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Robert Johnson

Lost and Found

Barry Lee Pearson

Publication Year: 2003

With just forty-one recordings to his credit, Robert Johnson (1911-38) is a giant in the history of blues music. Johnson's vast influence on twentieth-century American music, combined with his mysterious death at the age of twenty-seven, has allowed speculation and myths to obscure the facts of his life. The most famous of these legends depicts a young Johnson meeting the Devil at a dusty Mississippi crossroads at midnight and selling his soul in exchange for prodigious guitar skills. _x000B__x000B_In this volume, Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch examine the full range of writings about Johnson and sift fact from fiction. They compare conflicting accounts of Johnson's life, weighing them against interviews with blues musicians and others who knew the man. Through their extensive research Pearson and McCulloch uncover a life every bit as compelling as the fabrications and exaggerations that have sprung up around it. In examining Johnson's life and music, and the ways in which both have been reinvented and interpreted by other artists, critics, and fans, Robert Johnson: Lost and Found charts the broader cultural forces that have mediated the expression of African American artistic traditions.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: Music in American Life

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. ix-x

In May 2001, just outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, Bill Mc- Culloch sat in the commissary bar at Hopson Plantation, chatting with a group that included Tommy Polk, a Nashville songwriter. At some point Bill mentioned this book, which was then an unfinished manuscript being shopped to publishers. “So what’s it going to be,” Tommy wanted to ...

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pp. xi-xii

This book is the product of a collaboration between a folklorist and a journalist. It is also the product of a friendship that began some forty years ago when we discovered a shared interest in the music that had evolved during the first half of the twentieth century in the African American communities of the rural South and Southeast. As the years went by our interest was enriched by encounters and, in ...

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1. The Making of a Paper Trail

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pp. 1-4

Lord knows, he tried to be a family man, but something always drew him back—or drove him back—to the road. He spent most of his adult life traveling from town to town, playing guitar and singing for gatherings on street corners, at suppers and house parties, and in rural roadhouses and urban clubs. Although his travels took him to most regions ...

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2. Our Hero

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pp. 5-10

Even as the body of romantic mythology about Robert Johnson grew in the decades following his death, so, too, did the volume of carefully researched facts and first-person recollections. For readers who know little or nothing about this storied blues artist, this chapter offers a short biographical outline. Based on public records, court documents, the memories ...

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3. The Anecdotes

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pp. 11-17

Don Law, the British producer who recorded Johnson, was a key source of early information about the blues artist. H. C. Speir and Ernie Oertle, the two talent scouts who put Johnson in touch with Law, also provided recollections, but Law was the initial and primary source. His anecdotes, unchallenged for thirty years, were recycled over and over ...

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4. Early Notices

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pp. 18-26

The first extended print reference to Robert Johnson outside of music industry communications appeared in the March 2, 1937, issue of The New Masses, a left-wing periodical based in New York.1 Following notices for two plays, titled Chains and Marching Song, a lecture on “The Moscow Treason Trial,” a fund-raiser to aid leftist opposition in Spain, and ...

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5. The Reissue Project, Phase One

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pp. 27-32

The Johnson legend was greatly influenced by Columbia’s two-stage reissue of the artist’s recordings in 1961 and 1970. The first of these two albums, King of the Delta Blues Singers (CL 1654), was released during a wave of popular interest in American folk music. The folk revival, as it was called, started in the late fifties and peaked in the early ...

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6. Reissue, Phase Two

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pp. 33-45

The second installment of Columbia’s vinyl reissue series showed a significant shift. It was now 1970, the popularity of traditional folk music had waned, the Beatles and other British groups had pumped new life into the rock movement, and Robert Johnson was being recast as an inventor of rock and roll. In an introduction on the back of the ...

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7. Myth Eclipses Reality

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pp. 46-52

The first publication of a Johnson photograph came forty-eight years after the artist’s death. The photo proved that Johnson’s image could be recorded by conventional means, unlike, say, a vampire, whose body cannot be reflected in a mirror. More significantly, the photo showed that Johnson’s face revealed no evidence of the anguish and inner torment ...


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8. Reissue, Phase Three; or, Fifteen Minutes of Fame

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pp. 53-61

The 1990 release of Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings constituted a milestone along the Johnson paper trail. The liner notes for the boxed CD set included an 8,000-word biography written by Stephen LaVere, considered one of the primary researchers on Johnson’s life. ...

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9. A Myth of the Twenty-first Century

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pp. 62-64

By the start of the new millennium, the Johnson legend had shown up in two novels, three documentary films, advertising, journalism, and popular music. It had also shown up in two screenplays: Crossroads, the Ralph Macchio vehicle that was produced as a movie in 1986; and Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, which, at this writing, remains an ...

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10. Satan and Sorcery

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pp. 65-69

... Yet a review of all the critical writing since the midforties shows a strange preoccupation with just two of the twenty-nine songs. One of the two, “Me and the Devil Blues,” stands alone as the only Johnson song to contain specific references to Satan and the devil. The other song, “Hellhound on My Trail,” contains references to being driven and ...

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11. The Song Texts

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pp. 70-86

As can be seen in the paper trail we have been following, most previous attempts to analyze Johnson’s songs, either as works of art or as clues to the artist’s inner life, have been flawed by the application of what one might call the Lord Byron model. Researchers and critics alike listen to Johnson’s songs and profess to hear evidence of deep-seated anguish. ...

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12. A House of Cards

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pp. 87-102

Because Johnson’s own songs inspired so much speculation about a supernatural connection, legend sleuths have always been on the lookout for hard historical evidence of a link between the artist and old folk beliefs about voodoo, hoodoo, and “the devil’s music.” Such evidence, while not abundant, does exist in the “oral histories” of people such ...

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13. Who Was He, Really?

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pp. 103-113

In considering the blues of Robert Johnson, searching for hidden meanings makes for a diverting intellectual exercise, as we have seen. But it’s easy to get carried away, because blues-idiom poetry is fluid enough to accommodate multiple interpretations. And as we have seen, interpretation is often influenced more by ...


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pp. 115-127


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pp. 129-136


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pp. 137-142

E-ISBN-13: 9780252092121
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252075285

Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2003

Series Title: Music in American Life