissue, Phase Three; or, Fifteen Minutes of Fame
    (pp. 53-61)

    The 1990 release ofRobert Johnson: The Complete Recordingsconstituted a milestone along the Johnson paper trail. The liner notes for the boxed CD set included an 8,000-word biography written by Stephen LaVere, considered one of the primary researchers on Johnson’s life. At last all the primary sleuths had at least some of their field research in print: LaVere in the liner notes; Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow in78 Quarterly; Peter Guralnick inSearching for Robert Johnson; Jas Obrecht in the 1990 bookBlues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music; and Mack McCormick, indirectly, through the writings...

  14. 9 A Myth to the Twenty-first Century
    (pp. 62-64)

    By the start of the new millennium, the Johnson legend had shown up in two novels, three documentary films, advertising, journalism, and popular music. It had also shown up in two screenplays:Crossroads, the Ralph Macchio vehicle that was produced as a movie in 1986; andLove in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, which, at this writing, remains an unproduced script. Written by Alan Greenberg and originally published in the early eighties,Love in Vainwas reprinted in 1994 with a new foreword by movie director Martin Scorsese, who likened Greenberg’s version of Johnson to a “haunted prophet who...

  15. 10 Satan and Sorcery
    (pp. 65-69)

    Twenty-nine songs, recorded in 1936 and 1937, provide the body of evidence most often cited to support the themes of supernatural torment and Faustian tragedy in Johnson’s life.

    Yet a review of all the critical writing since the midforties shows a strange preoccupation with just two of the twenty-nine songs. One of the two, “Me and the Devil Blues,” stands alone as the only Johnson song to contain specific references to Satan and the devil. The other song, “Hellhound on My Trail,” contains references to being driven and on the move, but those references are open to various interpretations, not...

  16. 11 The Song Texts
    (pp. 70-86)

    As can be seen in the paper trail we have been following, most previous attempts to analyze Johnson’s songs, either as works of art or as clues to the artist’s inner life, have been flawed by the application of what one might call the Lord Byron model. Researchers and critics alike listen to Johnson’s songs and profess to hear evidence of deep-seated anguish. Based on this anguish, Johnson is cast in the role of the doomed troubadour, a gifted but tormented loner whose very isolation made it possible for him to realize his own genius and achieve a profoundly personal...

  17. 12 A House of Cards
    (pp. 87-102)

    Because Johnson’s own songs inspired so much speculation about a supernatural connection, legend sleuths have always been on the lookout for hard historical evidence of a link between the artist and old folk beliefs about voodoo, hoodoo, and “the devil’s music.” Such evidence, while not abundant, does exist in the “oral histories” of people such as Willie Mae Powell, Queen Elizabeth, and David “Honey-boy” Edwards, as we have seen. But have the legend sleuths been constructing a case based on evidence or constructing evidence based on a case?

    The answer will be clear, we believe, if we go back and...

  18. 13 Who Was He, Really?
    (pp. 103-114)

    In considering the blues of Robert Johnson, searching for hidden meanings makes for a diverting intellectual exercise, as we have seen. But it’s easy to get carried away, because blues-idiom poetry is fluid enough to accommodate multiple interpretations. And as we have seen, interpretation is often influenced more by what the reader brings to the reading than by what’s there in the lyrics. As an extreme example, imagine how a urologist might interpret “Stones in My Passway.” The diagnosis would have to be kidney stones, so severe as to bring on pains in Johnson’s heart, loss of appetite and libido,...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 115-128)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 129-136)
  21. Index
    (pp. 137-142)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 143-150)