The devil you know revealed in 'Delta'

Chicago Tribune

May 23, 2004

By Steve Knopper

By writing that blues singer Robert Johnson did not sell his soul to the devil at the crossroads, that he wasn't obsessed by hellhounds and that his music is far more important than his apparent Satanism, author Elijah Wald has come to be known as a "revisionist historian." But his latest book, "Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of Blues" (Amistad Press, $24.95), is actually not revisionist at all. It merely looks back at Johnson, the great singer who wrote "Sweet Home, Chicago" and "Cross Road Blues," with context and common sense.

"I can be as fascinated by occult musings as the next guy, but it is long past time for music journalists to get over the cliche of always linking Robert Johnson and the Devil," Wald writes in the last chapter, wryly titled "Afterthought: So What About the Devil?"

"For at least a few years, I propose a moratorium on sentences like 'Persistent themes in his blues were religious despair and pursuit by demons,' or 'Johnson seemed emotionally disturbed by the image of the devil, the "Hellhound."' Such sentences tell us less about the realities of Johnson's music than about the romantic leanings of his later, urban white listeners," Wald writes.

For those of us who continue to be fascinated with Johnson's mythology, and have even visited the Mississippi Delta crossroads where the dark transaction supposedly occurred, Wald's chapter is a much-needed, good-humored lecture.

Johnson died at age 27, in 1938, allegedly after a jukejoint owner laced his whiskey with strychnine. The soul-selling bit originates from an interview Johnson's mentor, the great blues guitarist Son House, gave in 1965.

The infamous story goes like this: Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Miss., in order to get "magical" guitar-playing skill. He was a rudimentary player when he disappeared for about six months, but blew everybody away upon his return. House speculated on the devil thing -- possibly in jest -- in the 1965 interview. Although Johnson colleague Johnny Shines had disputed the myth, it caught on and spread like a virus in books, documentaries and movies such as 1986's "Crossroads."

While talking to Wald, a 45-year-old author and musician, by phone from his Cambridge, Mass., home, I own up to writing stories romanticizing this part of Johnson's life and story. Wald laughs. "We all did!" he says. "My position isn't that there's anything wrong with that myth. I mean, cultures need myths. There's something exciting about the Robert Johnson myth. I just think it's important to say it's basically a myth of Rolling Stones fans -- not of black Mississippians."

Wald's entire book has that same myth-debunking quality, although he delves much deeper into Johnson's music than into the stories surrounding his life.

Using meticulous research of 1930s jukebox trends, interviews and surveys of Mississippi Delta residents, Wald shows Johnson didn't land out of nowhere as a fully formed musical genius but was profoundly influenced by the pop music around him.

It's obvious from "Escaping the Delta" that Wald is a Johnson fan. A guitarist who took lessons from his late friend and mentor Dave Van Ronk, a fixture on the '60s folk-music scene, Wald devotes three appreciative chapters to breaking down the singer's 29 recordings. He cites "Come on in My Kitchen," "Hell Hound on My Trail" and "Stones in My Passway" as particular masterpieces and criticizes others as derivative of forebears such as Kokomo Arnold and Skip James.

One of Wald's key points is that in the 1930s, even in the South, Johnson wasn't a major figure with profound influence on his fellow musicians. It's true certain Mississippi predecessors, including Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, learned from Johnson's records and brought the style to Chicago in a totally different, electrified form. But generally Johnson's mythical status came later, in the early '60s, when Columbia Records released the "King of the Delta Blues" LPs and British rockers such as Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones began to lionize the mysterious singer as a legendary if not godlike figure.

Johnson's identity as a primitive genius, Wald argues, didn't emerge until decades after his death -- in raves from white rockers and folklorists. "A lot of what I say in the book that is treated as so provocative by rock writers -- blues historians who have read my book don't think it's so provocative," Wald says. "What I'm trying to debunk is the fact that he was regarded in his time as a giant. I completely agree that's irrelevant to his greatness. It's not at all irrelevant to his place in history, but that's a completely different question."

Johnson is certainly the best-known figure in early-20th Century blues. In 1990, after the Rolling Stones, Cream and countless others had covered his compositions and made tons of money, Columbia Records put out the CD box set "Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings," which has since sold more than 405,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. He is in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall, of Fame and artists from Keb' Mo' to the Cowboy Junkies continue to cover his songs.

"The first time I heard Robert Johnson was basically through Eric Clapton's 'Cream' -- I heard [Clapton's] 'Crossroads' and the story behind 'Crossroads.' I found it exciting and exotic and cool, and I suspect a number of my generation, the Baby Boomers, felt the same way," says Robert Santelli, a veteran blues author and director of programs at Seattle's Experience Music Project. "Wald can complain about the overuse of it -- and perhaps it has been overused -- but in many ways it was a useful way to keep interest in the blues.

"I'm an opportunist," continues Santelli, an admirer of Wald's book. "If I can tell you about the mythology of Robert Johnson with the hopes of leading you into a greater and deeper appreciation of the music, I don't have a problem with using the mythology and working backwards, so to speak. I find it useful when I teach British history classes."

But Wald argues that, in Johnson's time, piano crooner Leroy Carr, who had a huge hit with "How Long -- How Long Blues," and talented New Orleans guitarist Lonnie Johnson, were far more influential than Robert Johnson.

These 1930s household names, and not Robert Johnson or his equally spooky contemporary Skip James, were playing on radio stations and in the set lists of local musicians.

And while they recorded pure blues material in studios, they were versatile professional entertainers who sang pop hits of the day.

"If someone had suggested to the major blues stars that they were old-fashioned folk musicians carrying on a culture handed down from slavery times," Wald writes in the book, "most would probably have been insulted."

One of the major themes of Wald's book is the neglect of Carr's career after his primary wave of popularity in the 1930s. This is in part because early folklorists, then folk-music fans in the '60s, scrambled to find the "deepest" living blues musicians to celebrate on new recordings and festival lineups.

Wald stops short of calling such white devotees racist or patronizing; he merely suggests they rewrote history to further their aims.

"You can't escape the overwhelming influence of Leroy Carr if you listen seriously to blues. He just turns up again and again. You pick up 'The Dominoes Greatest Hits' and they're doing Leroy Carr. The Ink Spots, Count Basie, Ray Charles -- they're all doing Leroy Carr," Wald says. "After a while, you have to say to yourself, 'Maybe I haven't paid that much attention to Leroy Carr, but everybody I like sure seems to be paying attention to Leroy Carr -- maybe I should go back there.'"

So why not write a biography of Leroy Carr, rather than use one of Johnson to make the point about Carr's lost influence? For one thing, Wald says, Carr's career hasn't been nearly as documented as Johnson's, so research is unavailable. For another, "If I had done a Leroy Carr book, you would not be calling me."

It was a fortunate coincidence of timing that Eric Clapton put out a collection of Johnson songs, "Me and Mr. Johnson," right around the time Wald's book came out. Odds are a major rock star would not have done the same for Leroy Carr.

"If you go up right now and try to buy Eric Clapton's CD on Amazon, right down under the CD, it says for an extra 5 percent, buy this book," Wald says. "I got very lucky. Eric Clapton's working for me."