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Poetic devices in the Songs of Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues

Bhesham R.Sharma

Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues, remains one of the blues most enigmatic and respected artists. His 29 songs, most of which were recorded in four days in May, 1936, have become enduring testaments of his genius. Indeed, Johnson has had an influence on various musicians, and songs such as "Sweet Home Chicago," or "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" are now standards in the blues repertoire. Within the past thirty years, for example, "Crossroad Blues" has been recorded by several artists including Cream, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ry Cooder, Stephen Stills, and John Hammond. "Ramblin'On My Mind" has been recorded by John Mayall, and Elmore James.

Despite the impact his music has had, controversy surrounds his life and works.1 Indeed, the legend that Johnson sold his soul to the devil to acquire his talent has done much to mythologize the man and his music.

This myth was recently exacerbated by the 1980's film, Crossroads in which a promising classical guitarist from the famous Julliard School of Music quits his formal education to search for a missing Robert Johnson song in the Mississippi Delta. There he (as did Robert Johnson some fifty years earlier) meets the devil at the crossroads.

As Jon Michael Spencer argues, however, in Johnson's songs (e. g. "Me and the Devil Blues" or "Travelling Roadside Blues") and indeed in those of other Delta musicians, the devil hardly resembles "Paramount's demonic figure or the devil as portrayed in European lore." 2 Like many rural Blacks who were raised within the Baptist tradition of the South during the 1930s, it is possible that Johnson's perception of the devil oscillates between that of its Christian depiction, and that of the African trickster-god, Legba, characterised by default in Christianity as a devil.

Legba is a polemical character in Afro-American folklore, both disruptive and reconciliatory, profane and sacred. As Spencer asserts, "The predominant attitude towards Legba [among many in the South was] affection rather than fear.3 In the same way that African virility or lucky charms such as the 'mojo' or the 'black-cat bone' found their way into the lives and iconography of blues musicians, certain ancestral beliefs transcended oral traditions of the diaspora - from where the blues is partially derived.4 If anything, the myth surrounding Johnson has done much to obscure the consummate musicianship that lies at the core of many of his songs. This paper focuses on one aspect of Johnson's genius, his lyrics.

Johnson's lyrics are often raw and honest especially where sexual issues are concerned. I focus on a persistent theme in his songs - unrequited love and desire. I show how through the sometimes encoded language of the Mississippi vernacular, Johnson reveals his pathos and anger at his loss of passion and love.

Johnson often relies on metaphor as a means to dealing frankly with sexual issues. He sometimes uses mechanical objects such as a phonograph or a watch as a vehicle for his allusions.5 Although his choice of metaphors may seem awkward from our 'etic' (outsider's) perspective, Johnson is able to capture many overt emotions and subtle nuances through such allusions.

Many of the Delta blues singer's songs deal with infidelity and the woman's loss of desire for him. In verses one and two of "Terraplane Blues," for example, he writes, "And I feel so lonesome - you hear me when I moan." He then asks, "Who been drivin' my Terraplane - for you since I been gone?" The lines that follow reveal the sexual breakdown between him and his lover:

I'd said I flash your lights, mama - your horn won't even blow,
(Spoken: Somebody's been runnin' my batteries down on this machine)
I even flash my lights, mama - this horn won't even blow.
Got a short in this connection - hoo-well, babe, it's way down below.

In the final verse, Johnson reveals his intent on rekindling her passion for him:

I'm 'on' get deep down in this connection - keep on tanglin' with your wires.
I'm 'on' get deep down in this connection - hoo-well, keep on tanglin' with these wires.
And when I mash down on your little starter - then your spark plug will give me fire.6

Although he attributes the woman's loss of desire for him, perhaps because of her infidelity, in the final verse he vows to make her 'want' him.

At times, infidelity causes Johnson to contemplate 'riding the blind', that is, hopping on a freight train to go wherever the train leads. At other times, infidelity makes Johnson wish he could condemn his lover to hell.

In his song, "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day" the lines that follow the repeated opening declaration, "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day," is "Lord, the little woman I'm lovin' wouldn't have no right to pray." The polemic between being the judge on Judgement Day and being victim to unmitigated love continues in the second verse: "And I went to the mountain - lookin' far as my eyes could see." Like an old testament prophet, Johnson reflects on a promised land. As in the first verse, however, he juxtaposes this with, "Some other man got my woman and the lonesome blues got me."7

Johnson articulates his passion in an exaggerated prose that not only crystallizes his anger and frustrations. They also become creative, cathartic abreactions to his own pathologies, or what Fredric Jameson describes as a 'talking cure.'8

Sometimes Johnson makes light of his lover's indifference and infidelity. In "Dead Shrimps Blues," the crustaceans are his 'bait' to snag his lover: "I've served my best bait, baby - and I can't do that no harm . . . Everything I do, babe, you got your mouth stuck out. Hole where I used to fish, you got me posted out."9 Despite his efforts to woo his lover, she remains immune to his charm. As a phallic symbol, dead shrimps also conjure up images such as lifelessness and limpness.

While "Dead Shrimps Blues" contains a certain playfulness about it, "Phonograph Blues" speaks more seriously of Johnson's impotence and atrophy which infidelity has caused:

Beatrice I love my phonograph - but you have broke my windin'chain.
Beatrice I love my phonograph - Hon'y, I've broke my windin' chain.
And you've taken my lovin' - and give it to your other man.
Now, we played it on the sofa, now, we played it 'side the wall.
My needles have got rusty, baby, they will not play at all.
We played it on the sofa - and we played it 'side the wall.
But my needles have got rusty - and it will not play at all.10

'Windin' chain' was a common euphemism for having intercourse in the Delta during this period and Beatrice's infidelities have caused him to break his 'windin' chain'. His needles have gotten rusty and will not play at all.

