When everything changes, a hometown job becomes a source of comfort.
The shop door swings open, and already, the moment is in flux. In front of me, through the familiar blast of air conditioning and pop music, every aspect of Flint Farm is coming and going. Some girls are noting the hour on their time cards, and talking idly about their dinner plans. Others laugh as they face each other, mirror each other, across the massive freezers of ice cream, packing a pint or scooping a cone. Some rush between their windows and the shallow wells that hold the scoops, and more still ask customers what they can get for them tonight. I stand silently in the doorway for a minute, watching as I gather my hair into a tight braid, and grin to myself as the bustle of the night spreads out before me.
I take my place at a vacant window, leaning my body against the stained wood counter to stick my head out onto the porch. By now the evening has begun to cool, and the sun has reached that spot where it filters through the trees lining the parking lot, before it will settle far beyond the mulch and grass that lie on the other side of the road. People are crossing that road now, to get their ice cream, to get to where I stand waiting for them. The next person in line skips up to the counter to tell me what they want. I smile, I turn on my heels, and suddenly I have begun to jump the rope again. Finally, happily, I have dived into the water, and will stay beneath the surface until closing time.
Flint Farm is a town institution. Our humble four-window counter sells ice cream each year from April until Halloween, and the fifth and sixth generations of the Flint family operate the land themselves. In the summer we share the huge rickety barn with the farmstand that sells corn, vegetables, and, if you get there early enough, sunflowers that tower over the older women that buy them.
Yet this place is not rural; in fact, Mansfield is so strictly suburban that if you continued down the road where Flint Farm sits, you would reach both a Target and a T.J. Maxx within minutes. Inevitably, the farm has become a meeting post for middle schoolers on bikes, an evening excursion for families on languid Sunday evenings, the perfect picnic table for a first date over ice cream cones. When I got behind the counter my sophomore year of high school, I felt I had joined a privileged sort of club, and it was in that spirit that I began my work there.
The details of the job, the tender parts of serving that no one notices, quickly became my reasons for loving it. There are so many things I never want to forget: the perfectly timed reflex of closing the cash register drawer with my hip, the bruises and dried ice cream up and down my forearms after I leave, the methodical crushing of empty tubs under my feet on the gravel by the greenhouse. I learned the regulars by name, and it felt natural to wonder about the people in line, the couples silent beside one another.
Nobody told me that spending time behind the counter would mean those interactions would stay with me so much longer. After every shift I left buzzing, irrevocably changed. Now whenever I place my order somewhere, I turn away from the register thinking about how I can never really be just a customer again.
And on those October afternoons when the job gets boring, you learn how to sidle up effortlessly next to someone as she scoops for the rainy day’s single customer. Everyone talks about the same things, some of them revolving around the work: what happened during last night’s shift and why our boss seemed displeased with one girl or another. But the conversation always turns comfortably to musings, and even more so to complaints. We all knew about the biology test someone would be taking the following day, or the boy that visited every afternoon during another’s shift. We also knew why one of our girls had been crying in her car, in the employee parking lot behind the field, before opening shop that morning. It is, and then it is not at all, surprising how many delicate things a person will reveal to someone they see a few hours a week.
Last fall I went to college and forgot about Flint Farm, and I forgot all about being home. And then they shipped me back in March, during that mid-semester break. I worried and wept over this new wildfire illness, thinking I could stay jaded, thinking I couldn’t possibly pick up where I left off last August. Thinking there was no space for me in between wanting to be here and wanting to be away. It seemed uncomplicated for everyone else as they got their bearings between home and school, but for me such ease had always loomed so far removed, in a realm of cohesion it seemed impossible to exist in.
Still, I felt cheated out of finding my own way; my private sense of unsettledness had come to an end, abruptly and prematurely. It was the punchline of a cruel joke, and I sat for hours, not laughing, trying to construct a semblance of meaning behind where I was.
But March passed, and time, as it tends to do, worked swiftly and sneakily against my resentment. The days got sunnier, and secretly I was overjoyed to be home in time to catch the fleeting blooms on the lilac tree beside my bedroom window. To see the black-eyed Susans spring up lazily in the front garden. To go for bike rides with my friends down to the train tracks, as we wondered aloud about what could possibly be next amidst so much uncertainty. With every passing week, every trip to the grocery store, and every night at the dinner table with my parents, college faded more and more into darkness, into otherness. Soon it was only a distant and abstract place, lonely to remember, because being alone at home and being alone hundreds of miles away are two very different things.
