If I Had Possession over Judgment Day: Augmenting Robert Johnson

Jonathan Stewart

Abstract


augment
vb [ɔːgˈmɛnt]
1. to make or become greater in number, amount, strength, etc.; increase
2. Music: to increase (a major or perfect interval) by a semitone
(Collins English Dictionary 107)

Almost everything associated with Robert Johnson has been subject to some form of augmentation. His talent as a musician and songwriter has been embroidered by myth-making. Johnson’s few remaining artefacts—his photographic images, his grave site, other physical records of his existence—have attained the status of reliquary. Even the integrity of his forty-two surviving recordings is now challenged by audiophiles who posit they were musically and sonically augmented by speeding up—increasing the tempo and pitch.

This article documents the promulgation of myth in the life and music of Robert Johnson. His disputed photographic images are cited as archetypal contested artefacts, augmented both by false claims and genuine new discoveries—some of which suggest Johnson’s cultural magnetism is so compelling that even items only tenuously connected to his work draw significant attention. Current challenges to the musical integrity of Johnson’s original recordings, that they were “augmented” in order to raise the tempo, are presented as exemplars of our on-going fascination with his life and work. Part literature review, part investigative history, it uses the phenomenon of augmentation as a prism to shed new light on this enigmatic figure.

Johnson’s obscurity during his lifetime, and for twenty-three years after his demise in 1938, offered little indication of his future status as a musical legend: “As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure, and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note” (Wald, Escaping xv). Such anonymity allowed those who first wrote about his music to embrace and propagate the myths that grew around this troubled character and his apparently “supernatural” genius. Johnson’s first press notice, from a pseudonymous John Hammond writing in The New Masses in 1937, spoke of a mysterious character from “deepest Mississippi” who “makes Leadbelly sound like an accomplished poseur” (Prial 111). The following year Hammond eulogised the singer in profoundly romantic terms: “It still knocks me over when I think of how lucky it is that a talent like his ever found its way to phonograph records […] Johnson died last week at precisely the moment when Vocalion scouts finally reached him and told him that he was booked to appear at Carnegie Hall” (19).

The visceral awe experienced by subsequent generations of Johnson aficionados seems inspired by the remarkable capacity of his recordings to transcend space and time, reaching far beyond their immediate intended audience. “Johnson’s music changed the way the world looked to me,” wrote Greil Marcus, “I could listen to nothing else for months.” The music’s impact originates, at least in part, from the ambiguity of its origins: “I have the feeling, at times, that the reason Johnson has remained so elusive is that no one has been willing to take him at his word” (27-8). Three decades later Bob Dylan expressed similar sentiments over seven detailed pages of Chronicles:

From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up … it felt like a ghost had come into the room, a fearsome apparition …When he sings about icicles hanging on a tree it gives me the chills, or about milk turning blue … it made me nauseous and I wondered how he did that … It’s hard to imagine sharecroppers or plantation field hands at hop joints, relating to songs like these. You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future. (282-4)

Such ready invocation of the supernatural bears witness to the profundity and resilience of the “lost bluesman” as a romantic trope. Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch have produced a painstaking genealogy of such a-historical misrepresentation. Early contributors include Rudi Blesch, Samuel B Charters, Frank Driggs’ liner notes for Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Singers collection, and critic Pete Welding’s prolific 1960s output. Even comparatively recent researchers who ostensibly sought to demystify the legend couldn’t help but embellish the narrative. “It is undeniable that Johnson was fascinated with and probably obsessed by supernatural imagery,” asserted Robert Palmer (127). For Peter Guralnick his best songs articulate “the debt that must be paid for art and the Faustian bargain that Johnson sees at its core” (43).

Contemporary scholarship from Pearson and McCulloch, James Banninghof, Charles Ford, and Elijah Wald has scrutinised Johnson’s life and work on a more evidential basis. This process has been likened to assembling a complicated jigsaw where half the pieces are missing:

The Mississippi Delta has been practically turned upside down in the search for records of Robert Johnson. So far only marriage application signatures, two photos, a death certificate, a disputed death note, a few scattered school documents and conflicting oral histories of the man exist. Nothing more. (Graves 47)

Such material is scrappy and unreliable. Johnson’s marriage licenses and his school records suggest contradictory dates of birth (Freeland 49). His death certificate mistakes his age—we now know that Johnson inadvertently founded another rock myth, the “27 Club” which includes fellow guitarists Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain (Wolkewitz et al., Segalstad and Hunter)—and incorrectly states he was single when he was twice widowed.

