Blues fans have long held up Robert Johnson's small but potent body of work as a slender pillar on which much modern blues and rock rest, and the songs themselves remain astonishing paradigms of the blues' most primordial style, the country blues of the Mississippi Delta. Yet, for decades after his murder in 1938, details of Johnson's life and clues into the genesis of his music consisted of little more than the evocative themes and settings of the songs themselves.
This brief but absorbing meditation on Johnson's life and art, originally published in 1989 in anticipation of the first release of his complete recordings, benefits from the detective work of earlier blues scholars, most notably Mack McCormick, who began piercing the veil surrounding Johnson's life in the '60s. By the '80s, reminiscences from the bluesman's contemporaries, more solid evidence of his shadowy lineage, and even the belated discovery of photographs added more dimension to McCormick's "phantom" Johnson. Yet, possibly by his own design, Robert Johnson remained more outline than flesh, still explained more lucidly in the fevered nightmares and earthy imagery of his songs than by the scattered details of his life.
Guralnick succeeds in conveying the power of Johnson's music and delineating both its origins and, ultimately, singular genius. His debts to delta blues avatars Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson are solidified, yet, more crucially, Guralnick roots Johnson's artistic growth in the specific context of this rural corner of Mississippi, at this particular moment between the world wars. He also frankly addresses the potency of Johnson's myth and an early death that only glorifies the brief, bright arc of his work. No less crucial is Guralnick's ability to convey the dark beauty of the music itself, giving Searching for Robert Johnson a broader sweep as an essential blues primer. --Sam Sutherland
About the Author
Peter Guralnick is the author of the hugely successful book on Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis. He lives in West Newbury, Massachusetts.