Then April came around again, and as we wondered how Flint Farm could possibly open in all of the chaos, it did. For the fourth summer I stood behind the counter and waited for the orders to come. So many things were different; gone were banana splits and cones, whose removals seemed arbitrary to both me and the customers. To scoop, we wore masks and gloves, and out of the 30-odd employees only 10 were allowed back on the schedule. Sometimes the girls on my shift were, apart from my parents, the only in-person contact I had all week.
So many things were different, yet everything was the same. The old speaker in the corner still played those cheesy songs. We scooped and sampled for ourselves during lulls. We gossiped about people we knew and complained about customers, a whole new criteria available for our judgement: “How hard is it to put a mask on?” “Why did he get so close to the counter?” “Can’t they see that isn’t the entrance?”
At some point the thought occurred to me that it felt like a normal summer. The more I realized how true this was, the uneasier I became. It kept me awake, how promptly life had picked back up in Mansfield, when time had stopped everywhere else in the world. I had come back to Flint Farm eager to work, maybe a little too thrilled to put on my ratty sweatshirts and pink rubber clogs like I had every other 15th of April.
I took for granted, in the simplest of ways, that I would assume my usual role, even in all of this. Even as the flames licked at our sides. But why? How could I be unfazed by the droves of people still coming out on a summer night for their sundaes and milkshakes? And yet, it all seemed so perfectly logical. Wasn’t an ice cream shop the cornerstone of a small-town summer? Shouldn’t it always be this way? Should it?
And at one time, hadn’t I been delighted to hear the girls criticize their parents, and divulge the details of the parties they had been to the night before? After all, it seemed a rite of passage to be hungover during a Sunday opening shift, and even more so to tell about it. But it was under a fresh cloud of vague and unnameable dread that I listened to their woes and tales, and shared some of my own.
What I did not share was the dull, gnawing fear of how natural it felt for us all to ignore the world in pieces around us. Somehow, at Flint Farm, our lives had managed to stay intact. Maybe all along I had been the only one seeing this job in such a sentimental way, so I was the only one disappointed when the spell started to break and the sanctity of our wholesome ignorance came into question. Had it always been this way? Had I just not seen it?
And maybe I was the problem. Maybe I had misjudged both everything I knew, and a place, whether it be Mansfield or Flint Farm, whose every corner I had explored a hundred times. Maybe, as it has been with so many things before, my expectations would never line up with the reality I should have always known, the one that always lands neatly in a spiral at my feet.
Late one night in the summer, I was leaning idly against the counter, looking through the windshield of a car as a woman spooned a taste of her ice cream into her husband’s mouth. He smiled as she pulled the spoon from his lips, nodding to say, “Oh, that’s good.” Between them, a face mask dangled from the rearview mirror. A second thought occurred to me then, not quite an answer to my questions, but close enough.
Under the eyes that smiled at me, or rather at the ice cream I handed them, there was a quiet but insistent need for preservation, and it was out of this need that the normalcy in our town continued with such resilience.
The moment at the beginning of this piece, where I am looking upon all of the magic being generated in our little shop, could have been any night during any summer, this one included. Still, I now have trouble reconciling how misplaced it felt to extract the same amount of joy from an experience that was so different, but maybe should have been even more so.
But like the customers I served and the people I worked with, it was out of necessity that I chose to let whatever I was feeling about Flint Farm evaporate into the sticky summer air. I stopped thinking about whether this was the right or wrong thing to do. In fact, I stopped thinking about Flint Farm altogether, and accepted it as where I needed to be. This time, the choice between here and there was mine again. I teared up whenever I let my thoughts drift to the lake with my grandparents, to that lush time of year where I should have been fishing with my grandfather or reading silently next to my grandmother, and could now do neither.
