Love in Vain


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As Joseph Campbell described the tale of the mythic hero: 1) “The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there’s something lacking in the normal experiences available or permitted to members of his society. 2) This person takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. 3)  It’s usually a cycle, a going and a returning.”

We can follow Robert Johnson’s life through this cycle in almost perfect coherence.

1)  Johnson almost certainly must have begun his life feeling something was lacking, or that something had been taken away from him. Born an illegitimate child who did not know his father he was, as an infant, ushered from one plantation to another by his mother before finally being deposited with his mother’s ex-husband and his new wife in Memphis. He spent several years living in the big city, adopting his mother’s ex-husband’s last name Spencer. At about age 9 he was taken back by his mother to live with a hostile step-father on a plantation first in Arkansas and then in Mississippi.

It was around this same time that Son House moved to Robinsonville and began playing there with Willie Brown and others. Robert had already been familiar with Robinsonville, sneaking away from the family home at night to go and listen to Charley Patton and others play at jukes and house parties in and around that small town. Robert seemed to have a particular liking for House’s music and had already been trying to play guitar on his own by the time House got there.

2)  Speculation is that Robert went in search of his biological father, but we do know that he wound up in his birthplace of Hazlehurst, MS. Robert may indeed have been searching for “what has been lost” – his father, but he was also in search of the “life-giving elixir” of music. Plantation work was just not in Robert’s plan for the future… he would not become a sharecropper. He wanted to be a musician. And why not? As a young man the idea of spending the rest of his life doing back-breaking work, especially after having experienced city life as a child, must have seemed untenable. Music would be his way out. And so Robert found a way to become a master guitarist.

3)  Robert returned to the Delta and amazed everyone who knew him with his new-found skills. Whether or not Son House actually ever believed the crossroads myth he still was astonished by Robert’s newly-found talent. He couldn’t believe how fast Robert seemed to have learned. A legend was born. Not necessarily the legend of the crossroads, but the legend of a young man who went away a rank amateur and who returned a polished professional.

The cycle of myth was created. The crossroads myth would have its own genesis for its own reasons, but even without placing the idea of the crossroads into Johnson’s life we can see how the few facts we know about him fit into the structure of myth.


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