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University of Illinois Press
Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture

Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture

by Patricia R. Schroeder


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252029158
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 06/02/2004
Series: Music in American Life Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

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Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture

By Patricia R. Schroeder

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

Chapter One

Robert Johnson as Contested Space

Robert Leroy Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, on 8 May 1911. Probably. Well, maybe. That's the date provided by his half-sister Carrie Harris Thompson, who recalled that their mother always cited it as Robert's birthday. It is also the date usually listed in the most thoroughly researched studies of his life, such as those by Stephen C. LaVere (7), Jas Obrecht (2), and Peter Guralnick (who gives the date as "probable" [10]), although David Evans offers "around 1912" (Big Road 195), and Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow propose "between September, 1911, and August, 1912" (42). However, in the dispute over Johnson's estate brought by Claud Johnson, Robert's putative son, new documents and stories have cast doubt on 1911 as the year of Johnson's birth, as Living Blues writer Tom Freeland has summarized. The records from Indian Creek School, which Johnson attended, list his age as fourteen in 1924, which would make his birth year 1910; in 1927 the same school lists his age as eighteen, making 1909 the year of his birth. His first marriage license lists his age as twenty-one in February 1929 (therefore, born 1907); his second marriage license lists him as twenty-three on 4 May 1931 (also 1907); but his death certificate lists him as twenty-six in August 1938 (born, therefore, in 1912). Census records from 1910 do not list Robert among his mother's children, making a birth date before that year unlikely (Freeland, "Some Witnesses" 49). The recollections of Johnson's acquaintances vary, too, on the year of his birth. Honeyboy Edwards, Johnson's sometime musical partner, claims, "'Robert was about three years older than me. Think Robert born in about '12, or something like that'" (qtd. in Johnson 20). Johnny Shines, a frequent traveling companion of Johnson's, also puts his birth somewhat later than the usually agreed-upon 1911: "When Robert and I first met [in 1935] ... he was about twenty-two or twenty-three" -and therefore born in 1912 or 1913 (31).

I recite these conflicting certificates and opinions to illustrate something fundamental about studying Robert Johnson: even the simplest, most apparently factual details are open to dispute. I don't care much whether he was born in 1911 or 1912, and I suspect that you don't, either. But if we decide to figure it out, we can consult legal documents (in Fiske's terms, the tracks of power-bloc operations in his life), or we can ask some of the people who knew him, and we will find that in all cases the "facts" vary. Before we can even get started documenting Johnson's life-before we can even ascertain a birth date and so bring him into the story-we become enmeshed in speculation. We must navigate the slipshod record keeping of black American life by white southern functionaries, and so immediately brush up against the racial tensions of the era. In the official documents about Robert Johnson we find not only discrepancies about birth year but also confusions over parentage and race: his two marriage licenses list his father's name as "Nora" and "Nola," respectively (rather than the correct Noah), and the first license lists Johnson's "color" as "man" (Freeland, "Some Witnesses" 49). This tendency of white officials to disfigure black records is a recurring theme in African American literature. In Richard Wright's autobiographical novel Black Boy, the narrator's grandfather is cheated out of his Civil War pension by a white officer who misspells his name, possibly because of the grandfather's accent and illiteracy, possibly because the officer was Swedish and had poor English skills, or possibly because the officer was a southerner who deliberately falsified the paper (161-62). And in Toni Morrison's fictional Song of Solomon, a drunken Confederate soldier puts information about newly freed slaves in the wrong boxes on a form, so that a man with Georgia roots whose father is deceased is inadvertently renamed "Macon Dead" (18). While this latter story, created for novelistic purposes, has its humorous aspects, both examples illustrate the perception that white officials in the late nineteenth-century South had little interest in compiling accurate records of African American lives. The truth of this perception is born out in Robert Johnson's history.

If we decide to forego official documentation and stick to eyewitnesses, we face conflicting memories of aging observers who may never have known Johnson's exact age in the first place. And then we must ask in each case whose interests are being served by the information and misinformation circulated: Was the court clerk mischievous, careless, partially illiterate, or perhaps intoxicated like Morrison's soldier? Do Johnson's acquaintances have personal agendas in telling stories about him? Did Johnson himself have occasional reason to lie about his age? And when so much inconsistent information emerges from a court squabble over who controls Johnson's sizable estate-a fortune that has accumulated mostly since 1990, when the Complete Recordings went platinum in sales-one also wonders if other documents might have been suppressed or memories refurbished. In short, every aspect of Robert Johnson's life represents a contested space, a gap that various people have filled in various ways and possibly to promote idiosyncratic agendas. Each version has its own submerged tale to tell.