But instead, I could pour root beer over vanilla ice cream and let the foam overflow with its sweet, rich scent. And most days I would sit alone on my porch in the morning sunshine, looking up at all of that bright blue, wishing on a cloud that I could flip pancakes for breakfast with my best friend. But I could scoop pints and make change for a 20-dollar bill and blend the strawberry frappe, extra thick, for the man I knew I would do the same for the next day. There was so much I could not do, but I could be present in that moment where the music picks up and I am rapping in the rhythm of the work. I could settle for this, because I did not want to comprehend the alternative.
All of this being said, it turns out there is no real reason I can point to, besides that time passes, for why I grew up and the job stayed the same. I remember one winter years ago, driving back from a friend’s house on East Street, I stopped at the light and looked out the window to see the sun setting over Flint Farm.
Behind the silos it was turning the fields orange and the houses black, everything bare and raw from the frigid off-season. I stared and stared at that place I knew so well, and I felt I finally understood how something could be so beautiful it broke your heart. But after every shift this summer, lingering in the parking lot, all of my senses attuned to how Flint Farm would be exactly the same when I came back as it was when I left, I would squint once more into that line between field and sky, and think about going home.
In 1976, Stephen Varble got out of his limousine and entered Chemical Bank in the West Village of New York to settle a fraudulent withdrawal from his bank account. Wearing a gown of fishing net embellished with sequins and fake dollar-bills, breasts made of condoms filled with cow’s blood, and a toy jet-fighter as a codpiece, Varble silently stormed the bank. A cardboard speech bubble that read, “Even though you may be forged – Chemical still banks best!” was suspended over his head. When he was told by the manager that he could not be helped, Varble punctured one of the condoms under his gown, and used the blood that poured from it to write a check for “none million dollars.” To applause from the customers, Varble turned towards the door and wordlessly exited the bank. He had been wearing only one shoe, to “symbolize his economic loss.” He climbed back into the limousine and drove away.
It was almost by accident that David Getsy, OC ‘95, a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, stumbled upon the work of Varble while doing research for his upcoming book on a different artist, Scott Burton:
“I came across an unpublished interview where Burton was talking about the role of sexuality in the arts,” Getsy says. “He said one of the most radical artists of the seventies was Stephen Varble. He explained one of these performances where Varble spilled milk at an art gallery out of one of his dresses, and I had just never heard of this person. And I thought I knew my stuff! So I filed it away as a name to pay attention to.”
Since his death in 1984, Varble had been largely forgotten by the art world, due in part to his own steadfast rejection of self-promotion and publicity. By the time that Getsy, by then a distinguished professor of art history, had first heard of him, Varble was almost completely wiped from the art world’s short memory. In 2011, Getsy was asked by the arts organization Visual AIDS to curate an online gallery of slides, which included photographs of Varble. It was this that finally pushed Getsy to try to answer the question that had been plaguing him: who, really, was Stephen Varble?
Getsy embarked on what would evolve into a years-long project culminating in three exhibitions on the work and history of Varble. Currently, ONE Archives Foundation Gallery in West Hollywood, California, is showing “The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day,” until May 17.
“Varble himself had never had a museum exhibition,” Getsy says. “His last exhibition was over 30 years ago; nothing had been written about him in an art publication since, like, 1977.” Instead, much of Varble’s work was kept in the personal collections of the people he had shared his life with. Films were stored in closets, photographs were packed in boxes, pieces of costumes were tucked away in basements; Varble was scattered all over the place.
For Getsy, this unconventional approach to research involving real people rather than collections was both rewarding for his work and a moving personal experience. “What was great about this process was that even though it required a different kind of research practice, it became very much an emotional, a lived practice… more and more people were excited and honored to share their stories and their memories,” says Getsy. “It didn’t feel like work. It felt like discovery.”
Most likely, that is how Varble would have wanted to be remembered. During his lifetime, he was decidedly opposed to any forms of institutionalization or elitism; a steadfast refusal to conform is what drove much of his work. Would Varble have been happy to see his work displayed in galleries now, if he had been so determined to avoid them in the ’70s? Perhaps not. But, as Getsy argues, Varble’s work is too meaningful to allow it to be lost. “I think that’s the one cautionary tale,” Getsy says. “No matter how self-determined, DIY, oppositional, [it’s important] to be like, ‘What is not just the impact today… but what is the way you think about what the legacy will be of this work? How will it be remembered?” As stirring as it is to deny the legitimacy of institutions, the messages found in Varble’s work deserve a platform today. It feels paradoxical to try to honor an artist who so firmly denied recognition of any sort; yet if Varble preferred anonymity and oppositionality in his life, the significance of his work now reaches beyond that.