It is in part such honesty in articulating emotions, desires, and fears (initially to insiders) that, today, has made Johnson popular among many blues enthusiasts. In a musical tradition that is dominated by males who claim to possess superior libidinal power (listen to, for example, Muddy Waters' "I Just Can't Be Satisfied," or Howlin' Wolf's, "Backdoor Man") Johnson's ouvres come as a brutally honest polemic; he is often angry and blue, yearning and lonely, and almost always, vulnerable.

Although Johnson fantasizes about damning his lover to hell, his texts maintain this sense of vulnerability. His claims are often so extravagant that they suggest that Johnson never seems to lose sight of the difference between imagery and reality. Never are claims of libido used to hide his insecurities.

Sometimes Johnson discards metaphor and verbalizes his trials directly. Perhaps, nowhere in Johnson's repertoire is rejection captured so eloquently as in "Love in Vain":

And I followed her to the station - with her suitcase in my hand.
And I followed her to the station with her suitcase in my hand.
Well, it's hard to tell, it's hard to tell - when all your love's in vain.
All my love's in vain.

When the train rolled up to the station, I looked her in the eye.
When the train pulled up to the station and I looked her in the eye.
Well, I was so lonesome, I felt so lonesome - and I could not help but cry.
All my love's in vain.

When the train, it left the station - with two lights on behind.
When the train, it left the station - with two lights on behind.
Well, the blue light was my blues - and the red light was my mind.
All my love's in vain.11

Throughout the narrative, one senses his resignation and compliance. It is he who carries the woman's bag; It is he who weeps; It is he who falls into depression and anger. His sadness ("I could not help but cry"), loneliness ("the blue light was my blues"), anger ("the red light was my mind"), and futility ("all my love's in vain") encircle a myriad of emotions associated with the loss of a lover.

When one compares the texts in Johnson's compositions within the framework of their given discursive context, one finds several parallels. Johnson's "Walking Blues" parallels musically Son House's "Walking Blues," Johnson's "Love in Vain" parallels Carr and Blackwell's "In the Evening."12 And indeed, these artists also share a vernacular that is specific to the rural Blacks of the Mississippi Delta during this period.13 One element that makes Johnson's lyrics stand out, however, is his fearlessness in speaking frankly about his weaknesses and failures as a lover.

And it is perhaps this cathartic articulation of repressed angst, frustration and unfulfilled desire that has caused many to be drawn to or to distrust Johnson's works. Like Paganini perhaps, it was Johnson's virtuosity and mastery of his art, including verse, during the 1930s, that caused audiences to resort to the attribution that he was in league with the devil. For the power to move individuals to such an extent could only come from God or the devil. Since Johnson spent much of his time in juke joints and brothels, his talents surely must have come from the devil.14

Yet, in late capitalist society, where the collective is satiated with slick psycho-technological mass culture, it is, ironically, 'raw art' such as Johnson's music that leads us back to the path of enlightenment - in a Hegelian sense. His allegedly profane songs take on 'socially responsible' attributes in that they articulate experiences with which we can reflect upon to ascertain enlightenment. In other words, Johnson's lyrics, that speak of his passion, loneliness, anger, and unfulfilled desire, articulate for some of us our restrained inclinations. Such discourse has a reciprocal impact, untapping:

... that repressed mimetic impulse, allowing us once again to grasp some older relationship . . . we cannot reinstate or reinvent as such in 'modern times'. . . yet whose recovery by way of memory - indeed, whose anamnesis - is therapeutic in its own right.15

Johnson's rich lyrics go beyond one-dimensional, nonconnotative, cliché ridden language. They are a polemic to much of the lyrics found in today's commodified popular music.

While by no means does it touch upon other themes encountered in his texts (or indeed his guitar -playing which illuminates these texts), this article nevertheless brings us closer to an understanding of why Johnson remains one of the blues' most significant, influential and transcendental figures.

Bhesham R.Sharma


. Peter Guralnick's often uneven book, Searching for Robert Johnson (New York: Dutton Obelisk, 1989) has done little to diminish the myths surrounding Johnson's life. Despite its awkward prose, perhaps the most sober introduction to the life of Robert Johnson is found in Scott Ainslie and Dave Whitehill's Robert Johnson: At the Crossroads - The Authoritative Guitar Transcriptions (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 1992), pp. 4-11.

2. Blues and Evil (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993), p. 10.

3. Ibid., p.38

4. For a study on the dialectics between indigenous 'White' and 'Black' music that led to the origin of the blues, see Charles Keil's Urban Blues (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1966.

5. In "Walking Blues," for example, Johnson describes his lover as having an "Elgin movement from her dead down to her toes." Elgin Movement was a patented name given to a type of mechanical movement in particular watches. See Ainslee and Whitehall, p. 58.

6. Ibid., p. 31. Please note: unless otherwise stated, all references to Ainslee and Whitehall pertain to the source of lyrics.

7. Ibid., p. 67.

8. Late Marxism, or, The Persistance of the Dialectic (London: Verso), p. 65.

9. Ainslee and Whitehall, p. 47.

10. Ibid., p. 35.

11. Ibid., p. 116.

12. An excellent sampling of the music of artists to whom Johnson is indebted can be heard on The Roots of Robert Johnson [Yazoo 1073]. Worth viewing and listening to is the video entitled The Search for Robert Johnson (New York: Sony Music Enterprises, 1992).

13. See Scott Ainslie and Dave Whitehill's Robert Johnson: At the Crossroads for a comprehensive list of euphemisms and colloquialisms found in the songs of Robert Johnson.

14. B. Barnes and G. Wheeler express a similar position in A Lonely Fork in the Road - The Devil in Delta Culture, Living Blues 94 (1990), 26-28.

15. Jameson, p. 65.

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