A second contemporary research strand focuses on the mythmaking process itself. For Eric Rothenbuhler the appeal of Johnson’s recordings lies in his unique “for-the-record” aesthetic, that foreshadowed playing and song writing standards not widely realised until the 1960s. For Patricia Schroeder Johnson’s legend reveals far more about the story-tellers than it does the source—which over time has become “an empty center around which multiple interpretations, assorted viewpoints, and a variety of discourses swirl” (3). Some accounts of Johnson’s life seem entirely coloured by their authors’ cultural preconceptions. The most enduring myth, Johnson’s “crossroads” encounter with the Devil, is commonly redrawn according to the predilections of those telling the tale. That this story really belongs to bluesman Tommy Johnson has been known for over four decades (Evans 22), yet it was mistakenly attributed to Robert as recently as 1999 in French blues magazine Soul Bag (Pearson and McCulloch 92-3). Such errors are, thankfully, becoming less common. While the movie Crossroads (1986) brazenly appropriated Tommy’s story, the young walking bluesman in Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) faithfully proclaims his authentic identity: “Thanks for the lift, sir. My name's Tommy. Tommy Johnson […] I had to be at that crossroads last midnight. Sell my soul to the devil.”

Nevertheless the “supernatural” constituent of Johnson’s legend remains an irresistible framing device. It inspired evocative footage in Peter Meyer’s Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life and Music of Robert Johnson (1998). Even the liner notes to the definitive Sony Music Robert Johnson: The Centennial Edition celebrate and reclaim his myth: 

nothing about this musician is more famous than the word-of-mouth accounts of him selling his soul to the devil at a midnight crossroads in exchange for his singular mastery of blues guitar. It has become fashionable to downplay or dismiss this account nowadays, but the most likely source of the tale is Johnson himself, and the best efforts of scholars to present this artist in ordinary, human terms have done little to cut through the mystique and mystery that surround him.

Repackaged versions of Johnson’s recordings became available via Amazon.co.uk and Spotify when they fell out of copyright in the United Kingdom. Predictable titles such as Contracted to the Devil, Hellbound, Me and the Devil Blues, and Up Jumped the Devil along with their distinctive “crossroads” artwork continue to demonstrate the durability of this myth [1].

Ironically, Johnson’s recordings were made during an era when one-off exhibited artworks (such as his individual performances of music) first became reproducible products. Walter Benjamin famously described the impact of this development:

that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art […] the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. (7)

Marybeth Hamilton drew on Benjamin in her exploration of white folklorists’ efforts to document authentic pre-modern blues culture. Such individuals sought to preserve the intensity of the uncorrupted and untutored black voice before its authenticity and uniqueness could be tarnished by widespread mechanical reproduction. Two artefacts central to Johnson’s myth, his photographs and his recorded output, will now be considered in that context.

In 1973 researcher Stephen LaVere located two pictures in the possession of his half–sister Carrie Thompson. The first, a cheap “dime store” self portrait taken in the equivalent of a modern photo booth, shows Johnson around a year into his life as a walking bluesman. The second, taken in the Hooks Bros. studio in Beale Street, Memphis, portrays a dapper and smiling musician on the eve of his short career as a Vocalion recording artist [2]. Neither was published for over a decade after their “discovery” due to fears of litigation from a competing researcher. A third photograph remains unpublished, still owned by Johnson’s family: 

The man has short nappy hair; he is slight, one foot is raised, and he is up on his toes as though stretching for height. There is a sharp crease in his pants, and a handkerchief protrudes from his breast pocket […] His eyes are deep-set, reserved, and his expression forms a half-smile, there seems to be a   gentleness about him, his fingers are extraordinarily long and delicate, his    head is tilted to one side. (Guralnick 67)

Recently a fourth portrait appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, in Vanity Fair. Vintage guitar seller Steven Schein discovered a sepia photograph labelled “Old Snapshot Blues Guitar B. B. King???” [sic] while browsing Ebay and purchased it for $2,200. Johnson’s son positively identified the image, and a Houston Police Department forensic artist employed face recognition technology to confirm that “all the features are consistent if not identical” (DiGiacomo 2008). The provenance of this photograph remains disputed, however. Johnson’s guitar appears overly distressed for what would at the time be a new model, while his clothes reflect an inappropriate style for the period (Graves).