Stephen Varble was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1946 to a staunchly Christian family. Growing up, he was a choirboy. Varble’s upbringing instilled a deep sense of religiosity in him, one that would carry him through much of his work in his adult life. “My parents wanted me to be a missionary,” he once said, “but I became a monster instead.”
While studying English at the University of Kentucky, Varble immersed himself in Lexington’s LGBT scene by joining the Pagan Babies, a queer theater group. He moved to New York in 1969 and received an MFA in directing from Columbia University in 1971.
Varble soon began to move into the world of 1970s New York performance art, particularly through his burgeoning romantic and collaborative relationship with the influential Fluxus artist Geoffrey Hendricks. It was this relationship, as well as inspiration he found in the groundbreaking work of the filmmaker Jack Smith, that allowed Varble to establish himself as a major figure of seventies queer art.
Varble’s work revolved around disruption and garbage. He constantly placed himself in spaces where he was not welcome, and was an outright challenger of gender binaries, capitalist structures, and the elitism of the art world. He only grew more radical with time. Hendricks largely influenced Varble’s transition from film to theater and performance art. One of the earliest examples of this evolution is seen in Varble’s “Blind Walks;” dressed in all-white and walking blindfolded through the streets of New York, Varble would blast Stevie Wonder songs from a cassette tape recorder and carry a blank board strapped to his arm, Jesus-like. Moving through the city without sight put Varble in an incredibly vulnerable position – yet this was only the beginning of a long career of fearless disruption.
Varble and Hendricks split in September of 1974. Following the break up, Varble developed a female alter-ego whom he dubbed Marie Debris; she would come out not only in staged performances, but also at dinner parties. In this genderqueer costume, usually composed of pieces of trash and everyday items such as chicken bones, pipe cleaners, and milk cartons, he would parade the streets of New York performing various forms of public interventions. For his series Costume Tours of New York, Varble, dressed in his brazen ensembles, led spontaneous and unauthorized gallery tours in SoHo for anyone who wished to join. These tours, like many of his performances, were largely wordless except for cooing and clicking sounds. It was a flamboyant mockery of wealth and class pretensions, as well as commentary on the blurred lines of gender identity.
Varble’s disgust with the classism and celebrity that he saw pervading the New York art scene only grew as he began to gain more recognition against his will. It was inevitable that, no matter how much he challenged the system, the system would eventually conform itself to embrace him, thereby taking away from the message he was trying to send about the perils of hierarchy. Yet Varble managed to deride the recognition he was gaining. He had only one gallery show during his lifetime, which he sabotaged brilliantly. By titling it “The Awful Art Show” and forcing the gallery to price each piece outrageously high so as to prevent anyone from buying anything, he assured the failure of his own exhibit.
But the attention didn’t abate. Varble felt his work was being more and more restrained by it all. “He became increasingly frustrated with how much the most radical actions or the most fantastical costumes would still be absorbed by the art world, by the art institution,” Getsy says. “This is the story of not just Varble, but all institutional critique and oppositional art. It’s built into the narrative of progress that contemporary art defines itself through… absorb[ing] its challenges as part of its reason for being.”
In 1977, Varble retreated from the spotlight, in part in reaction to the newfound attention, but also because he met his last partner Daniel Cahill, a married merchant marine. “Cahill helped reactivate the religiosity that had been part of Varble’s worldview since he was a teenager,” Getsy says. “It really enabled him… And actually the most strident anti-capitalist statements all come from this moment when he’s re-embracing the idea of a spiritual mission of salvation from late capitalism.” During these years, Varble was producing plenty of work—as well as being a performance artist, Varble was a novelist, playwright, and lmmaker—but he focused mostly on video, returning to the medium that had captured him early on, before first meeting Hendricks and falling into the performance world of Fluxus art. But in the midst of making his epic movie, “Journey to the Sun,” Varble got AIDS. With the film unfinished, he died on January 6, 1984, in Lenox Hill Hospital.
