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New takes on a blues legend

Eric Clapton salutes Robert Johnson with an album, and a book tries to demystify the Delta man's mythology.

March 14, 2004|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Paying tribute to the man he considers his biggest influence, Eric Clapton is devoting an entire album to the music of blues legend Robert Johnson.

But one question concerning "Me & Mr. Johnson," arriving March 23, is which Johnson Clapton is saluting: the mythical figure who, according to folklore, in rural Mississippi in the 1930s traded his soul for astonishing musical skills, or the real-world musician who was just trying to make a living.

Both are in evidence in the 14 songs Clapton interprets. "Hellhound on My Trail" and "Me and the Devil Blues" both evoke a haunted man battling supernatural forces, while "They're Red Hot," a bawdy number full of double-entendres, comes off as a crowd pleaser.

The two views of Johnson, an influence on generations of musicians from Muddy Waters to Bob Dylan to the White Stripes' Jack White, have been competing since the singer died in 1938 at age 27 from poisoning, leaving just 29 songs. Clapton's album, along with a provocative new book, is reigniting the long-running conversation about the bluesman.

"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," musician and author Elijah Wald writes in his just-published "Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues," in which he challenges the image of Johnson as a mythical musical genius.

In aiming to demystify him, Wald argues that the mystique surrounding Johnson was either created or amplified by white writers, musicians and fans, most of whom discovered him after Columbia Records put out the 1961 collection of his recordings, "King of the Delta Blues Singers," that first caught Clapton's ear. The fact that Johnson died young, in a violent way, Wald says, also helped romanticize him to Clapton (who vaulted to rock-guitar stardom with his version of Johnson's "Crossroads"), the Rolling Stones and other '60s British rockers who lionized American blues musicians.

"We have this stereotype of the blues that is this guy on a dusty road in Mississippi at midnight, with a guitar on his shoulder," Wald says. "It feeds into this whole idea that what makes a blues singer great is that he was born in poverty and went to jail, rather than something that involved just as much skill and talent and application and learning your trade as any other field.

"Johnson was not a demon-haired oddity from the primeval delta but a brilliant and savvy pop musician, and he deserves to be respected as such, rather than worshipped as a weird rock deity."

Wald is not without his critics.

"In order to make the argument that addled white people created this absurd myth, [you] have to ... vastly overstate the supposed centrality of the sold-his-soul business, and ... be very careful not to actually listen," says pop music critic and author Greil Marcus, who examined Johnson's legacy in his 1975 book "Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music."

"The fact is, from the first, all sorts of people who heard Johnson had the same experience W.C. Handy did on that (mythical?)night he describes in his autobiography when he first heard someone play the blues -- sitting at a train station at night when two black men pulled out guitars and started fooling around with [a song] about ['goin'] where the Southern cross the dog," Marcus says by e-mail. "Handy -- the canniest and most ambitious black purveyor of black popular music -- couldn't believe what he heard: 'weird (that word Wald doesn't like), eerie, strange, etc.,' " Marcus says. "That's what [famed Columbia talent scout John] Hammond heard in the '30s ... long before the release of 'King of the Delta Blues Singers' in 1961. And that's what people have continued to hear since."

Clapton has acknowledged Johnson's influence on him throughout his career and even named his facility for substance abuse treatment and education the Crossroads Centre. A June 4-6 benefit in Dallas for the center in Antigua is called the Crossroads Guitar Festival.

In the new album, Clapton avoids replicating the stark intimacy of Johnson's original solo acoustic recordings, relying instead on electrified full-band arrangements.

In an interview for the album's press kit, Clapton admits that as a teenager he was fascinated by the legends about Johnson (whose estate is now under control of his 73-year-old son, Claud).

But taking on the music of his hero four decades later, Clapton says: "I prefer to steer away from superstition and mystification of these things because, I think in a way, it cheapens it all somehow. If it's as easy as that, then anyone can do it. You just can't sign your soul over to the devil and get what you want or become a genius or whatever.... I think he was just incredibly gifted, and he found how to make the most of that."

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