Delta Force

REVIEW: ‘Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey’

July 30, 2023

Languages do not become simpler over time, but literature can. The more languages are used, the more elaborate their grammar and vocabulary become. The further a style develops, however, the greater the obviousness of its principles and effects becomes. The more obvious they become, the greater the possibility of clarification, simplification, and ultimately abstraction. Ezra Pound’s injunction to "Make it new" becomes "Keep it short and simple."

The same can be said for music. The musical grammar and vocabulary of today’s pop hits are inarguably simpler than those of the mid-1960s, and the songs of Lennon and McCartney or Bacharach and David are simpler than those the Gershwin brothers or Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse wrote in the 1930s.

"Keep it short and simple" is first attested in print on December 2, 1938, in the Minneapolis Star. Robert Johnson died just over three months before that, after being poisoned while performing at a "party house" on the Star of the West plantation, across the Tallahatchie Bridge from Greenwood, Mississippi. He was 27 years old and had recorded 29 songs, with alternative takes on 13 of them.

In 1961, Columbia Records reissued 16 of Johnson’s tracks and posthumously crowned him the "King of the Delta Blues Singers." The album appeared among the hip bric-a-brac on the cover of Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home (1965) and strongly influenced the British blues players who further simplified matters into rock music. The Rolling Stones recorded Johnson’s "Stop Breaking Down Blues" on Exile On Main Street (1972). Eric Clapton adopted Johnson’s "Cross Road Blues" as a kind of musical signature. But we should not blame Johnson for Eric Clapton.

Calling Johnson the "king" implies two kinds of primacy. No one has been able to sort them out. There is primus inter pares: Johnson as top dog in the crowded 1930s field of Delta singers. And there is fons et origo: Johnson as the first and future king, not just of the Delta blues but of all blues, and by extension the later styles which drew on it, especially ’60s rock. The latter is the false chronology that led the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame to induct Johnson in musical drag: "Steeped in mystery, killed mysteriously, his legend eclipsed only by his skill, Robert Johnson may be the first ever rock star."

Johnson wasn’t top dog in his time, either. He was one among many in his lifetime. If he had lived, it would probably have been different quite quickly. John Hammond, who issued the King of the Delta Blues Singers album in 1961, had booked Johnson to appear at the "From Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall in December 1938. Underwritten by The New Masses, the journal of the American Communist Party, and a Popular Front group called the Theater Arts Committee, the concert reframed the history of African-American music as what we would now call "intersectionality": race and class, racial oppression, and class war.

Really, it was "cultural appropriation" by a bunch of communists. This is the crossover that produced the sanctimonious droolings of Pete Seeger, a Harvard man who wouldn’t have known a shovel if it hit him on the nose. It is not hard to imagine a silver-haired Johnson joining Leadbelly as the toast of the fake New York folkies of the 1950s; or pretending to be less of a modernist than he was, like Muddy Waters, who had the first all-electric band in Chicago in the late 1940s but impersonated the acoustic Delta soloists of his childhood for student audiences in the 1960s. But Johnson was long dead, due to his intersection with another man’s girlfriend and a bottle of poisoned whiskey.

Some people tell themselves that Shakespeare could have been the Earl of Oxford because we don’t know enough about Shakespeare. They are deluding themselves: We know more about Shakespeare than we know about any Elizabethan commoner. Many people seem to like the legend that we know nothing about Johnson apart from a Faustian bargain for guitar lessons and the death-by-whiskey bit. They are also deluding themselves.

"His playing was to die for—or at the very least, sell your soul to Satan for," the idiots at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame tell us. "Legend has it that Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads and gave him his soul in exchange for mastery of the guitar."

The truth is that, as with Shakespeare, we know more about Johnson than we know about his contemporaries. Johnson was working in the Delta while first-generation blues anthropologists like Alan Lomax were making their first field recordings. When the white cognoscenti "discovered" the blues and the record companies contrived a genre called "Folk Blues," a second generation came down from the Northeast bearing notebooks and tape recorders. The "Blues mafia," as they called themselves, also bore preconceptions about authenticity and primitivism that, like the Faust myth, owe more to European Romanticism than African-American music.

Biography of a Phantom was drafted by one of these Lévi-Strausses in Levi Strauss, Robert "Mack" McCormick. The son of two lab technicians, McCormick was a high-school dropout and erstwhile forger who became a self-made blues archivist. He was the Luddite who pulled the plug on Bob Dylan when he was rehearsing his electric set for the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; McCormick’s other contribution to the festival was to present a gang of ex-convicts who had never performed together.

Between 1969 and 1975, McCormick researched Johnson’s life by driving around the Delta and asking questions. He located Johnson’s two sisters and his son Claud. He identified where Johnson grew up, on the Abbay and Leatherman plantation, near Tunica and Robinsonville, Mississippi. He discovered Johnson’s "rosebud," the source of his fatal taste for romancing with married women, in his falling-out with his stepfather. He interviewed every musician who knew Johnson and two eyewitnesses to Johnson’s death.

