Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues Tradition

Posted Monday July 6, 2009 by John Gunders in |

This is part two of my investigation into the construction of authenticity in the Blues. Part one is here.

There are few musicians who enjoy the sorts of legends that surround Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. For most of his short life he was an itinerant artist, travelling to wherever he could find an audience, accompanied by a battered acoustic guitar and little else. The popular legend, apparently based on a misreading of his song “Cross Road Blues”, and the incredulity of bluesmen Son House and Willie Brown that the “little boy” who used to annoy them at performances had become such a virtuoso (DiGiacomo), suggests that Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for his freakish talent, and that he died after drinking a bottle of whiskey poisoned by a jealous husband. The truth—as much as it is known—is a fascinating story of a little known plantation worker who was largely ignored in his lifetime, but whose brief music career and limited output continues to influence generations of musicians:

Dead at 27, twenty-nine songs, and just two known photographs , we’ll never have more that just a few scattered memories and details about the life of Robert Johnson. In the 65 years since he died, his shadow’s only grown longer, as musicians continue to sing his words and play his music. (Scorsese)

Johnson developed a style of guitar playing that has influenced artists such as Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, and Led Zeppelin. In 1986 he was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and made the 2003 Rolling Stone list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” (at number five). How the poor, apparently uneducated Johnson, with a career lasting probably no more than eight years, came to be one of the most revered artists in the blues tradition, and—arguably—the father of rock music, is actually a story about the construction of authenticity.

Johnson would probably have been forgotten to history but for an accident of timing. An album of his music—he had recorded 29 songs in two sessions for the American Record Corporation in Texas during 1936 and 1937—was released in 1961, titled King of the Delta Blues Singers. In the years after its release it was picked up by British musicians desperate for new sounds, including Clapton and John Mayall. The success of these artists, and those they influenced, would have been enough to have Johnson’s name enshrined in rock history, but to understand his place in blues history it is necessary to look beyond the music and the talent, and consider the construction of the tradition. As Marybeth Hamilton says:

Over the last forty years, Robert Johnson has come to dominate the agenda of blues scholarship. Accounts of his brief, violent, mysterious life are given pride of place in most blues studies, and his face stares out from the covers of Greil Marcus’s The Dustbin of History and Francis Davis’s The History of the Blues. He has been pushed to the foreground because, to blues scholars, he conveys the truth of the tradition, the guiding aesthetic of the authentic blues, a deeply personal music permeated by anguish and pain. (Hamilton 136)

According to Hamilton, this privileging of Johnson over other artists such as Bessie Smith was due to the embarrassment of blues scholars—“the music buffs, journalists, folklorists and historians who over the past forty years have generated a vast body of literature defining and assessing the blues tradition” (133)—who saw the commercial and raunchy blues songs popular at the time as “‘a burlesque of African-American sexuality’, more minstrel-show caricature than authentic blues” (134). This constructed history made a distinction between the “vaudeville-based novelty songs” and the “more authentic floating folk lyrics from the black oral tradition,” dismissing the former, which, “‘far removed from the realism of the blues’, are a simply a product of commercialization” (134). Authentic blues, it seems, derives from an oral tradition and deals with themes such as “jail terms, homelessness, disease, poverty, the hopelessness resulting from relentless oppression” (134).

Hamilton’s thesis is that this construction of a tradition of “a personal music of torment and pain” (157) which included almost no women, was an attempt to contain and control what was seen as the excessive sexuality of the increasingly urban black communities, but I am more interested in the specific construction of the authentic blues tradition that surrounds Johnson. The most important thing about the blues is its tradition. Scorsese’s film somewhat controversially traces this back to music of West Africa that was imported with the slaves, but whatever the truth of its origins, music historians agree that it grew out of earlier forms of music and was a shared language of slaves and impoverished plantation workers. It was at once defined by its community of producers, but also helped to define those communities, and it was in this community that the music of Johnson and others found a ready audience. The music’s groundedness in raw emotion and the lived experience of its adherents meant that it was perceived as natural: a genuine outgrowth of the singer’s experience, not a constructed, commercialised commodity to be sold, such as the lewd “novelty songs” of Smith and others. Finally, Johnson’s mythos is commonly understood in terms of his talent and creativity—a talent so prodigious that it could only have been gained supernaturally.

References: Hamilton, Marybeth. “Sexuality, Authenticity and the Making of the Blues Tradition.” Past & Present 169 (2000): 132-160.

Scorsese, Martin, dir. Feel Like Going Home. Videodisc. Madman Cinema, 2005.

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