See here, where I already told you to see, but you never listen to me, no, “Oh, B., we’re too busy reading your blog and typing snarky comments about Hitler to click through your links to read another story about some old blues guy we’ve never heard of” is what y’all are like.
Fine, fine, fine. I’m still writing a post about Robert Johnson, anyway.
Now, for my discombobulated thoughts:
1. Hell, yes, I think it’s him. Look at those fingers! I supposed it’s possible that there are four guys in the world in the 30s who look alike–two being Robert Johnson and mystery person x and two being Johnny Shines and mystery person y–but for Robert Johnson and mystery person x to both have those long, gangly fingers? That’s hard for me to believe.
2. I have some nitpicks with the article.
- Isn’t it time we just stop advancing the whole “he sold his soul to the devil” storyline, even if only to debunk it?
- Um, no offense, Frank DiGiacomo, but I’d be surprised if Johnson was ever issued a birth certificate. My dad spent much of his early ministry translating baptism records from German into English in order to help rural folks (granted, white) of Johnson’s generation prove they were born. It’s not weird that Johnson’s birth certificate hasn’t been found. He probably didn’t have one. But that does raise the question of whether there might be a baptismal certificate for Johnson floating around in a church closet somewhere. Hmm.
Okay, I decided to stop making my list and just talk a little about what bugs me about this whole thing. Why do we keep treating Johnson like a mystery?
Maybe that’s not a fair question, but we actually know quite a bit about the man, and the important lesson is that what we know about him we learned by actually going and asking people who knew him. It’s probably too late for that now, in this particular case, but Johnson is of the same generation as my dad’s parents. Now, my grandparents are dead, but I spent many, many years of my life and I’m a fairly young woman now, knowing my grandparents and listening to their stories.
If someone came to you and said “Oh, the mysterious, phantasmagoric Hick Phillips, who we don’t know much about other than he was a young man in central Michigan in the early 20th century and he left us this legacy of… um… football legendry.” I would hope you would think to say “Hmm. Well, if he played football, folks much have known him. And did he have a family?” And you would expect folks to do that kind of research, to hunt down remnants of family and friends.
I can’t help but wonder what purpose it continues to serve to put forth this idea of Johnson as a Mystery, uppercase M. I mean, no, we might not know everything we want to know about him–but not because those facts were unavailable for us to know, but because we just decided to give a shit a little too late.
See, here’s one of the things I think we don’t talk about when we talk about racism, because, yeah, in the grand scheme of things, I’m sure most folks are all “Oh, cry me a river about how white people suffer from racism against non-white people.” and white folks, I think, for the most part are all like “racism? Well, I’m fine without thinking about it. Carry on.”
But I think we white folks don’t recognize how racism screws us, too. I mean, shoot, you only have to drive into midtown from my house, past these glorious green hills and over a beautiful river, mostly empty of the crowded development along other stretches of Briley, to see that white people are missing out on wonderful, convenient places to live because they’re too “rough.”
And with a figure like Robert Johnson, we get screwed, too, because of the twin assumptions that a.) if we don’t know it, it can’t be known and b.) if we are just now learning about it, there must be some reason it’s been kept from us. That’s part of the reason I think this whole “sold his soul at the crossroads” myth has hung on as long as it has–because it tells us white people a story about how we missed this genius while he was alive–supernatural forces kept him hidden from us.
Then, when it because apparent that there were no supernatural forces, we still dicked around assuming that there were no traces of him left, because how could anything be unknown to us? And by the time we figured out that there were traces, we missed our best opportunities to learn what we now wish we knew, because the witnesses to his life are all dead.
Whew, anyway, Robert Johnson. You should at least keep him in your heart; I keep him in my bedroom.