Robert Johnson and Me
Over at The Corner, National Review’s blog, several people recently were playing a variant of the degrees-of-separation game, in which you count the number of persons linking you to some famous and important one. They were counting handshakes—John Derbyshire, for instance, had shaken hands with someone who had shaken hands with Trotsky. All very entertaining, but I didn’t give it much thought until a day or two ago when I was listening to Robert Johnson, feeling the strange deep movements of emotion that listening to the blues generally produces in me, and I remembered: I once shook hands with someone who had shaken hands with—or at any rate knew very well—the King of the Delta Blues, as an old LP compilation of Johnson’s music described him.
It was in 1969 or 1970, at a club in Tuscaloosa. I had gone with a friend, known as Kim because his last name was Kimberly, to hear the bluesman Johnny Shines. Although he wasn’t as well known as Johnson or Muddy Waters, he was of their generation and played their kind of music, and he played it very well. When I heard him he had a bass player and a drummer and was playing electric guitar, but he was close enough to the country blues of Robert Johnson that he could hold your attention just as well (as I found out a few years later) with only his own acoustic guitar.
It was a great night. Kim was a capable musician, good enough to have earned a living at it for a while, but I hadn’t known he could play blues harmonica, or harp as it’s generally called. He had brought a couple of harps with him and after a beer or two, during a break, he went up to Shines and asked if he could sit in. Although I couldn’t hear what they were saying, it looked to me as if Shines didn’t really think this was such a great idea, but maybe he figured that since he was playing to an audience of mostly white college kids he might as well humor this one. At any rate, he agreed.
Kim pulled a stool up onto the little stage, on the other end from Shines, and the band started up again. Kim sat out a few verses and then Shines gave him a brief nod, giving him a chorus, as if to say go ahead and get it over with. But Kim played with authority, and everybody heard it, including Shines, who looked around at him with an expression of mingled surprise and respect. For at least the next thirty minutes or so, Kim was part of the band.
Well, this music is intoxicating enough under any conditions, and in combination with actual intoxicants I did something I wouldn’t ordinarily do. At the end of the set I went up to Johnny Shines and shook his hand, thanked him for his music, and told him what a thrill it was to shake hands with somebody who had known Robert Johnson.
I suppose this was less than flattering to him, and he didn’t seem particularly pleased. I hadn’t thought it about the incident for many years, but when it came back to me the other day my pleasure was as great as it was irrational. I couldn’t have been more delighted if I’d discovered or remembered a connection to T.S. Eliot or another of my literary heroes.
That handshake means more to me now than at the time it occurred because I have over the years become more and more deeply aware of how much the blues means to me. I am hard put to account for the intensity of my feeling for this music. Someday I intend to write at more length how I first encountered the genuine article in my teens, at the home of an aunt and uncle who had a pile of old 78s and introduced me to Big Bill Broonzy, Furry Lewis, Leadbelly, and others when I was a teenager in the early ‘60s. (Yes, I know, Leadbelly wasn’t mainly a blues artist, but his work is part of the same musical world.)
At the time, and for a long time afterward, I liked it only as music, the way I also liked, at the time, pop groups like the Byrds. Now, though, if I had to choose between taking some of my blues recordings and the those of the Byrds or the Beatles to that postulated desert island, I’d pick the blues. I would in fact be hard put to choose between T.S. Eliot and the blues.
Of course a lot of people like the blues, and a lot of people like it a lot, but I don’t know how many people regard it as indispensable. Part of it, obviously, is just a simple liking for the sound, particularly the sound of blues guitar. I know exactly what B.B. King meant when he described hearing Bukka White’s slide guitar for the first time: “the sound...would go all through me.” And part of it is the pure human truth of many of the lyrics, so often so pithy and wry and plaintive:
I mistreated my baby
And I can’t see no reason why
But my feeling for the blues goes deeper than that, into a sense of connection with a tradition. It may seem false, and would certainly be unwelcome in some quarters, for a white man to make any sort of claim to personal membership in that tradition, which comes from a culture which existed alongside and was oppressed by the one of which I was directly a part and a product. But the two cannot be separated so neatly. As a white boy in the rural south I was surrounded by the culture which produced Robert Johnson. When I hear him and others like him, I hear not something exotic but the voice of people I know and love. The only other sort of music that has this effect on me is certain English and Scottish folk music, particularly the devastatingly understated tragic ballads such as “Sir Patrick Spens,” and old-time country and bluegrass music like the Carter Family.
I wonder whatever became of Kim. The last time I saw him, a few years after the night he played with Johnny Shines, he was on his way to Naval Aviation flight school at Pensacola.