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LibriVox volunteers are helpful and friendly, and if you post a question anywhere on the forum you are likely to get an answer from someone, somewhere within an hour or so. So don't be shy! Many of our volunteers have never recorded anything before LibriVox. And how did what is presented as a direct quote get from Mc- Cormick to Palmer?
Perhaps he will do so, as we noted earlier, when Biography of a Phantom hits the presses or when the sources are dead and buried. But until then, we are left in the dark. In sum, Palmer employs a third-hand quote, a leap of unsupported speculation, some hearsay, and an anec- dote about something that happened to a friend to suggest that Robert Johnson may have had a dark little secret.
Whether the ending was happy or tragic, the Faust story was deeply embedded in English literary tradition. When brought to the New World, the story became a mainstay of American popular culture. The story also became woven into American folklore, in part because the motif of the diabolical bargain meshed with folk beliefs about the sinful nature of secular music and dance.
You will hear, but not see, a guitar player who will sit down next to you, swap his guitar for yours, and play along with you. When the unseen musician stops playing, he will trim your nails until they bleed and then hand back your guitar, which you must continue playing without looking around. At that point, the conjurer told Puckett, your deal with the devil will be sealed, and you will be able to play whatever you want.
Hyatt, an Episcopal rector who collected folk tales, pub- lished seventy-three examples of similar stories, which he heard between and in North and South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland.
Cecelia Conway, a folklorist, published a more current example told by the North Carolina guitarist Willie Trice in the seventies. Trice said his uncle had gone to the crossroads to learn banjo from the devil but was frightened by an apparition with bright red eyes and balls of fire com- ing out of its mouth.
But it is a long and perilous jump from that assumption to a conclusion that Johnson either sold his soul to the devil or consciously encouraged the belief that he had. Shines left no question that he considered any soul-selling story a slander against the musician with whom he once traveled and performed.
So it is particularly ironic that a phrase attributed to Shines has been used to bolster the link between Johnson and supernatural beliefs. The phrase first turned up in the same Pete Welding essay that sup- posedly gave birth to the crossroads mythology. And I heard that it was something to do with the black arts. Before he died, it was said, Robert was crawl- ing along the ground on all fours, barking and snapping like a mad beast.
And Shines re- peated the story that Johnson had died in the arms of the harp player Sonny Boy Williamson no. I ran upon him—I think this was long about — and he was telling me for certain that he was dead.
He died in his arms. So then I began to kind of believe it. But later on I found out that he was such a big liar. Beyond the paper trail examined by Wardlow and Komara, we find several other comments that might be construed as evidence against Johnson. One of them came from the blues artist Bukka White during an unpublished conversation with Al Young, a musician and writer.
Johnny Shines, for example, grew tired of talking about someone other than himself. House and White, too, were reported to have resented the focus on Johnson at the expense of their own considerable prowess as bluesmen. The blues-record collector Michael Leonard claimed he was told by a man named Walter Hearns in Greenwood, Mississippi, that Johnson had made a deal with the devil in a graveyard. To add mystery to this account, Leonard said that when he went back to get the story on tape, he learned that Hearns was dead.
Edwards said he also carried a bag of dried scorpions in his pocket as a good-luck charm and hung a guitar over his bed to see if he would become a better player. The context for the comment, which was made during a filmed interview with Stephen LaVere, was a brief rumination on the question of how John- son had become a stellar guitar player so quickly. LaVere knew it did not happen overnight or even in six months.
It was an entirely earthly process that probably occurred over a period of years: Johnson first learned on his homemade diddley bow, possibly picking up some rudimentary chords from one of his brothers, and later became a serious student when he was exposed to the play- ing of House, Brown, Zinnerman or possibly the Zinnerman brothersand anyone else who had a song or a guitar riff he liked. In sum, the more closely we examine the Johnson crossroads legend, the more chimerical it becomes.
Three years after the filmed interview with Coffee was released, La- Vere was asked why he had asked a question about a Teenage Urgency - Various - Ox Compilation #122 (CD deal. He said he had posed the question solely in the interest of debunking the cross- roads legend.
The quote conveyed an idea that House either repudiated or refused to repeat in all subsequent interviews.
Was the quote legitimate? Not beyond a reasonable doubt. LeDell Johnson: His dramatic crossroads story, repeated in at least two biographical sketches of Robert Johnson, had nothing to do with Rob- ert Johnson. The testimony was irrelevant. The jury shall disregard both. We think the judge would instruct the jury to disregard this highly speculative testi- mony.
