Book 19- Searching for Robert Johnson by Peter Guralnick

One of the principal advantages of the blues, as an art form, is the shadowy haze from which the bluesman comes, and into which he returns. The early days of blues recordings coincide with the last peak of a truly segregated and rural American South. The music is eery and unintelligible, but practically drips with intensity and mystery. Who were these guys? Where did they (and their sounds) come from?

King among the mysteries of the blues would be Robert Johnson– a man of whom exactly two known photographs exist, who died at about age 27 from a mysterious ailment or poisoning, and who is rumored to be buried in multiple places. Johnson is another of the singers and players who is the subject of a story of a musical deal with Satan– his soul for his skills. Certainly, as Johnson wrote and sang, the stuff he had was gonna bust your brains out.

The voice is in constant flux– high and lonesome, low and growly, then almost speaking in short bursts. The guitar playing is so sophisticated that it’s near impossible to replicate. Bass, melody and chords co-existing in precision. And the song writing– “Dust My Broom”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Love in Vain”, “Stop Breakin’ Down”, etc etc etc. Robert Johnson was the real deal.

And Peter Guralnick, in this VERY short book, tries to figure out who he is. Guralnick’s scholarship is exemplary, and he is known both about what he knows and what he doesn’t know. Unfortunately, there’s not much that anybody knows. Knowing much about Robert Johnson is as impossible as knowing much about Shakespeare.

Still, Guralnick is a pro’s pro as a writer. His style is smooth and effective, and his research is top notch. Photographs accompany the text, not of Johnson, but of contemporary scenes and people, and they help to create a mental picture where a physical picture just doesn’t exist.

I recommend “Searching for Robert Johnson”. I also recommend the music, but it is likely a taste for purists. It’s creepy as Hell, folks, but it IS the blues, and swirling through the shadows of obscurity, it is history.

Joe

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