A new history questions the birth of the blues

It was closer to pop, and Robert Johnson was a minor player

March 01, 2004|By Ben Sisario | Ben Sisario,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Robert Johnson left 29 songs and little else, but it was enough.

Johnson, who died in 1938, has long since become the most famous blues singer of all time, reaching a level in the pantheon of American music occupied by figures like Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. The myths inevitably grew up around him. Most writers who have dealt with him have found it impossible to resist the story of his deal with the devil, or the image of him pursued by "hellhounds."

But as Johnson's popularity has grown - the box set of his Complete Recordings (Columbia/Legacy) has sold nearly 2 million copies worldwide - a growing number of music scholars have begun to question Johnson's place in the canon, and the received wisdom about blues history itself.

Elijah Wald's new Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Amistad/HarperCollins) is one of the most contentious yet, daring to suggest that Johnson's primacy was largely a creation of white fans and music critics of the 1960s.

"As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure," Wald writes, "and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note."

With extensive research into the listening habits of the audience of the time, Wald describes a history of the blues that is markedly different from the one in accounts like Martin Scorsese's seven-part PBS series The Blues.

In Wald's history, the principal players are not lonesome folk singers from dusty hamlets, but seasoned professionals riding the latest trends in black pop. They have names that are largely unknown today except among experts: Peetie Wheatstraw, Leroy Carr and Kokomo Arnold. And most of them were women. The kings of the blues were actually the queens of the blues: Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and dozens of others now all but forgotten, singers like Ida Cox, Victoria Spivey and Sara Martin.

Johnson emerges in Wald's account as a regional player eager to copy the latest hits. And he was only marginally successful. Just 11 of his songs were issued in his lifetime and his biggest hit, "Terraplane Blues," sold about 5,000 copies.

Wald and other critics argue that the discrepancy between Johnson's stature and his accomplishments stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of blues music by later, mostly white, writers.

Last year, Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch's Robert Johnson: Lost and Found (University of Illinois Press) traced the paper trail of the Johnson myth through the decades and found that white critics and promoters were telling tall tales about him while he was still alive. The authors tracked down misleading articles about him dating to 1937, and reconstructed the comical spread of Johnson's Faust legend - that he sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in return for his extraordinary gifts as a guitarist - from a single, dubious 1966 interview with Johnson's friend and fellow blues musician Son House.

Patricia R. Schroeder's Robert Johnson, Mythmaking and Contemporary American Culture (due from University of Illinois Press in July) traces the persistence of Johnson's image in the culture at large, from postage stamps to novels to plays. Johnson's myth, it suggests, is truly larger than his life.

"This just adds to the legend of Johnson," said David Evans, a professor of music at the University of Memphis and a veteran blues researcher. "Like Elvis and Hank Williams and certain other stars, he can be all things to all people."

Johnson became a perfect model for the 1960s rock star. He lived hard, played like a man possessed and died young, around 27, in mysterious circumstances.

The obsession with Johnson at the expense of almost all other blues singers, Wald suggests, has grossly distorted the history of the blues. Pre-war blues musicians were much more versatile and pop-oriented than is widely known; Wald notes that when Alan Lomax interviewed Muddy Waters in Mississippi in the early 1940s, he found that Waters' repertory included "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and seven Gene Autry songs - more pop than blues. And the immediate origins of the blues, Wald writes, are most likely in black vaudeville, not in field hollers.

The blues, in other words, was up-to-the-minute pop, a sign of urbanization, technology and sophistication, not primitivism or tradition.

Not all historians agree with Wald's critique. Johnson may not have been a star, some say, but he had many important followers like Muddy Waters and Elmore James, who continued to play his songs in the decades after his death.

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