Robert Johnson… Robert Johnson… I’m almost as sick of hearing the name Robert Johnson as is Robert Lockwood! There’s more to blues music and blues performance than he… even more to so-called “Delta” blues. This over-emphasizing and mythologizing of Johnson totally warps the popular historical picture of blues music as one form of Black music, a picture created by outsiders such as W.E. (White Existentialists)*. Johnson’s stature as a Black musician in the world of Black music has been elevated and inflated by myth, romanticization, left-wing and right-wing White political agendae, et al into an undeserved stratum, regarded as an undeserved and undeserving pinnacle of development. Such elitist aestheticizing has created its own type of monster, one that continually feeds on itself and creates an external hierarchy that often bears no resemblance to the reality of the musical scenes of the time within its appropriate culture.
Robert Johnson was a commercial failure as a Black musician in a Black musical world. To continually harp on him as the be-all-to-end-all of the Blues is tantamount to writing a history of the automobile and using the Edsel as the keystone (in the UK, think of the Metropolitan; in Oz, the P-76). Face facts, folks, his records were made to be sold to African American buyers of the 1930s and, save for one quasi-semi-success (“Terraplane Blues”, probably why he was asked back for a second recording session), Johnson’s records were a failure in their intended marketplace (1). Not for him the success that came to Peetie Wheatstraw, Blind Boy Fuller, Lonnie Johnson, or Tampa Red in that time period, nor even the earlier artists like Josh White, Charlie Patton, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, or Buddy Moss. Black folks in large numbers did not buy the recordings of Robert Johnson as can be seen by their general rarity in the hands of collectors. Chris Smith said it well in these pages, “it’s worth remembering that Johnson’s current status was by no means reflected in contemporary sales.” (2) His deification (3) is a Furphy, taking focus away from more deserving performers.
Staying within these pages, Ray Templeton wrote:
I have to admit that I sometimes wonder just what is all the fuss about Robert Johnson? It’s not that I don’t rate Johnson – of course I do… . But I still find myself wondering just why it is that he has been singled out… for such acclaim, while other blues giants remain largely unsung in the wider world. In my more paranoid moments, I wonder if I’m missing something; in my more cynical moments, I feel that it’s critical laziness and tokenism that has been responsible for Johnson being set on his particular pedestal… . Sure, he was brilliant, but his was a talent for synthesis as much as for creation, and the raw material he was working with was already of the finest quality. (4)
I expected some sort of reaction to Ray’s remarks in these pages in response, something that some would think bordered on heresy! But, no – it didn’t happen!!
Johnson’s influence on later Black musicians has been woefully overstated and mainly limited to some of the few musicians who actually met him during the thirties. It was “step-son” Robert Lockwood who had the biggest influence, both as a side-man in Chicago, and over the airwaves from KFFA’s “King Biscuit Time” (Helena, AR) before that. His myth became so overpowering to romanticizing White researchers that interviewed bluesmen and blues women often “gave in” and told interviewers what they thought the questioner wanted to hear rather than what they knew. (Muddy Waters was neither the first, nor the last to finally genuflect towards the altar of Johnson after being bombarded with questions from us honkies. For Waters, there was a common source with Johnson [Son House], but that wasn’t what was desired.) (5) The impact of folks from Alan Lomax and John Hammond through to Eric Clapton and Keith Richards has been spreading the gospel/myth of Robert Johnson across the world to this day. The “complete” works package from Columbia/Sony sold millions of copies as a result, because of the myth and not necessarily because of the music, good though it may have been.
In September of 1998 there was even a Robert Johnson symposium at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH. (6) It sounds as if it was a gathering of train-spotting anoraks, coupled with a bunch of hopeless racialist voyeurs having it off with themselves… were raincoats mandatory? Rather than worrying over what Johnson had for breakfast the day that he was murdered, or who he fucked in Dallas over Thanksgiving of 1936, there are many more pressing tasks that need our attention in our continuing efforts to understand this marvelous music… people of much greater (Black) commercial and influential significance than ole Robert. How about Blind Lemon Jefferson, or Blind Blake… or, who killed John Lee Williamson or Little Walter… just for starters.
W.E. have to disassociate our own aesthetics and biases as we attempt to understand that aspect of a society/culture alien to ours. I have nothing against Robert Johnson or his music. I have found it interesting and gripping these past forty or more years, but I rebel at his deification, for it is a racist act to glorify those aspects of his life that have been glorified (his death a the hands of a jealous husband, the crossroads story, his sex life, et al). That is all well and good for “us”, but it should not be misconstrued as his reality in Black American life in the 20s/30s. There, he was but a footnote until W.E. came messing about. Enjoy his music, but always keep that in mind. Remember, “Statesboro Blues” was written by Duane Allman after a lousy reception for his band in that college town!! Or so it has been written – I rest my case.
- (1.) Pressing orders for Johnson’s Vocalions ran from 40 to 500 copies at a time, rather underwhelming numbers (B&R 135: Dec 98 – p.9).
- (2.) B&R 30: Jul 87 – p. 5.
- (3.) George Paulus – Real Blues #5: Feb/Mar 97 – p. 38.
- (4.) B&R 131: Aug 98 – pp 24 – 26.
- (5.) One must try to ask questions of people that are “open” and do not already have answers appended thereto. This is no easy task, as my decades of field-work have demonstrated to me, plus my years at “folklore school”.
- (6.) B&R 133: Oct 98 – p. 19; B&R 135: Dec 98 – p.9.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM
I even gave a “paper” at an I.A.S.P.M. conference held in Melbourne a few years back entitled roughly “Who the hell is Robert Johnson, and why are all those people saying all those nice things about him”! It was done without notes, covering the above points (and then some), and I “worked the church”, walking the aisles and throwing out questions (call) and getting answers and questions (response) – the closest that this atheist will ever be to being a Black preacher! A few in the audience “got” what I was about… the rest left slightly befuddled (at best) as I destroyed the concept of what they thought of as an academic “paper” and they had difficulty processing what had just happened, much less the content.
I’ve been asked what I meant by a furphy. It comes from: FURPHY, Joseph (1843 – 1912): Australian writer, farmer, bullock driver, and iron foundry worker. He wrote under the name Tom Collins which was at the time a synonym for an absurd rumour or a rumour-monger. (Coincidentally, his brother John’s water carts: see furphy.)
Furphy: n. (pl furphies) 1.0 a false report or rumour. 2.) an absurd story. Adj. (furphier, furphiest) absurdly false, unbelievable; That’s the furphiest bit of news I ever heard. (From the water and sanitary FURPHY carts [centres of gossip for troops during WW I] manufactured by the Australian firm J[ohn] Furphy & Sons.)
THE AUSTRALIAN MODERN OXFORD DICTIONARY (1998).
Hope that clarifies that!
* Having been taken to task for “White Existentialists”, I now posit it as “White Europeans”. The essence remains!