In early March of this year, HIV was cured in a man referred to as the London patient, the second such case since the global epidemic began decades ago. Nearly twelve years previously, one other person had been cured of the virus that causes AIDS. The Berlin patient, who has since been identified as Timothy Ray Brown, 52, now lives in Palm Springs, California.
Both men were also diagnosed with cancer, for which they received bone marrow transplants, and it was those transplants that ended up containing a mutation resistant to HIV. The success of the most recent case of the London patient has inspired a newfound hope that a cure for AIDS could be discovered in the near future.
The impact of the AIDS crisis on the art world was monumental. Many artists were lost far too early, but the epidemic led to the production of incredibly powerful and politically influential work. Some more well-known examples might be the AIDS logo series by the collective General Idea, or Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ slowly disappearing pile of candy, which symbolizes the loss of his partner. Today there are many artists, such as Kia LaBeija and Jonathan Molina-Garcia, who are still working to fight HIV/AIDS through their work.
Following his own death of AIDS, the crisis of the 1980s and nineties swallowed Varble’s work of gender nonconformity and replaced it with national fear-mongering and homophobia. To preserve Varble’s queer art, hidden by history, Getsy had to divert from traditional forms of research; he needed to connect with people rather than databases, friends rather than institutions. Because Varble was so opposed to museum or gallery collections, what saved Varble’s work were intimate connections more than anything else, a valuable, but fleeting, mode of conservation. Through Getsy, this memorialization was honored and then expanded upon through the current exhibitions.
Getsy talked to Hendricks, Varble’s partner when he first moved to New York, along with a plethora of others who had, in some way or another, shared a relationship with Varble. “That was what was exciting about it,” Getsy says. “To realize that it was all there, and it was held by his network of friends.”
Varble’s work comments on many of the concerns that still resonate today—anxiety around late capitalism and the false and restrictive nature of gender binaries. As Getsy says, what Varble—an outcast, a queer man who lived and died during the AIDS crisis—did so well was to take what society has “devalued or… discarded, and reclaim it and love it and give it value… I think that’s the big relevance.”
Varble’s story is one of genderfuck, of oppression, of the power that comes from radical self-expression, and of the injustice of the AIDS crisis. Getsy’s work in reviving and curating Varble’s work brings to mainstream conversation topics that were once only found in the corners of society. Varble’s gender nonconformity and his embrace of the trashy and the crude are today at center stage, and it is Getsy who is encouraging us to confront that. And as other 1970s guerilla artists and performers, like the Cockettes, Lorraine O’Grady, and Hunter Reynolds, are also being rediscovered by today’s generation, Varble now seems to fit right in.
On December 13th, 1938, Carnegie Hall was filled with a listening silence. At a program of appreciation for Black music in America called From Spirituals to Swing, thousands of audience members heard first static, then an insistent voice, issue from the cone of an amplified phonograph. The audience probably listened hard—they were hearing the voice of a dead man.
John Hammond, the Columbia Records talent scout who organized the concert, had sent word down to Mississippi to invite Robert Johnson, the voice’s owner, to play his blues music on the program, only to hear back that he had died mere weeks before. Hammond was told that the singer’s whiskey had been poisoned by the jealous husband of one of his mistresses. But having heard one of his records, Hammond included Johnson’s music in the concert anyway, maybe because he still needed a representative of backwoods blues music and didn’t have time enough to find a replacement, or maybe because he didn’t want anyone but Johnson.
It was in all likelihood the first time someone played a record in Carnegie Hall to a packed house. The song was “Preachin’ Blues.” In it Johnson sang, as he often did, about traveling and dying and playing music, over a shuffling guitar riff.
Woke up this mornin’, blues walkin like a man Woke up this mornin’, blues walkin like a man Worried blues, give me your right hand
I say he sang, and I mean that the needle traced the grooves in the record, and that the vibrations carried through the phonograph and over the PA system, and all of these small motions delivered the living breathing voice—like a lie, like an echo—into the ears of the concertgoers.
The blues is a low-down shakin’chill Is a low-down shakin’ chill You ain’t never had em, I hope you never will
The crowd heard plenty of live music that night, but they heard the absent Johnson too, heard him alive and twice-reflected, his clear voice carrying out above the seats, filling up all the space they could see.