Only the killing of Christopher Marlowe in a "reckoning" in a London tavern has attracted so much speculation. Johnson was staying with a musician called Tush Hog near the Star of the West plantation and playing in a "party house" run by a man named "Smokey" Hamber. An eyewitness told McCormick that Johnson, who had ignored warnings from the male companion of the woman he was flirting with, was mid-performance when "he stood up all of a sudden, grabbed his belly and said ‘I’m poisoned,’ and then fell over." Johnson lingered for between one and three weeks in Tush Hog’s house, was taken to Greenwood and back to see a doctor, then died, according to the death certificate that McCormick found, on August 16, 1938.

By the spring of 1970, when this photograph was taken, McCormick had begun working on the book. (Courtesy of Susannah Nix from the Robert "Mack" McCormick Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.)

McCormick agonized over his manuscript, feuded with rival researchers, suffered paranoid torments, acted like he owned Johnson’s story and music, never finished his book, and died in 2015. John W. Troutman of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has cleaned it up and published it. McCormick’s findings have already been incorporated into books by Peter Guralnick (Searching For Robert Johnson, 1998) and Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow (Up Jumped The Devil, 2019). Still, Biography of a Phantom is worth reading. It tells how McCormick set out to replace a legend with the quotidian facts of biography, but it also shows how these facts instead came to refurbish the legend. McCormick mythologizes his zigzagging around the Delta in the quasi-hardboiled style of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965):

"I found a motel and locked myself in a cramped little room with a curious metal door. The television set swung out from the wall on some kind of hinged arm. The picture on the screen was full of fringe-area snow and distortion. I took a short nap, woke up around mid-evening, and resumed considering my situation."

Johnson sang of having a "hellhound on my trail." McCormick wrote as the bloodhound on Johnson’s trail. He traced Johnson’s movements and discovered so much about Johnson’s murder that he felt obliged to report it to a sheriff. He also developed the bad habit of laying false archival trails to catch out other researchers and not returning family photos. If he had not been so fanatical and proprietorial, Johnson really would be "steeped in mystery" and "killed mysteriously."

McCormick’s route from Houston to the 1968 Smithsonian Folklife Festival and back, with fieldwork forays in between. (Courtesy of Susannah Nix from the Robert "Mack" McCormick Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.)

McCormick got the story but missed the big picture. Johnson played in the Delta idiom, but you can hear that he had broader horizons. Leadbelly was a strummer. Blind Lemon Jefferson was a "country blues" picker. Son House used jerky chords, topped with blue notes to support his vocals. Johnson clarified, simplified, and abstracted Son House’s style. He emphasized the pulse on the lower two strings, especially with the "boogie shuffle" that Chuck Berry made world-famous in the 1950s. He broke the pulse to play the call-and-response to his vocal lines on the upper strings. His voice fitted in between.

McCormick learned that Johnson never wrote down his songs. He worked them up until he was happy. Paul McCartney has said that he and John Lennon did this: If it was good enough, they remembered it. When Johnson sang, he dropped his head and sang into the guitar’s soundbox. It was a form of amplification, but it also compressed the vocal sound. This intensified the effect of his voice, and also the effect of his lyrics. These, unlike the typical Delta lyric of the day, are developed sequences rather than strings of formulae. They are not narratives in the folk style: They are blue moods. "Stones In My Passway" is about obstruction, despair, and impotence:

I’ve got stones in my passway, and my road seems dark as night

I have pains in my heart, they’ve taken my appetite…

My enemies have betrayed me, have overtaken poor Bob at last…

These lines are 14-syllable heptameters (seven-beat lines). Heptameters go back to medieval English; Romantic revivalists like Byron and Edgar Allen Poe used them too. Again, Johnson seems oddly closer to the introspection and inwardness of Romanticism—as if he was not the isolated, spontaneous hick but aware of the mass production of Romantic imagery through the music industry and the radio, and incorporating it with a regional style.

McCormick thought it "ironic" that the sawmill town of Helena, Arkansas, one of Johnson’s regular haunts, was a town of blues pianists, not guitarists. The same, he writes, went for sawmill towns "everywhere in the South," probably because "the mill towns were noisy and needed louder instruments to dominate the tavern crowds." There is no irony here, other than that the detective has missed a major clue.

The authorized version of the history of the blues—the history that was written between the American left discovering it in the 1930s and English rockers annexing it in the 1960s—is that that Delta blues is the purest, original, and most authentic blues because it is a short and simple blues. The theory holds that the language of jazz developed in New Orleans from the blues of the Delta plantations. This makes the Delta blues fons et origo, the wellspring of American music. And that makes Johnson its king, because he was crowned by John Hammond and Eric Clapton in the 1960s.