These tales-within-tales-the myths about Robert Johnson-are the focus of this chapter. Any blues fan will know the basics about Johnson's life, and for those who don't, I will provide a thumbnail sketch before turning to an exploration of the myths that fill the gaps. For those seeking more biographical detail, I recommend Guralnick, the routinely updated Delta Haze web site, or Pearson and McCulloch's Robert Johnson: Lost and Found. In the meantime, here is an outline of the things we know- or think we know-about Robert Johnson's life.

The only thing we know for sure about Robert Johnson is that he was born into a world circumscribed by psychological uncertainties, social injustice, and racism. His mother, Julia, and her husband, Charles Dodds, had owned a successful farm and were raising a large family before an altercation with a white man forced Charles Dodds to flee to Memphis, where he changed his name to Spencer. Julia and some of the children stayed behind, and Robert was born some years later, the product of Julia's affair with a local farmer, Noah Johnson. His first few years were spent with his mother and sister in migrant labor camps, until Julia took the children to rejoin Dodds/Spencer (and his new wife) in Memphis, where she left Robert for a few years until Dodds tired of the responsibility. In 1918 Robert rejoined his mother in Robinsonville, Mississippi, where he grew to manhood under the care of Julia and her new husband, Dusty Willis, a demanding stepfather who apparently beat Robert. He endured a difficult childhood, with "three different fathers before he was seven, a series of sudden uprootings, and a succession of name changes" (Palmer 112). Tack onto the disruptions of that early life the 1930 childbed deaths of his beloved wife Virginia (at age sixteen) and their baby, and the sensibility that created song lyrics about hellhounds on his trail and Satanic visits is not difficult to imagine.

In the years after Virginia's death, castigated by her family and friends who believed that his playing "the devil's music" had brought on the disaster (Obrecht 4), Robert seems to have abandoned his attempts at a stable, settled existence and embraced the impermanence that had always defined his life. As he told his neighbor Elizabeth Moore, "'I don't wanna work; I'm tryin' to learn how to make my livin' without pickin' cotton'" (qtd. in Calt and Wardlow 43). He allegedly used a series of different last names, including Spencer, Dodds, Moore, James, Barstow, Dusty, Saunders, and Saxton or "Sax," sometimes to evade the law, according to Moore. However, one can also imagine his trying on a variety of identities as an exercise in self-definition. He traveled widely, learning what he could from local musicians like Son House and Willie Brown before disappearing into southern Mississippi to learn from Ike Zinermon and others, eventually roaming as far as Ontario and New York. He married again, abandoned his wife, and developed a network of women friends with homes he could stay in wherever he went. Something of a chameleon, Johnson showed contradictory aspects of himself and his personality to the different people who knew him. Johnny Shines once remembered him as "'a bum who was always getting drunk and pissing in his pants'" (qtd. in Calt and Wardlow 42), yet Honeyboy Edwards describes him as always looking dapper, noting that no matter how dusty the work or how many nights he'd slept in his clothes, "'I'd catch my breath and see myself looking like a dog, there'd be Robert, all clean as can be, looking like he's just stepping out of a church'" (qtd. in Palmer 121). Some remember him as a loner, "A quiet type of guy [who] didn't associate with too many people" (Edwards 102), while others recall him as "'proud as a peafowl and terribly nervy'" (Son House qtd. in Lomax 16), "'a natural showman'" (Johnny Shines qtd. in Welding 76), a gregarious ladies' man able to charm an audience or a woman at a moment's notice. While some of the variations in his personality probably came from his heavy drinking-both Memphis Slim ("Death" 15) and Johnny Shines (Obrecht 8) report that he was a different person sober than when drunk-it is probably fair to say that Johnson's most consistent characteristic was inconsistency.