Until McCormick comes up with more documentation, the testimony must be regarded as dubious. A reasonable jury, we believe, would find the account too full of holes to be credible. Bukka White: His rhetorical question, made in the course of a con- versation, was never published but was passed along by someone else. In a court of law that qualifies as hearsay. Walter Hearns: The tale he told before his death was never document- ed.
Her testimony on this subject is hearsay. He was loving and kind. House is dead. Lomax, Welding, White, and Shines are gone, too. I tell you, I want anybody that believes in that, bring me your soul up here and lay it on the stage. I want to see it. If you can sell your soul you got to have control over it. Anything that you can sell or trade, you have to control. So if you have control over your soul, bring it up here and lay it on the stage.
I never did believe it. I mean, my daddy was well educated but he believed that stuff because he talked it to me—about a bear meet- ing you in the road with a twig and beat you to death. Shoot, he told me that to keep me from running around at night and going to those suppers. But I got me a butcher knife and put it in my belt and went on to the supper. The St. Louis piano player and guitarist Henry Townsend also knew and worked with Johnson.
But, see, I was smart enough even when I was a kid. We were living in the city, and I was a sufficient scientist and I would make me a little mist of rain and you could see a little rainbow in there. So I believe in selling your soul to the devil the same way I believe in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They knew Johnson, worked with him, and traveled with him. Even though the quick-learner story has long since been exposed as a fraud—or, in the less malignant construction, a Album) tall tale—the Faustian legend it spawned contin- ues to stand with no visible means of support.
It should now be clear that after all the tedious fly-specking of the song texts, all the interviews, and all the thousands of words that have been written and spoken on the subject, there is no verifiable link be- tween Robert Johnson and the devil. The historical evidence is tainted by hearsay, dubious research, compromised methodology, and question- able reporting. Even the folkloric evidence is too threadbare to stand up under close scrutiny.
Most significantly of all, a majority of the musicians who were close to Johnson are on record as saying the story is a crock. Even at this late date, new evidence and more credible testimony may yet come to light. Notwithstanding the commercial implications of a little romance, the effort was wasted. Johnson was more than talented enough to stand on his own merits, without the buttressing of fiction.
On that note, let us attempt a fresh consideration of Robert Johnson— a consideration based not on tall tales but on what we know concern- ing who he really was admittedly a difficult target to hit from a distance of more than sixty yearshow he lived, and what he really sang about. He was pure legend.
He was a nice boy, just crazy about women. In considering the blues of Robert Johnson, searching for hidden meanings makes for a diverting intellectual exer- cise, as we have seen. And even if one is unable or unwilling to read Rob. After all, only twenty-nine were ever recorded. It was another seduction song describ- ing the differences between kind and unkind women. A kindhearted woman opened her door and let Johnson in, as he begged his woman to do in this song.
An unkind woman—as described in this and other Johnson songs—entertained bad thoughts, studied evil, cheated on him, mistreated him, and tried to take his life and all his loving, too. The song contrasted kindhearted women who did for him and evil-hearted women who did to him. Lot of people punch him down. Louise could drink, sing, and dance and even played a little guitar.
And she got up and went over in the corner. She walked over to where he was, reached and got the stove eye. She laid him out with it. And I laughed. What you laughing about? He kept leaping from one side to the other of a roadside drainage ditch, Coffee said, while the would-be assailant used a bridge to cross over and back. It happened just once, she said, and she would have killed him right on the spot if she had been able to get her hands on a shotgun.
These incidents help explain why some musicians were leery of trav- eling with Johnson. It was easy enough to get beat up, stabbed, or shot in a jook joint; why ask for trouble by making aggressive passes at the women in the place, as Johnson typically did? It really is. I used to sit down at night, lay down, and think about these things and map it out. You liable to get killed. Yes, like a hobo loves a train. No woman re- ally had an iron hand on Robert at any time. When his time came to go, he just went.
Heaven help him, he was not discriminating. They were Album) alike to Robert. He came on to all of them, without fear or favor, and mu- sic was a potent charm in his mojo bag of pickup techniques.
Other mu- sicians said he routinely sang his songs directly to women in his audi- ence, hoping to get an offer of food, shelter, and maybe a little money. He addressed his songs to women in jooks, on the street, or anywhere else he happened to be playing.
The other twenty-seven songs were addressed to women. Johnson called them by name or by double-entendre metaphoroffered them advice, pleaded with them, gave them instructions, begged them for help, and threatened to leave them, but most often he asked them questions.
