The blues and the truth by degrees

As much as I love a good old-fashioned Sunday paper in print, the online version of today’s New York Times has a leg up on the hard copy: a multimedia version of the cover story of the Times Magazine, “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie.” It’s a fascinating account of the search for information about two long-dead blueswomen who recorded a half-dozen historic, very rare songs around 1930, then vanished.

I’ve been a serious blues fan since the ’70s and had never heard this tale or the recordings until now, and am grateful that the Times dug out the story. Unfortunately, the piece veers into myth-making about the man who’s already the most mythologized blues artist of all time, Robert Johnson. His deal with the devil at the crossroads and the uncertainty surrounding his death by poison have obsessed fans and scholars for decades.

Now, the Times quotes one of these types (the author of an unpublished book) as saying the man in the pictures of Robert Johnson might not even be the same one who made the records. More than one person who met Johnson or was present at his recording sessions allegedly looked at the photos and said, “That’s not the guy.” There’s talk of pictures that no one has seen, safely locked away in Mexico.

If the writer had done some heavy investigative reporting in the Times’ own archives, he might’ve noticed that Johnson’s son Claud has lately been fighting for control of the rights to the two known photos. Why would he do that if the image isn’t his father?

Even if the son’s memories are hazy, there’s another source who wasn’t: Johnny Shines, who traveled and played with Johnson in the 1930s, and not incidentally was a great blues musician himself. In a 1989 interview with Living Blues magazine, reproduced here by another blogger, he was given one of the known photos:

      I brought you a gift. [I hand Johnny a framed 5×7 print of the Robert Johnson photo that had been published in Rolling Stone issue  #467.]

      Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. [Stares intently at it for about 20 seconds.] Yes, sir.

      Did you have a copy of that?

      No, I didn’t. I’m really glad to get this.

      Is that the guy?

      That’s him. That’s him. [Long pause.] Yes, it’s him.

For those tempted to read things into [Long pause], there’s more. My wife, who knew Johnny Shines in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the early 70s, tells me he never would have kept silent if the pictures of his friend and partner then circulating hadn’t been authentic. She also says, “We didn’t ask him questions about Robert Johnson. Johnny had such an interesting life that we wanted to know all about HIM.”

There are a lot of interesting lives, and a hell of a lot of good music, that’s not all bound up in old 78s and endless infighting between people who really don’t even know much. Just dig the music. Get that hellhound on your trail and let that black spider be your man, the sweetest man in town.

By virtue of knowing my wife and her having known Johnny, I am three degrees away from Robert Johnson. But I’m sure happier about being one degree away from her.

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