This theory still enjoys near-universal acceptance. It fits with the primitivist myths that inspired much modernist art in the decades of Johnson’s brief life, and which defined the critical reaction, in the United States as in Europe, to the blues in the 1960s. It fits with the literary-political modernist view of African-American music as vital and energetic because it is primitive; qualities that the New York left of the 1930s sought to mobilize just as Herbert Marcuse did when he wrote in 1969 that "liberation" was a "vital, biological need" for the "ghetto population." It fits the racist politics, notably European fascism, which were afoot when Johnson was alive. It is probably wrong.

In 2021, the New Orleans musician and Grammy-winner Chris Thomas King published The Blues: An Authentic Narrative of My Music and Culture. This might be the most important book written in American music studies in decades. King, the son of a blues musician who grew up in his father’s juke joint, is one of the last musicians to have the dubious honor of being "discovered" by anthropologists from the north and fitted into their theories. He won a Grammy for playing a singer who has sold his soul to the Devil, Johnson-style, in O Brother, Where Art Thou? He knows of what he speaks—what is real in music, and what is a phantom.

Music writers listen with their eyes. Musicians hear things before they see them. King shows that the evidence for early piano and ensemble blues in New Orleans predates the evidence for early acoustic blues in the Delta. He shows that blues were being played in New Orleans when much of the Delta was still an "unpopulated sportsman’s paradise." Only New Orleans, King points out, permitted the racial mixing that was the predicate for the musical mixing of styles.

Mack McCormick solved the lesser mystery of who Johnson was. Chris Thomas King’s theory solves the real mystery: What was he playing, and where did he get it from?

If the Delta style has a supreme originator, it was not Robert Johnson. It was Lonnie Johnson (no relation) who created the Delta template by transposing Jelly Roll Morton’s piano jazz onto the acoustic guitar. (I discussed this with King on a 2018 podcast). The primitivist legend, King argues, puts the Delta cart before New Orleans jazz. The blues flowed upriver, like investment and technology, not downriver, like the current. It is as if, as in Huckleberry Finn, the Mississippi as metaphor carries away the subject.

Robert Johnson’s music supports this argument. New Orleans music was piano music. Jazz pianists invented the bass boogie. Jazz pianists pitched the vocal between their left-hand boogie and their right-hand ornaments. When Johnson split the low-string pulse from the high-string ornament, he was adapting the piano to the guitar, like Lonnie Johnson had done before him. Both Johnsons "made it new" by making a complex, two-handed style simple.

Johnson’s "Kind Hearted Woman Blues" echoes W.C. Handy’s archetypal and synthetic "St. Louis Blues": the first nationwide blues hit. On "Walking Blues," Johnson uses hammered-on ornaments like a two-fingered pianist. The key is B; at 1:45, he pulls against the pulse by striking the dominant F# like Count Basie was then doing with his left pinky. And something else that only comes from New Orleans piano structures the rhythm of Johnson’s playing. Listen to his fills and you hear the left-hand "rumba" pulse of the pianist spread across the guitar.

This explains the paradoxes at the heart of the Johnson legend. He is said to have invented it all, but everything he played had already been invented in New Orleans, and then developed in Memphis and Chicago. He is said to be fons et origo, yet even his biographers admit that the history of the blues would not be greatly altered if he had never lived. The blues migrated to Chicago in the 1920s, when Johnson was a boy. Look at it this way and Delta blues wasn’t the first at all. It was one of several regional responses as jazz spread out of New Orleans.

If Johnson sounds like a sophisticated modernist, it is because he actually was one. The 20th century, the modernist century, was the age of simplification, in the political slogans of totalitarianism as in the mass media and art that preceded it. He was what the French call a "grand simplifier," doing to New Orleans music what Pound and Eliot were doing to poetry. The fragments of Marlowe and other revenge tragedians are as artfully stark in "The Waste Land" as the fragments of New Orleans musicality in Johnson’s mournful Delta spaces. This short and simple truth has been buried for decades by the mythology and mediocrity of rock music.

Johnson did not bring the sound of the Delta to America. He was primus inter pares at bringing the cosmopolitan sound of urban America to the Delta. Unlike any other Delta songwriter, Johnson worked out arrangements within the three-minute 78-rpm format. He was keeping it short and simple like a commercial songwriter. He made a living busking and playing on porches and at dances, but he was writing for radio. "They’re Red Hot" is a rag that owes little to the Delta and everything to Fats Waller and Andy Razaf’s New York novelties. Johnson even put on a special, Waller-like voice when he recorded it. John Hammond left the track of King of the Delta Blues Singers. Print the legend.

Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey
by Robert "Mack" McCormick, edited by John W. Troutman
Smithsonian Books, 264 pp., $29.95

Dominic Green is a Wall Street Journal contributor, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a jazz guitarist.

Published under: Book reviews , Music