Robert Johnson: Lost and Found

By Wolford, John | Western Folklore, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Robert Johnson: Lost and Found


Wolford, John, Western Folklore


Robert Johnson: Lost and Found. By Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. Pp. xii + 142, preface, acknowledgments, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $24.95 cloth); Robert Johnson: Mythmaking and Contemporary American Culture. By Patricia R. Schroeder. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004. Pp. x + 192, acknowledgments, photographs, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $25.00 cloth)

Published as part of the distinguished University of Illinois Press Music in American Life series, these two studies of Robert Johnson and the persistent legendary aura surrounding him appeared only a year apart. To some, that might seem unwarranted: Why would any press publish two works on the same subject at all, much less a year apart? But Robert Johnson does consistently intrigue people, from scholars to fans, even at some sixty-seven years' distance from his death. These two explorations take different approaches to Robert Johnson: Pearson and McCulloch's is an effort to straighten out the tangled tales that compose the mystique, and Schroeder's is an effort to understand the inherent meanings of the legend-making process behind the phenomenon that was and is Robert Johnson. Together, they add significantly to the already sizable and fascinating bookshelf of Robert Johnson studies.

Robert Johnson was an early twentieth-century bluesman who recorded in Texas and who died in 1938 in some mysterious way. His technique and effect were remarkable, and a legend arose that he obtained his musical genius through a supernatural deal he made at a Mississippi crossroads, either with the Christian devil or with the West African trickster, Legba. Part of the legend as well is that he personified the shy, loner bluesman, always on the road, singing dark and sublimely existential songs to packed jook joints and seducing the women (or being subject to women seducing him for his money) afterwards, a musician larger than the blues tradition itself and segregated from it. The legend continues that a jealous husband or boyfriend poisoned him at the young age of twenty-seven or so in 1938.

Pearson and McCulloch's short work carefully sifts through the literature to determine where the various elements of the legend began or were developed. Pearson, a well-known folklorist, has written on Johnson and his legend before, but together with McCulloch, a journalist, they continue this clarifying effort, drawing from others as well, such as CaIt & Wardlow (1989), Guralnick (1989), Palmer (1981) and many others. Their objective is to lay bare what has been fabricated, knowingly or otherwise, and to reveal as closely as they can the historical Robert Johnson. In doing so, they do not spare authors or narrators, even when these may be prominent within the field. Thus, such names as Samuel Charters (1963, 1973), Robert Palmer (1981), or Paul Oliver (1960, 1965, 1969) are scrutinized as closely as lesser known names, such as Julio Finn (1992) or Frank Driggs (1961). Their ultimate point is that literary critics through the years, as well as Johnson's producers and promoters, led the way in creating the mythos surrounding him based on decontextualized literary critiques of selected recordings, prominently "Hellhound on My Trail," but also "Crossroad Blues" and "Me and the Devil Blues," all of which had supernatural elements which Johnson's literary critics fixated and elaborated upon. However, in conversations with people who knew, played with, or were reared by Johnson, the opposite profile emerges: a sociable man who could excite the jook joint crowds and who was firmly embedded in the period's dynamic blues tradition. Folklorists are well aware of the skewing tendencies of literary criticism when it does not consider personal or sociocultural contexts, but the persuasive effects of the seductive legendry of supernaturalism and especially Satanism within a musical tradition become overpowering in the popular music marketplace. …

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