Another contested “Johnson” image found on four seconds of silent film showed a walking bluesman playing outside a small town cinema in Ruleville, Mississippi. It inspired Bob Dylan to wax lyrical in Chronicles: “You can see that really is Robert Johnson, has to be – couldn’t be anyone else. He’s playing with huge, spiderlike hands and they magically move over the strings of his guitar” (287). However it had already been proved that this figure couldn’t be Johnson, because the background movie poster shows a film released three years after the musician’s death. The temptation to wish such items genuine is clearly a difficult one to overcome: “even things that might have been Robert Johnson now leave an afterglow” (Schroeder 154, my italics).

Johnson’s recordings, so carefully preserved by Hammond and other researchers, might offer tangible and inviolate primary source material. Yet these also now face a serious challenge: they run too rapidly by a factor of up to 15 per cent (Gibbens; Wilde). Speeding up music allowed early producers to increase a song’s vibrancy and fit longer takes on to their restricted media. By slowing the recording tempo, master discs provided a “mother” print that would cause all subsequent pressings to play unnaturally quickly when reproduced.

Robert Johnson worked for half a decade as a walking blues musician without restrictions on the length of his songs before recording with producer Don Law and engineer Vincent Liebler in San Antonio (1936) and Dallas (1937). Longer compositions were reworked for these sessions, re-arranging and edited out verses (Wald, Escaping). It is also conceivable that they were purposefully, or even accidentally, sped up. (The tempo consistency of machines used in early field recordings across the South has often been questioned, as many played too fast or slow (Morris).)

Slowed-down versions of Johnson’s songs from contributors such as Angus Blackthorne and Ron Talley now proliferate on YouTube. The debate has fuelled detailed discussion in online blogs, where some contributors to specialist audio technology forums have attempted to decode a faintly detectable background hum using spectrum analysers. If the frequency of the alternating current that powered Law and Liebler’s machine could be established at 50 or 60 Hz it might provide evidence of possible tempo variation. A peak at 51.4 Hz, one contributor argues, suggests “the recordings are 2.8 per cent fast, about half a semitone” (Blischke).

Such “augmentation” has yet to be fully explored in academic literature. Graves describes the discussion as “compelling and intriguing” in his endnotes, concluding “there are many pros and cons to the argument and, indeed, many recordings over the years have been speeded up to make them seem livelier” (124). Wald ("Robert Johnson") provides a compelling and detailed counter-thesis on his website, although he does acknowledge inconsistencies in pitch among alternate master takes of some recordings.

No-one who actually saw Robert Johnson perform ever called attention to potential discrepancies between the pitch of his natural and recorded voice. David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Robert Lockwood Jr. and Johnny Shines were all interviewed repeatedly by documentarians and researchers, but none ever raised the issue. Conversely Johnson’s former girlfriend Willie Mae Powell was visibly affected by the familiarity in his voice on hearing his recording of the tune Johnson wrote for her, “Love in Vain”, in Chris Hunt’s The Search for Robert Johnson (1991).

Clues might also lie in the natural tonality of Johnson’s instrument. Delta bluesmen who shared Johnson’s repertoire and played slide guitar in his style commonly used a tuning of open G (D-G-D-G-B-G). Colloquially known as “Spanish” (Gordon 2002, 38-42) it offers a natural home key of G major for slide guitar. We might therefore expect Johnson’s recordings to revolve around the tonic (G) or its dominant (D) -however almost all of his songs are a full tone higher, in the key of A or its dominant E. (The only exceptions are “They’re Red Hot” and “From Four Till Late” in C, and “Love in Vain” in G.) A pitch increase such as this might be consistent with an increase in the speed of these recordings. Although an alternative explanation might be that Johnson tuned his strings particularly tightly, which would benefit his slide playing but also make fingering notes and chords less comfortable. Yet another is that he used a capo to raise the key of his instrument and was capable of performing difficult lead parts in relatively high fret positions on the neck of an acoustic guitar. This is accepted by Scott Ainslie and Dave Whitehill in their authoritative volume of transcriptions At the Crossroads (11). The photo booth self portrait of Johnson also clearly shows a capo at the second fret—which would indeed raise open G to open A (in concert pitch).

