Top 10 Untrue Facts About Robert Johnson

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Top 10 Untrue Facts About Robert Johnson by Greil Marcus

1. Bob Dylan writes in Chronicles, Volume One that John Hammond, who tried to recruit Johnson for his 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert in New York before learning of Johnson’s murder, and who played two of Johnson’s 78s from the stage in his place, believed that Johnson had read Whitman. He had.

2. He based “Come on in My Kitchen” on “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

3. Traveling with Johnny Shines, Johnson passed through New York in 1937 or 1938—where he appeared in blackface as a spear-carrier in a revue at the relocated Cotton Club at Broadway and 48th Street.

4. Zora Neale Hurston saw him playing on the street in Harlem; she introduced him to Langston Hughes. The three read and sang back and forth until Hughes wrote in his journal, “We all wanted to be each other.”

5. Through Hurston, Johnson met Nancy Cunard, just then getting over her breakup with the jazz bandleader Henry Crowder. They had a brief affair. Stories that Johnson wrote “From Four Until Late” for her are considered dubious.

6. Through Cunard, Johnson met Big Bill Broonzy, and collaborated with him on “Just a Dream (On My Mind),” adding the verse about the president to Broonzy’s structure—

I dreamed I was in the White House, sittin’ in the president’s chair
I dreamed he’s shaking my hand, and he said “Bob, I’m so glad you’re here”
But that was just a dream, Lord, what a dream I had on my mind
Now, and when I woke up, baby, not a chair there could I find.

7. Broonzy would not record the song until 1939, when he changed the president’s address from “Bob” to “Bill.” Memphis Slim used to say Broonzy had arranged Johnson’s murder—or even committed it himself—in order to avoid sharing credit for what he knew would become his signature song, but no one believed him.

8. In recent years, various scholars and researchers, determined to remove the veil of mystification thrown over Johnson by the story of his supposedly selling his soul to the devil in order to gain a proficiency on the guitar that would take him beyond his fellows, have sought to restore balance to country-blues studies by both, or alternatively, denying that as a school, style, or aesthetically meaningful form there was any such thing as country blues, and denigrating Johnson’s originality, expressiveness, musical dexterity, or even the authenticity of his putative voice, with one writer arguing that Johnson’s natural voice was deep, but his producer sped up the master tapes of his recordings in order to make him sound younger and more vulnerable, thus purposefully or inadvertently adding to the myth of the doomed blues singer.

A book arguing that Johnson, like Shakespeare, was either a front (for Son House, who, the author suggests, thought he could make more money as a younger, more handsome, more plaintive-sounding version of himself), or never existed at all—the thesis being that the real Robert Johnson who made the recordings attributed to Johnson was, as some have argued about Homer, and as E.L. Doctorow essentially argues about the Rosenbergs at the end of The Book of Daniel, someone else with the same name—will be published next year by Sentinel.

9. Rumored but so-far-unfound Johnson recordings include “Country Blues” (a reworking of the Dock Boggs version), “Little Maggie,” “Adieu False Heart,” and “John Henry.”

10. Like Huey Newton and Bobby Seale listening to Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” as they drew up the charter for the Black Panthers, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen were listening to “Hell Hound on My Trail” when in 1941 they wrote “Blues in the Night.” “I want him on the session,” Bing Crosby, a fan of “Terraplane Blues,” said just before he recorded the song in 1942. But what he got was perfect anyway.

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4 Responses to “Top 10 Untrue Facts About Robert Johnson”

  1. Matt Marshall Says:

    Did you want to maybe explain why or how these “facts” about Johnson are untrue? Sources? Citations? Anything that makes sense, maybe?

    This list seems to simply throw some anecdotes about Johnson out, have a big bold headline that reads “Untrue”, and then wander off.

  2. Dennis Vermeal Says:

    are these facts untrue? or are the headline and facts double negatives thereby making them true?

  3. Matt Marshall Says:

    heh, yep. Certainly “confusingly ambiguous” all around. Hi Dennis! We just emailed back and forth! Blues world can certainly be small.

  4. griphands Says:

    that was entirely confusing. what was true? what wasn’t? sources, please?

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