The Devil’s Reading

Serious blues writing got a powerful if naively researched jumpstart with the still indispensible, late-’50s and early-’60s books of Sam Charters and Paul Oliver, the latter in England, where by the early 1970s it was also possible to find Robert Johnson transcriptions and John Fahey’s revised master thesis on Charley Patton. Young American blues lovers of the ’60s went south in search of records, information and musicians, walking in the shoes of John and Alan Lomax, hunting for their own Lead Belly, “collectors” in every sense. They did good work: Some, like Giles Oakley, Peter Guralnick and William Ferris,
published serious studies, and others, like Nick Perls, opened his collection to everyone with his label, Yazoo, though he was not overly concerned with rights and royalties.

Yet as Robert Johnson became a superstar, the emphasis changed from research to custody, peaking perhaps with the title of the PBS series Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey—his musical journey. A creepily familiar mixture of narcissism and nostalgia set in as white writers reduced black artists to supporting players in their own stories, occasionally striking out at former colleagues.

Recently, we have had three notable additions to blues literature that restore the virtues of hot invention and cool objectivity: In ascending order of importance, a labor of obsession, a work of art, and a triumph of scholarship. The first (published by Steidl in 2007) is Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures, edited, as best I can tell (the credits are beyond confusing), by Tiny Robinson, Lead Belly’s “favorite niece,” from the collection of John Reynolds, Lead Belly’s “prodigious researcher.” The comprehensive selection of portraits and curios is splendidly reproduced on thick paper stock, capturing Lead Belly and his era, as fans, producers and managers attempted to remake his image from happy sharecropper, Southern primitive and victorious ex-con to folk singer, spokesman for progressive causes and (even) jazz musician. In one picture, he looks like a vaudevillian, complete with derby and cane, though there is no caption to explain their provenance.

But if the pages are fun to turn, the text is almost a parody of fan reflections, reading like a succession of self-absorbed snapshots. While some mourners can justify a personal perspective, like Pete Seeger and perhaps Tom Waits (who was born the day after Lead died and “passed him in the hall”), others, unknown to me, are no less vainglorious. One writer wants us to know that he was 3 when he first heard him, another worries he would not have liked Mozart or Lead Belly had he met them, and so forth. Many contributors aren’t identified beyond their names; several retyped newspaper clips are neither dated nor sourced. Longhand letters from Lead Belly, not retyped, are hard to read. Some commentaries are illuminating, and the poetry of Tyehimba Jess, scattered throughout, is evocative, but a scholarly apparatus and flow-through narrative are sorely missed.

Getting a firm grasp on Akira Hiramoto’s endless manga-in-progress, Me and the Devil Blues 1 (Del Ray), is nearly impossible from the first volume (published in July). But we can say of this feat of narrative energy that it is strangely powerful, often shocking, occasionally inexplicable and almost always mesmerizing. Subtitled “The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson,” Me and the Devil Blues 1 combines two installments that appeared in Japan in 2005; the second American volume is scheduled for December 2008 and a third for late 2009. If the subsequent volumes are as long as the first, the three will amount to a 1,600-page comic-book phantasmagoria, in which Johnson is apotheosized in a largely mythological realm—a new Faust, but one peculiarly lacking in aplomb, let alone arrogance.

Hiramoto’s style expands and retards time with rhythms unique to manga (the Japanese word for “comics”). A character’s momentary response may take pages of drawings: a montage of angles, backgrounds, fleeting reflections. No filmmaker could use half as many cameras as would be necessary to replicate Hiramoto’s perspectives—the only cinematic equivalent that seems remotely relevant would be Orson Welles at his most edit-crazy, for example, in Lady From Shanghai. Especially impressive is Hiramoto’s grand disregard for the phony controversy about Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads. Recognizing a genuinely mythic situation, Hiramoto uses Christian iconography to set up “RJ” with Dracula-like literalness, in which fantasy and reality intersect freely—RJ hallucinates encounters with Son House and Willie Brown before they occur, his hand really does sprout 10 fingers, he is as much possessed and confused by his gift as everyone else.

The first half of Me and the Devil Blues 1 mixes documented fact and pure fancy, successfully recreating the farm community of RJ’s teenage marriage and the irresistible allure of local juke joints. The second half spins into a willful fabrication, beginning with an abrupt flash-forward depicting the violent killing of Bonnie and Clyde; at the last moment, Clyde sees that his pistol is jammed with a thumb pick. A flashback to 1930 details Clyde’s travels with RJ, who is reduced to fearful sidekick (Bonnie isn’t present), though his music inadvertently triggers much of the action. Together and apart, Robert and Clyde descend into the darkest racist hellhole of the South, ruled by an apparently blind madman. This section ends with Clyde trying to save RJ from a lynching. I’ve no idea where Hiramoto is taking this story, but am waiting eagerly for the December installments.

Meanwhile, we have the best volume of all: Ted Gioia’s exemplary Delta Blues (Norton), an expertly researched, elegantly written, dispassionate yet thoughtful history that brings a fresh perspective to much-trammeled ground. Having absorbed the literature and music of Delta blues, Gioia companionably and persuasively adjudicates various controversies by presenting all sides with journalistic rigor and common sense. Of Johnson’s encounter at the crossroads, he explores the origin of the myth, but is no more inclined to dismiss it than embrace it; he understands that genuine mythology is as meaningful as it is rare.

Gioia is insightful at comparing early records with those of late-blooming rediscoveries, and at showing how the story of Delta blues is a black history inextricably entwined with white explorers, a position that holds him in particularly good stead when approaching the 1960s revival. If Delta Blues is not the last word on the subject (in discussing the music’s ongoing influence, he fails to mention Cassandra Wilson, who has done more than anyone to reenergize Delta songs), it is likely to remain the best word on the subject for years to come.

Originally published in November 2008

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