The First Origin Story of Robert Johnson, based on Peter Guralnick’s account in his book Searching for Robert Johnson
Born May 8th, 1911, Robert Leroy Dodds Spencer passed his early years in Hazlehurst, Mississippi and then Memphis, Tennessee, under the care of his mother Julia Major Dodds and stepfather Charles Dodds. Robert’s biological father was Noah Johnson, a plantation worker whom he never met. At age seven or eight, Robert returned to the Delta, near Robinsonville, MS, where his mother and her new husband, Dusty Willis, raised him into adolescence. Going by either Robert Johnson or Little Robert Dusty then, he may or may not have gone to school in Commerce, outside Robinsonville. He had beautiful handwriting but was “anti-education.” His wife died in childbirth at age 16. Robert Johnson’s musical mentor, Son House, recalls “little boy” Johnson (at age 19 or so) being distinctly unskilled at playing guitar. “A racket,” House called his playing, but when Johnson returned two years later, remarried and fresh from rambling travels around the Mississippi River Delta, his sudden proficiency—even mastery—made House’s jaw drop.
This part of the story has grown to the status of legend. Even if you don’t recognize the name Robert Johnson, you have undoubtedly heard a story about a person selling their soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent. Like most myths, this one has an untraceable genesis, but most attribute it to Robert Johnson because of the frequent appearance of the devil figure in his songs, and because of his unexplained and apparently drastic improvement as a musician. Johnson’s story has been made into movies, books, songs, even a federal postage stamp collection, and his music itself was one of the single greatest influences on the development of rock ‘n roll. As influential as his music has been—and it is influential, with artists like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones covering his songs and citing him as an inspiration—the devil myth has transcended him to become an idiom unto itself. He haunts our imaginations because he died so young, but the devil story is the one that snags in our souls.
Describing the mythic origin story of another famous bluesman named Tommy Johnson (no relation to Robert), his brother LeDell Johnson said,
… the reason he knowed so much, said he sold hisself to the devil. I asked him how. He said, “If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little ‘fore 12:00 [AM] that night … You have your guitar and be playing a piece sittin there by yourself… A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.
Son House was convinced that the same thing had happened with Robert Johnson: It was the only explanation for his sudden abilities. Growing a reputation, Johnson traveled all around, riding by train, or being pulled behind a tractor in a corn wagon. At his stops he established connections, a woman in every town to take care of him. Shy but direct, he would ask for their company, and for the most part they accepted his advances. The relationships would end either when the woman’s husband or boyfriend came back or Johnson left town. In spite of these relationships, he remained something of a loner—guarded, cryptic. He could play anything, picking a tune up after listening to it once on the radio.
On the devil, lightheartedness, and sin
Several of Johnson’s songs casually mention walking with the devil, talking to the devil, living with the devil closeby no matter where he goes: “Me and the Devil Blues” starts with the two of them walking side by side and ends with Johnson asking to bury my body down by the highway side / so my old evil spirit / can get a greyhound bus and ride. How seriously can we take his references to the devil? Hearing the music now, it’s easy to take him very seriously, imagining that he is speaking grave truths about his sins, about the cosmic consequences of his lifestyle. But the figure of the devil, with its multivalent and prolific representations, can be hellish or corny, divine, tragic, or—funny. Humorous or fiendish interpretations of the devil—the trickster figure, the rebel son—are nearly as common as the more classical imagery of an evil soul-keeper in the underworld.
What music historian Tom Graves calls “devil talk” in Robert Johnson’s time and place was familiar to his audiences, a dialogue that invoked the devil not to inspire fear or awe but to tap into heavily saturated religious imagery for humor’s sake. Of his listeners, Graves writes, “They probably didn’t give a second thought to Johnson’s depictive musings on the subject, certainly not enough to seriously believe he was actually in league with the devil.” Like telling an inside joke, Johnson mentions the devil because it is already a part of how people made sense of the sorrows in their lives—to take it too seriously is to fall into the all-too-common tendency to romanticize and rhapsodize on the theme of Johnson past the point of meaning.
