Blues Poetics and Blues Politics in Walter Mosley's RL's Dream

Article excerpt

In September 1998 the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's American Music Master Series held a tribute for blues legend Robert Johnson. Hellhounds on My Trail a film by Robert Mugge documenting the event, came out the next year and features a mixture of academic workshops and performances by various artists from Johnson's famed repertoire. The film beautifully alternates snippets from lectures, discussions, and interviews with complete concert pieces, most of which take place in Cleveland's grand, I. M. Pei-designed building. About halfway into the film, we see Steve LaVere, the agent of Johnson's estate, announce during one of the sessions that a short piece of film found some months before might be featuring Johnson. The piece, projected during the session, displays a street scene, with a young, smiling, seemingly assertive black man planted in front of the camera and playing his guitar, with long fingers and an apparent virtuosity that are eerily reminiscent of the king of the Delta blues. Presenters then wonder aloud, and ask around for the audience's opinion, with Robert Lockwood, Jr., well-known as Johnson's stepson and a brilliant bluesman in his own right, leading the consensus that this is not Johnson. It is finally established that the person playing the guitar in the film cannot be Robert Johnson because a Delta Theater poster visible behind him places the scene in January 1942, four years after Johnson's death. As a conclusion, this segment of the documentary ends with a presenter quoting Lockwood's words from the previous evening: "I don't care how many times you look at this film--it ain't never gonna be Robert Johnson."

Lockwood catches us red-handed. Even I, watcher of the documentary and thus several times removed from the hypnotizing figure playing his guitar in the sunshine, have been straining my eyes to recognize in the long face, the somewhat dreamy gaze, the posture, the fast-moving, spidery fingers, traces of the man I know mostly from the famous photograph of him, in which he sits high, holding his Gibson as if it were a part of him, elegant, enticing yet impenetrable. With his comment Lockwood ironically conjures up the mythologies that surround Johnson: his Faustian pact with the devil at a crossroads somewhere in the Mississippi Delta, the mysterious circumstances of his death, the disturbingly prophetic lyrics, and from there his potential ability to materialize on a screen if we just look hard enough. In the documentary's opening song, Bill Morrissey sings about the legendary bluesman whose sound "came from a hole where a soul once had been," and in whose eyes "it was there to see he had crossed the other side." During a panel on the impact of the blues on popular music, five white men aligned behind a table offer wise reflections on Robert Johnson as a myth, as a mysterious, even "cartoonish" figure who has been endlessly romanticized. Ultimately, though, it is Lockwood who performs the work of demystification, bringing Johnson down to size, and us down to earth.

The cultural fate of Robert Johnson is symptomatic of the contemporary climate surrounding the blues. In a perceptive discussion Daniel Lieberfeld focuses on the House of Blues phenomenon to expose how, once again, an African American cultural product has been appropriated and exoticized for the thrill of white audiences. The plaster reliefs of great blues figures on the ceiling of the House of Blues in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he points out, form a frieze that "symbolically 'friezes' the blues in time," presenting a decontextualized and, indeed, whitened image of the famous bluesmen. Similarly, in his book The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, George Lipsitz explains how the mythmaking machinery has turned Robert Johnson into a lonely, romantic figure precisely by detaching him from his socio-economic circumstances, transforming him into an individual artist who produced his art almost magically and without an eye to commercial considerations. …