The most persuasive reasoning against speed tampering runs parallel to the argument laid out earlier in this piece, previous iterations of the Johnson myth have superimposed their own circumstances and ignored the context and reality of the protagonist’s lived experience. As Wald argues, our assumptions of what we think Johnson ought to sound like have little bearing on what he actually sounded like. It is a compelling point. When Son House, Skip James, Bukka White, and other surviving bluesmen were “rediscovered” during the 1960s urban folk revival of North America and Europe they were old men with deep and resonant voices. Johnson’s falsetto vocalisations do not, therefore, accord with the commonly accepted sound of an authentic blues artist. Yet Johnson was in his mid-twenties in 1936 and 1937; a young man heavily influenced by the success of other high pitched male blues singers of his era.

people argue that what is better about the sound is that the slower, lower Johnson sounds more like Son House. Now, House was a major influence on Johnson, but by the time Johnson recorded he was not trying to sound like House—an older player who had been unsuccessful on records—but rather like Leroy Carr, Casey Bill Weldon, Kokomo Arnold, Lonnie Johnson, and Peetie Wheatstraw, who were the big blues recording stars in the mid–1930s, and whose vocal styles he imitated on most of his records. (For example, the ooh-well-well falsetto yodel he often used was imitated from Wheatstraw and Weldon.) These singers tended to have higher, smoother voices than House—exactly the sound that Johnson seems to have been going for, and that the House fans dislike. So their whole argument is based on the fact that they prefer the older Delta sound to the mainstream popular blues sound of the 1930s—or, to put it differently, that their tastes are different from Johnson’s own tastes at the moment he was recording. (Wald, "Robert Johnson")

Few media can capture an audible moment entirely accurately, and the idea of engineering a faithful reproduction of an original performance is also only one element of the rationale for any recording. Commercial engineers often aim to represent the emotion of a musical moment, rather than its totality. John and Alan Lomax may have worked as documentarians, preserving sound as faithfully as possible for the benefit of future generations on behalf of the Library of Congress. Law and Liebler, however, were producing exciting and profitable commercial products for a financial gain. Paradoxically, then, whatever the “real” Robert Johnson sounded like (deeper voice, no mesmeric falsetto, not such an extraordinarily adept guitar player, never met the Devil … and so on) the mythical figure who “sold his soul at the crossroads” and shipped millions of albums after his death may, on that basis, be equally as authentic as the original.

Schroeder draws on Mikhail Bakhtin to comment on such vacant yet hotly contested spaces around the Johnson myth. For Bakhtin, literary texts are ascribed new meanings by consecutive generations as they absorb and respond to them.

Every age re–accentuates in its own way the works of its most immediate past. The historical life of classic works is in fact the uninterrupted process of their social and ideological re–accentuation [of] ever newer aspects of meaning; their semantic content literally continues to grow, to further create out of itself. (421)

In this respect Johnson’s legend is a “classic work”, entirely removed from its historical life, a free floating form re-contextualised and reinterpreted by successive generations in order to make sense of their own cultural predilections (Schroeder 57). 

As Graves observes, “since Robert Johnson’s death there has seemed to be a mathematical equation of sorts at play: the less truth we have, the more myth we get” (113). The threads connecting his real and mythical identity seem so comprehensively intertwined that only the most assiduous scholars are capable of disentanglement. Johnson’s life and work seem destined to remain augmented and contested for as long as people want to play guitar, and others want to listen to them.

Notes

[1] Actually the dominant theme of Johnson’s songs is not “the supernatural” it is his inveterate womanising. Almost all Johnson’s lyrics employ creative metaphors to depict troubled relationships. Some even include vivid images of domestic abuse. In “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” a woman threatens him with a gun. In “32–20 Blues” he discusses the most effective calibre of weapon to shoot his partner and “cut her half in two.” In “Me and the Devil Blues” Johnson promises “to beat my woman until I get satisfied”. However in The Lady and Mrs Johnson five-time W. C. Handy award winner Rory Block re-wrote these words to befit her own cultural agenda, inverting the original sentiment as: “I got to love my baby ‘til I get satisfied”.

[2] The Gibson L-1 guitar featured in Johnson’s Hooks Bros. portrait briefly became another contested artefact when it appeared in the catalogue of a New York State memorabilia dealership in 2006 with an asking price of $6,000,000. The Australian owner had apparently purchased the instrument forty years earlier under the impression it was bona fide, although photographic comparison technology showed that it couldn’t be genuine and the item was withdrawn. “Had it been real, I would have been able to sell it several times over,” Gary Zimet from MIT Memorabilia told me in an interview for Guitarist Magazine at the time, “a unique item like that will only ever increase in value” (Stewart 2010).

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Keywords


augment; robert; johnson; speed; recoring; photograph



Copyright (c) 2013 Jonathan Stewart

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