This “devil talk” likely came from the relationship between Puritan Christianity and West African religious traditions, which commingled in Black religious practice in the South as a result of slavery. The syncretism between these two traditions also blurred distinctions between the Christian devil and the West African deity Legba, a spirit or guardian of the crossroads who is recognized by various names in different parts of Africa and the diaspora (Eshu in Benin, Elegua in Cuba, Papa Legba in Haiti). Because both figures are associated with souls and the gateway between the human world and the divine, many historians think that the folklore image of the devil at the crossroads comes directly from Legba’s mythology. Legba is also the deity of trickery, music, and language, known to take delight in chaos and act unpredictably, though he has nothing to do with sin or punishment. More than one devil appears in blues folklore then—the punisher of sins from Southern Christianity and the trickster guardian of the crossroads from West African religions—and Johnson’s devil is either, neither, or both.
So yes, maybe Johnson uses the devil as a joke, or a specific intimacy with his audience and the complex religious confluences they shared. Or maybe he talks about the devil so much because he knows how real it is, more even than the preachers do. Greil Marcus writes in his rock ‘n roll history classic, Mystery Train, that “the blues singers, in a twisted way, were the real Puritans. These men, who had to renounce the blues to be sanctified, who often sneered at the preachers in their songs, were the ones who really believed in the devil; they feared the devil most because they knew him best.” To live the life of a blues singer, especially a traveling one like Johnson, meant to drink, to womanize, to be uprooted, and most of all, to do so on the dime of the devil’s music: a life path through the very Puritan American South that might have produced all kinds of guilt. But the self-awareness of blues singers as sinners and their resulting fixation on the devil feels like a matter-of-fact confession, a wrestling with quotidian devilishness that is neither tragic nor romantic. It’s small, feels ordinary, to open the door to Satan’s knock and tell him, like Johnson does in “Me and the Devil Blues,” that you believe, it’s time to go.
Mechanics of Recording I
At the turn of the 20th century, acoustic recording was the best way anyone knew to capture sound and translate it into a physical form. To record a sound, an acoustic gramophone’s diamond-tipped stylus would move with the vibrations and carve grooves into the wax coating of a record. The grooves would either be vertical, “hill-and-dale,” or lateral, side-to-side—physical mirrors of the sound itself. When the record was played back, a needle would manually, acoustically retrace the paths that had been engraved in the record’s surface, and send the resulting vibrations to the diaphragm, where they echoed out through a cone-shaped amplifier. The sounds that came from a gramophone were therefore reproductions of the original sound waves, a sort of twice-removed reflection. A conduit for the presence of the artist.
The Second Origin Story of Robert Johnson, based on Tom Graves’s account in his book Crossroads
Born May 8th, 1911 in Hazlehurst, MS, Robert Leroy Johnson also went by the name Robert Spencer. He was “an outside child,” something of a misfit, partly but not only because he was born out of wedlock and never knew his biological father. He was his mother’s 11th child, and learned to play music from an older brother named Charles Leroy, who later became a pianist. His first instruments were the diddley bow—a one-string folk instrument made of a length of broom wire stretched between two nails—and the Jew’s harp, an ancient sort of precursor to the harmonica. He then learned the harmonica, a sound which, together with the diddley bow, would come to shape his unique style on guitar.
Music was Robert’s escape from his difficult home life and the oppressive atmosphere of the cotton plantations in Mississippi. As a young man, he lived with his stepfather Dusty Willis in Robinsonville, Mississippi, who tried and failed to teach him a work ethic by making him pick cotton. Robert went briefly to school at the Indian Creek School in Tunica, but a lazy eye probably prevented him from continuing for long. Unhappy and in search of a different life, he ran away from home. He was known to go to juke joints on Saturday nights and drink corn whiskey while listening to the bluesmen play. This musician’s life attracted him and pulled him away from home, and he spent some time traveling and playing in the Delta. But at 18, he fell in love and got married to a local girl, Virginia Travis, who soon afterward died during childbirth in April of 1930. This moment was a crossroads for Robert; a black curtain fell across his life, not only because of his grief in losing his wife and child, but also due to her family’s accusations that he had neglected her at her hour of greatest need. From that point on, Robert would never again stay in one place, but wandered between towns and women, accompanied only by his music and his drinking habit.
