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

By Levecq, Christine | African American Review, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

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


Levecq, Christine, African American Review


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.