Searching For Robert Johnson by Peter Guralnick

One of my favorite lines in The Blues Brothers is when Elwood asks the lady at the bar what kind of music they usually have at Bob’s Country Bunker.  She replies, cheerily, “We got both kinds, country and western.”  When I was a kid, there were only two kinds of music echoing from our hillside:  country and gospel.

I was raised on Southern Gospel and Classic Country.  Also, contemporary ’80’s country which is now considered classic, I guess.  The air at my house was filled with Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Patsy Cline, all the way to George Strait and Kenny Rogers.  My mother loved Elvis (as did/still do most people in my family), and she was a former teen fan of the Beatles, but she liked Ricky Nelson better back in the day.

My Uncle Calvin was geared more towards Outlaw Country. That is Cash (again), Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kristofferson.  They fit his lifestyle.  Uncle Calvin was sort of the black sheep of the family, there wasn’t a whole lot that separated him from a George Jones song.  My brother was a die-hard Bocephus fan in those days, and I liked a lot of his music, too, especially the uptempo numbers.

I listened to most of it passively.  I didn’t develop any serious musical interests until I discovered Mozart and then the Doors.  From there I found my way to the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Lou Reed, John Cale, and the Velvet Underground.  The musical tree branched out in all directions for me, almost like connect the dots, one influence leading to another, until I had a taste for everything from classical to pop to industrial and avant-garde.  And of course, the blues.

I came to the blues by way of the Rolling Stones.  From them I discovered Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson.  Discovered is the only word, it was finding music like a pirate found treasure, sometimes seeking it out, sometimes stumbling upon it blindly.

There’s boogie-woogie blues, country blues, jump blues, and Chicago blues, Detroit blues, British blues and Swamp blues.  Then there is Delta blues.  And there is Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers (King of the Delta Blues, period).  There is Robert Johnson and then there is everybody else.

When it comes to legends, they don’t get anymore “rock ‘n’ roll” than the legend of Robert Johnson.  He was reported to have made a deal with the Devil for fame.  As the story goes, he went to the crossroads at midnight and a stranger, the Devil, tuned his guitar and played it.  He gave it back and Johnson became the best bluesman ever.  He also died at twenty-seven years old under mysterious circumstances.  It isn’t true, of course, but if you are going to create the sounds that shaped the rest of the century, you could do worse by way of myth and legend.

Peter Guralnick’s Searching For Robert Johnson is a slim volume, it barely cracks eighty pages, but it’s entertaining in its brevity, and informative.  There are other, lengthier, biographies of Johnson available, but this would be a marvelous place to start for casual fans or those interested in music history.

Music as we know it would have never been born without Robert Johnson.  If you would like to know more about the man or if you want to see where Rock ‘n’ Roll really started, you owe it to yourself to learn about the King of the Delta Blues Singers.