It is that he was a notorious womanizer. Across the board, his contemporaries described him as such. So why have the songs been invested with so many dark and mysterious meanings? Why is John- son regarded differently from all other blues artists? Why is Robert John- son alone portrayed as a depression-era Faust who gave up his soul, san- ity, and salvation in a crossroads exchange for musical genius?
It resembles our compulsion to say where we were when Kennedy was killed and our lives were unexpected filled with American history or so it seemed thenand we needed to say how it felt. When we first listened to Robert Johnson, it was the long, sharp blade of Amer- ican musical history that we felt pass through us, and it, too, scared us. The old blues recordings, originally is- sued as rpm shellac records and once prized for their rarity, started to become more widely available as collections held by recording compa- nies, private individuals, and the Library of Congress were transcribed and reissued on long-play vinyl, effectively democratizing what had once been the exclusive sphere of serious jazz collectors.
In striving to understand why, of all the old blues artists, Johnson was singled out for special veneration by the sixties generation, it may be important to remember that Johnson already had been lionized in the jazz criticism of an earlier generation.
And three jazz writers associated with that generation, Samuel B. Charters, John H. Records as executive producer in after an absence of thirteen years, released the first full album of Johnson reissues recorded from the orig- inal Vocalion masters, no less. The portrayal of Johnson as a folk artist no doubt made a powerful impression on young members of the sixties counter- culture, many of whom were already smitten with the popular image of folk singers as loners whose art expressed a weightier view of the human condition.
It cer- tainly added to his malleability in the hands of those who sought to un- derstand him. He was an impressively talented African American musi- cian who had died young and who could now be invested with whatever cultural, psychological, and biographical baggage his impressionable fans might divine from his singing, his lyrics, or the lyrical inventions of the former jazz writers.
The inventions, as we have seen, were plentiful. The young fans who were swept up in the mythology and mystique that quickly filled the information vacuum around Johnson included a num- ber of the future researchers and folklorists who would later turn blues scholarship into a true discipline and help interpret Johnson for suc- ceeding generations.
The sixties-era fans also included such future rock stars as Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. They, too, would emerge later to help lionize Johnson for the legions of fans in the seventies and eight- ies to whom the artist was marketed as a father of rock and roll. The British stars unabashedly celebrated Johnson as the most important blues musician in history and likened his guitar playing to the music of Bach.
As we have seen, however, many of the knowledgeable old hands em- braced the mythology as literal fact. Not only that, but they employed their considerable skills as critics, researchers, and scholarly writers to reconstruct Johnson as the protagonist in a neoclassical tragedy about the unbearable burden of great talent.
There is no morality play here. Johnson lived the life he did—singing songs, drinking, and begging favors from every woman he met—not because he was haunted by apocalyptic or supernatural images but because it was the life he chose to live.
One contemporary recalled that Johnson would occasionally curse God when drunk, but no one who spent time with him in the years following the loss could recall him saying or doing anything to promote the idea that he was in an ongoing partnership with the devil.
One of the documen- tary films on Johnson suggested that he might have turned to music af- ter the loss to escape his grief. He rode Greyhound buses and passenger trains, hitched rides, hopped freights, and kept walking because there was no such thing as a long-term, big-money engagement for an African American street performer in the middle of the Great Depression. He had to keep moving from place to place to make money.
When he performed on street corners, he could draw on a vast rep- ertoire of songs that branched into virtually every niche of American music, but his twenty-nine recorded songs were blues. And whatever you do it was right for him because he was just that bright. Nor was his life. He faced the same challenges and choices faced by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of itinerant musicians who lived and often died in similar circumstances, victims of alcohol, envy, jook-house violence, dis- ease, or the perils of the road.
Musicians who knew Johnson testified that he was a nice guy and fairly average—except, of course, for his musical talent, his weakness for whis- key and women, and his commitment to the road. He drank because it was the medium of exchange in the venues he worked or because drink gave him strength or nerve.
He was forward with women and treated them in a predatory manner because he and other bluesmen relied on women for meals and beds.
In sum, he was a typical walking musician who stuck to the road and hung out with other musicians until the end of his life. Yet, once again, Johnson stands virtually alone. As long as he is mythologized as a shy loner, tormented genius, ni- hilist, or satanist, he loses his ties to the community whose art he repre- sents. Critics, fans, and casual listeners can keep him at a safe distance, becoming intimate with his Album) on their terms, not his, and commer- cial promoters can endlessly appropriate, revamp, and repackage his image for successive groups of music consumers.
