Like Mississippi mud, the myth gets stronger with age: Robert Johnson met the devil one night at a country crossroads and sold his soul. In return, he became the most spellbinding guitarist ever to play the Delta blues.
The story turned Johnson into an icon and it symbolizes the blues' swashbuckling image in American pop culture. But as the old Mississippi artists disappear, some wonder if they've been overly romanticized.
"Delta blues was powerful, but it was basically the popular music of its day," says Stefan Grossman, a noted blues scholar and instructor. "We white folks have given it a false dramatic impact and rewritten black history."
As blues research grows, the once-idealized portraits of Son House, Skip James, Bukka White and others have given way to more sobering assessments. Many were brilliant artists, Grossman says, but some were rough characters--thieves, brawlers and drunks.
"We need to see the older blues artists as the last link not only to a music but to a \o7 life\f7 no longer lived today," says Mary Katherine Aldin, a Los Angeles producer of folk and blues reissues with more than 100 recordings to her credit. "You shouldn't put anyone, including musicians, on a pedestal."
Guy Davis, who plays Delta blues, says the lives of these musicians were not always pretty--and that's because they lived in a world few can imagine. In his concerts, he tells the story of three Mississippi men who robbed a store and discovered they had stolen cans of cat food. They couldn't read.
"During the 1960s, when Delta blues musicians were being rediscovered, it was as if we had one last chance to encounter a foreign world," says Bernie Pearl, a Southern California blues promoter and recording artist whose brother, Ed, founded the legendary Ash Grove nightclub in the 1950s.
"These guys were the traveling rabbis of their time," Pearl adds, "but we have to remember the music and lifestyle as one. They're inseparable."