Legend credits his success to a midnight pact at a crossroads, but what is the real story of bluesman Robert Johnson?
Publishers WeeklyIn 19 poems, Lewis (Once Upon a Tomb, reviewed above), under the undeniable spell of Delta blues, probes the sparse facts and rampant hearsay associated with Robert Johnson's short, legendary life (1911-1938). The poems proceed chronologically, beginning with "Who Was Robert Johnson?" and concluding with "A Voice from the Grave," from the subject's own perspective: "It seems a pity/ To lose the pedigree./ They've heard a hundred rappers/ But haven't heard of me." Though Lewis includes a poem about Robert's loss of his 16-year-old wife and baby in childbirth ("Nothing could have held him in a place/ With nothing left to save of saving grace"), the poet doesn't shrink from illuminating Johnson's reputation as a womanizing, hard-drinking itinerant. Indeed, the lyrics of "Terraplane Blues" (one of the three Johnson songs excerpted among the poems) use the sexualized parlance of auto repair to bemoan an estranged love affair ("Got a short in this connection/ hoo-well, babe, it's way down below"). In deep blue and sepia tones, Kelley's (T Is for Toscana) handsome compositions concatenate translucent and opaque washes, gestural brushstrokes, scratched line and a judicious use of glowing white (for a 3 a.m. cigarette; for the casketed Johnson's collar and cuffs). A spare design and palette help to unify the numerous elements, but the multiple placements and crops for pictures may distract readers somewhat. For maximum effect, pair these well-tuned poems with Johnson's recordings. Ages 11-up. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature - Quinby FrankThis biography in poems illuminates the life of Robert Johnson, a musician some consider "the Godfather of the Blues." Born in rural Mississippi in 1911, Johnson rejected the hard life of his sharecropper stepfather in order to follow his love of music. He traveled all over the south, playing at jook joints and astounding people with his incredible ability to play the guitar. He died at twenty-seven, the victim of his notorious womanizing, but left a lasting legacy of recordings. Lewis's rhythmic poems detail Johnson's short life chronologically, portraying the life of a man shrouded in mystery and legend. The first poem sets the time period in which Johnson was born and then the poems progress through the death of his first wife and stillborn child, his supposed pact with the devil (his soul in return for great talent), his musical wanderings, and his death at the hands of a jealous husband. Johnson's lyrics are cleverly interspersed with the poems. Muted dark blue and gray illustrations with shadowy faceless figures silhouetted in the background, effectively convey the mystique of the man and his music. The powerful poetic imagery melds perfectly with the eerie, dreamlike illustrations providing a haunting tribute to an important blues musician. Helpful endnotes on each poem include more information on Johnson's life.
School Library JournalGr 6 Up-Robert Johnson, the celebrated blues musician, is said to have sold his soul to the devil for his skills on the guitar. In fact, there is so much legend and conjecture surrounding this man (who literally died from drink and women) that he makes the perfect subject for a poetic biographical treatment. Lewis's verse echoes Johnson's music, as in this promise from the devil at the crossroad: "I'm a cutthroat seller,/The Magician of Deal/Who can stoke sweet fire/That'll make you feel/Like a hothouse flower/On double defrost/Who won't give a nickel/For the petals it lost." A single line of text parades ghostlike across the bottom of each page, explaining the aspect of the man's life that the poem sings of, and becoming a cumulative mini-bio in itself. A couple of Johnson's own lyrics appear with the sequence of Lewis's poems where they add to the narrative tension. Kelley's mixed-media illustrations in blues and browns add to the mood and enliven the layout. With further biographical and bibliographic notes at the end, the resulting package is surprisingly deep: what appears at first glance to be just an illustrated poetry collection is a well-supported narrative riff introducing Johnson-the man and his music. Though a picture book, this title requires at least a middle-school-age audience, and will be best appreciated by older young adults, finding resonance with musicians, poets, or other artists who are feeling the blues.-Nina Lindsay, Oakland Public Library, CA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus ReviewsLewis offers an unconventional biography of the Mississippi blues legend. Poetry, paintings and the subject's own lyrics tell the story of troubadour Robert Johnson, who died at the age of 27. He left behind a few photographs, a legacy of 29 recorded songs and a great deal of mystery swirling around his death. The poem "1911" depicts the historic background of his birth, others of the church and the death of his teenage bride. Johnson worked in the cotton fields and escaped into music, moving from harmonica and Jew's harp to guitar. Lyrics to "Cross Road Blues," "Sweet Home Chicago" and more tell their own stories. One legend has Johnson poisoned by the jealous boyfriend of a lover; another has him walking off a Greyhound bus and into the engulfing darkness of the night. Kelley's beautiful brooding illustrations, multicolor monotypes using etching ink on plexiglass, add elegance to the mystique. A foreword and lengthy endnotes provide a more straightforward narrative of his life; a brief bibliography offers only adult resources. A stylish and artful work that will hold appeal for adults as well. (Picture book. 11+)
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