One constant running through his life, however, was his dedication to music. As a child he fashioned a diddley bow (a single string fastened to a wall) that he played with a bottle slide, as a teenager he played harmonica, and in 1927 he acquired his first guitar (Obrecht 4). When local musicians like House and Brown discouraged the unskilled youth from playing guitar publicly, he traveled south to hone his craft by listening obsessively to radio and records as well as to other master players. As his genius emerged and he made a name for himself throughout the juke joint circuit in the Delta, Johnson actively sought recording opportunities. He took the initiative to find H. C. Speir, a local music store owner with an informal recording studio and contacts in the recording industry, who recognized Johnson's talent and put him in touch with talent scout Ernie Oertle. This connection led to two recording sessions for Vocalion Records, one in San Antonio in 1936 and another in Dallas in 1937, from which emerged all the haunting Johnson music we have today. Fourteen months later Robert Johnson was dead, apparently at the hands of a jealous husband, finally (if the stories are true) a victim of the violence of his culture and of his own promiscuity.

The music that he left, albeit enhanced by the mysteries of his life and death, is the primary reason that Robert Johnson is remembered, even revered, today. After the release of his posthumous 1961 record, an entire generation of music lovers was profoundly affected. Writer Russell Banks claims that "blues fans of my age like to tell about the first time they heard Robert Johnson. It resembles our compulsion to say where we were when the Kennedys were killed" (27). Banks's observation about the mythologizing impulse generated by first hearing Johnson's music is corroborated by numerous writers and musicians of his generation. Greil Marcus alleges that "Johnson's music changed the way the world looked to me" (Mystery 31); Peter Guralnick describes "the breathless rush of feeling that I experienced the first time I ever really heard Robert Johnson's music" (3); guitar great Eric Clapton recalls the "'shock ... that there could be anything that powerful'" (qtd. in LaVere 22). The lyrics, full of harrowing images of loss, loneliness, longing, and entrapment, are one obvious source of the music's appeal. This often devastating imagery is compounded by the raw power and emotional intensity of the vocals, which are underscored by Johnson's compelling guitar mastery. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards reports hearing the music and assuming that he was listening to Johnson and an accompanist-to two separate guitars (LaVere 21). Musicologist James Bennighof sums up Johnson's appeal well when he proposes that the whole package-the tightly integrated combination of lyric, vocals, and guitar rather than any individual component -is the source of the extraordinary emotional power of Robert Johnson's songs, a power readily apparent to blues aficionados and untrained listeners alike (155).

It is not only the intensely felt reactions to Robert Johnson's music, however, that have made him an American icon, the subject of countless books, films, plays, documentaries, and poems as well as a postage stamp. And while the intriguing gaps in his life story account for much of his current fame and will be the central focus of this study, they are not the whole source of his legendary stature. Even without the competing stories that have emerged to fill those biographical gaps, the simple outline of Robert Johnson's life conforms to archetypal patterns of western culture. Note Joseph Campbell's description of the mythic hero's life: "The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there's something lacking in the normal experiences available or permitted to the members of his society. This person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. It's usually a cycle, a going and a returning" (123). While this pattern is intended to suggest epic characters like Odysseus, Sir Galahad, or, in our contemporary culture, Luke Skywalker, Campbell could also be describing the life of Robert Johnson. Born into a society restricted by race and poverty, deprived of a stable family unit and even a stable identity, shattered by the deaths of his young wife and child, and resistant to the difficult but socially sanctioned sharecropper's life, Robert Johnson struck out on a quest to develop his musicianship, traveling farther than most of his contemporaries and returning with legendary skill and tales of supernatural intervention. Within this context of western mythic patterns, Robert Johnson would be the stuff of legend based on what we do know about him as well as on what we don't.

If we place the historical Robert Johnson within the context of specifically American mythology-such as the quest for the elusive "American Dream"-he also fits some well-established patterns.


Excerpted from Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture by Patricia R. Schroeder Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Mythologies of Robert Johnson1
1.Robert Johnson as Contested Space19
2.The Invention of the Past58
3.The Paradox of Authenticity92
4.The New Cultural Politics of Difference113
5.Virtual Robert Johnson136
Conclusion: Robert Johnson, a Strange Attractor159
AppendixWeb Sites165
Works Cited171

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