[150 years ago this week, the great W.C. Handy was born. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Handy and other icons of the Blues, leading up to a special weekend post on some contemporary Blues greats!]
On one reason I really like the Robert Johnson & the Devil mythos, and one way I’d push back.
I wrote a bit about the story of Robert Johnson & the Devil as part of this post on the wonderful TV show Hap & Leonard’s fictionalized retelling, and in lieu of a first paragraph here would ask you to check out that post and then come on back for more on that folktale and its focal Blues icon. (You should check out that show as well, but maybe not before reading the rest of this post!)
Welcome back! I’m a big fan of the Johnson/Devil story, and particularly of the unique and vital work it does in creating a rooted American folklore (work that our artists have been trying to do since at least Washington Irving). No offense to the likes of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, the stories of whom young AmericanStudier greatly enjoyed reading, but that’s precisely the problem: to my mind much of our folklore feels distinctly childish, aimed at youthful audiences and as a result without a lot of the multilayered darkness that the best folktales tend to include. Or there are American folktales like those featuring the Wendigo, which are purely supernatural and terrifying. Whereas I’d argue that the Robert Johnson & the Devil folktale really balances those various elements—able to appeal to young audiences but with some seriously adult complications, supernatural to be sure but connected to a very real historical and cultural figure (and to broader social issues of race and region as well, of course). Indeed, if I were to make the case for one American folktale as exemplifying that complex genre, I think this is the one I’d choose.
But nothing in American culture is simple (that could be a motto for this blog and my whole online public scholarly career), and there are also some real downsides to the prominence of this folktale version of Johnson. I don’t disagree with the arguments in the last hyperlinked article above, that the Devil story both demonizes Johnson and demeans the whole genre of the Blues. But even if we don’t go that far, there’s no doubt that the focus on the folktale can make it more difficult to remember and engage with the very human layers to Johnson’s life and story. For example, Johnson only took part in two recording sessions before his tragically early death in August 1938 at the age of 27, recording a total of 29 songs in those 1936 and 1937 sessions. Yet in that far too brief period he helped establish the genre of the Delta Blues, and he did so at least in part through precisely the element that is turned into something supernatural by the folktale: his unique guitar playing and sound. Apparently he did learn that craft remarkably quickly, since his mentor Son House noted that when they first met Johnson wasn’t much of a guitarist. But that’s a striking artistic and human success story, and one we shouldn’t allow a compelling folktale to minimize.
Next Blues icon tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Blues figures or contexts you’d highlight?