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Searching for Robert Johnson: The Life and Legend of the "King of the Delta Blues Singers" Paperback – August 1, 1998

3.8 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 96 pages
  • Publisher: Plume; Reprint edition (August 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0452279496
  • ISBN-13: 978-0452279490
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.2 x 7.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #790,726 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
At 96 pages you'll be able to read it in one sitting. Chock full of good information but falls short of being a comprehensive profile; It's a pity more isn't known about this colossal sphinx of a bluesman. Crisply written and nicely rendered paperback edition, includes a few interesting b&w photos of locations and related people to add to the atmosphere.
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Format: Paperback
Robert Johnson may be better known for the mysteries surrounding his short life than for the music he recorded. Even people who are not blues music enthusiasts have at least a passing familiarity with his legend. As good as his recordings are, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the reverence in which they are held by the faithful. In this slender volume, esteemed music historian Peter Guralnick sheds some light on the real Robert Johnson, both his life and his music. Like a volume in the Penguin Lives series, Guralnick blends a `just the facts' approach with enough commentary to make the book both quick and thorough. He spends just the right amount of time familiarizing the reader with Johnson predecessors and contemporaries like Charlie Patton and Son House, and provides some critical analysis of Johnson's recordings. This is a perfect book if the reader is seeking more information on Johnson, and an excellent introduction to the mythic creators of the Delta blues.
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Format: Paperback
The 96 pages of this book are pack full of information about legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. Virtually everything that is known about Mr. Johnson is vividly detailed in this work. Makes for excellent reading.
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I read this book because of other books I had read about great bluesmen from yesteryear (Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, The Chitlin Circuit). While this book had some good info, it was not near as good or as detailed as many others I have read. The author referred to another author's book which was still in the works that I thought the best way to describe this volume was as an advertisement for another. Robert Johnson was an interesting character but I think there must be a better book on him somewhere.
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An interesting, if slight, book, which lays out what is known (except possibly by Mack McCormick) about Robert Johnson, and how the author came by this knowledge. For better or worse, what is known is not all that much, but perhaps (as the book suggests to me) the myth of Robert Johnson is more interesting than the reality. This book is good, but the records themselves are indispensable.
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It has been a while since I have read this book. From what I remember, I was disappointed in the book in some ways but loved it in others. It wasn't the read I expected it to be. I was hoping for more info on Robert Johnson but there wasn't. I did however like how the book was written and I liked the info that the book did have. I suppose there isn't very much info on Robert Johnson anyway, but I have heard more on TV shows and magazine articles than what was written in this book. Absolutely worth the read though for Robert Johnson fans.
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Excellent book. Interesting prospective not only of Robert Johnson, but of his contemporaries.
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Great book for serious blues scholars, though the author looks a Johnson through idolatrous eyes.
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