They talked about him selling his soul to the devil. I want to know how you do that. He was a blues musician. Just like the rest of them. But he was enough like them to deserve consideration not as a mythic figure but as an artist who has something to tell us about the vitality and resiliency of African Amer- ican culture in the rural South. Infor example, House pulled a gun and shot a man to death at a house party near Clarksdale, Mississippi; he spent two years in jail before his claim of self-defense was given due consideration.
Williamson, who often carried a pistol and fired it in anger on at least one occasiononce became so enraged when his band showed up late for a gig that he fired the whole group and played the engagement as a solo. As a matter of fact, most of these artists probably would have preferred a little less drama, a little less violence, and a little more security. They created art under extreme conditions, and in the process, they provided good times when times were hard.
As a participant in a remarkable chapter of American history, and as an inhabitant of a sometimes savage underworld of jooks, jails, and Jim Crow, Robert Johnson endured hardships and took chances—perhaps even foolish chances—so that he could exercise agency over his own life.
He also found the time to leave a recorded musical legacy, one that con- tinues to enrich our lives. But he was still a man—and a walking blues musician.
Very much like the rest of them. Chapter 2: Our Hero 1. Although most researchers now accept this date, the evi- dence is not conclusive. Mississippi did not begin keeping birth records until Because Johnson was not listed on census tracts forhowever, the and dates are the least persuasive.
Wardlow interview, Walking musician was the term many Delta artists used to describe themselves and their itinerant existence. But it seems unlikely that Speir would have taken such a trip in the midthirties, since by most accounts, including his own, he had grown disenchanted with the recording business by that time. The current term is producer. Pearson, Sounds So Good, 15— Based largely on the recollection of Honeyboy Edwards, early research- ers tried to find a store with the name Three Forks, ultimately finding one at Quito, some thirteen miles southwest of Greenwood.
For years that store was thought to be the place where Johnson played his last two gigs. Later, how- ever, Edwards insisted that the bluesman was hired to play at a jook behind a store at the intersection of U. The store is no longer there, having been destroyed by a storm in the early forties.
The building that once housed Three Forks is also gone; it was razed circa Although there have been various suppositions, assumptions, and ac- cusations about who poisoned the whiskey, the guitar player Ce Dell Davis, who was still a child inrecalled many years later that he heard it was a woman known as Craphouse Bea who carried the doctored bottle to John- son. This is the essence of the account Honeyboy Edwards gave to interview- ers in the sixties and seventies.
Later, his memory refreshed by the discovery of a death certificate showing that Johnson died on Tuesday, August 16, Ed- wards recalled visiting the artist on Monday, August Alan Greenberg, the author of a screenplay about Johnson, says this in- formation came from Mack McCormick.
Despite any supernatural implications, Tush Hog is a common nickname in Alabama and Mississippi, where it identifies a tough guy or fighter. Two other Johnson grave markers exist in the Greenwood area. Church in the hamlet of Quito, southwest of Greenwood, as the place where the bluesman was buried. A rock band later placed a small marker at that site. Church, three or four miles south of Quito. In a large monument was placed at the Mount Zion location by Columbia Records.
In the year LaVere located a woman named Rose Eskridge who had been living on Star of the West Plantation in and who recalled that her late husband, Tom, had been hired to dig a grave at Little Zion M. Church for a traveling musician who had died on the Album). That testimony, coupled with the nearness of the residence where Johnson was believed to have died, pointed strongly to Little Zion Church as the correct burial site. Chapter 3: The Anecdotes 1. Charters, Robert Johnson, Shines interview, Although legend confidently places these events on November 22, the night before the first recording session, evidence strongly suggests that the run-in with police occurred after the first session and thus may have been responsible for the two-day gap between session 1 and session 2.
Hammond was connected to at least one other spurious blues legend. After Bessie Smith was fatally injured in an automobile accident near Clarks- dale, Mississippi, in lateAlbum) jazz musicians told Hammond that the singer died because she had been denied admission to a whites-only hospi- tal.
Hammond, a lifelong civil-rights advocate, passed the story along through his network of friendly journalists and music-business executives, and for decades afterward the story was accepted as fact, even though it was apoc- ryphal. Hammond, liner notes, Spirituals to Swing, Charters, Country Blues, While the details of this hearsay account are unclear, it is interesting to note the implied place of death Friars Pointthe instrument of foul play a knifeand the suggested motive retaliation following a slap.
The English-language version, which constituted the third major revision, showed Berendt to be decidedly liberal in his blues tastes.
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