Mechanics of Recording II
After 1925, electrical recording replaced acoustic recording, a development that meant sounds could be reproduced in higher quality more easily. In acoustic recording, the sound waves’ ability to carve wax with precision and to reflect the actual range of frequencies in a sound was limited—what was recorded ended up being the softly defined middle of the sound, without the overtones and undertones you can hear in a real voice. Electrical recording adapted some of the technology used in telephones to turn sound waves into electrical signals that were more accurate, giving clarity to the lowest and highest frequencies. Recordings now retained the sound of the room where they were made, microphones being more sensitive to subtle reverberations and echoes than the horns of the acoustic recording days. Once recording was electrified, the clear range of audible expression expanded, but the playback system worked much the same as it had before—a needle retracing the grooves, following, echoing. As overlapping harmonics bring the voice into focus, slowly the absences diminish, the gaps fill in.
The Third Origin Story of Robert Johnson, based on Elijah Wald’s book Escaping the Delta
Born May 8th, 1911, Robert Johnson lived first with his mother, and then a man named Charles Dodds, who was also known as Charles Spencer. Johnson was introduced to music during his childhood, and it eventually drew him away from home; he became a regular juke joint performer either in Arkansas or south of the Delta, and while he was away married a woman named Callie Craft. He had one “bad” eye and a lot of confidence, and would always look sharp regardless of how many days he had spent riding in railcars wearing the same suit. He went traveling with Johnny Shines, another blues player, from Memphis to New York to Indiana to Kentucky in the early ’30s. Shines once witnessed him bring a whole room of adults to tears with the slide guitar on his song “Come On in My Kitchen.”
You better come on in my kitchen It’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors Ah the woman I love, took from my best friend Some joker got lucky, stole her back again You better come on in my kitchen It’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors
Johnson recorded 16 songs in San Antonio, TX, for the American Record Corporation (ARC) in November of 1936, and another 13 in Dallas in June of 1937. Then he spent some time in Arkansas, and might have put together a band with a drummer and a pianist, playing what was later called “jump blues.” By 1938 he was back in the Delta, specifically in Greenwood, MS. He played frequently at a club just outside ofGreenwood, and the owner eventually suspected Johnson of getting involved with his wife. He decided to poison Johnson’s whiskey to get rid of him. Johnson died on August 16th, 1938 at about age 27, either from this poisoning, syphilis, or pneumonia, depending on the account you believe. Some people who claim to have witnessed it remember Johnson losing his wits in his final hours and howling like a dog.
The death certificate, which says that Johnson played banjo instead of guitar and misspells his father’s name, also cites a Greenwood plantation owner’s opinion that Johnson died of syphilis, noting by way of explanation that he was a musician. These inaccuracies in the official record are a final violence to Johnson, on top of the already numerous violences inherent in life for Black people in the early 20th-century Delta. It’s reasonable even to question if this death certificate belongs to the right Johnson, or to another banjo-playing one we know nothing else about.
The devil is a stand-in
There are some blues songs, usually ballads, that have many different versions—the same characters act differently depending on if you hear the version sung by a chain gang in Georgia or an old bluesman in Tennessee. Singers add and take away stanzas and rhymes, start and end the action at different points, collectively weaving together the deeds of an outlaw like Staggerlee or the story of the mean sheriff and Poor Lazarus, figures who billow into myth. The origin stories of Robert Johnson work much in the same way, with overlapping and conflicting details that congregate and disperse, making way for empty spaces and simultaneous truths.
So it is not so much the image of Robert Johnson shaking hands with the devil over his newly tuned guitar that seems to have taken hold in our national imaginary, but the lack of an image, the blankness that stands in its place. The devil story is one we like to tell because it is literally unimaginable. Our inability to visualize the physical materiality of that scene is what allows us to take the Robert Johnson story—the two known photographs of him, his recordings, and the wildly various and conflicting impressions he left on those who met him—and run.
We run in so many directions with that idea—of selling your soul to the devil for musical talent—that we have left Robert Johnson standing at the mythical crossroads, howling out his blues to the wilderness, in either the clearest and most proximate act of selfhood possible, or the loneliest and least traceable.
Mechanics of Recording III
The move from acoustic to electrical recording in the ’20s expanded the range of sound frequencies that could be produced in high quality—expanded the record’s ability to tell the truth. It also eliminated the need for artists to play directly into the recording horn in order for their sound to be registered by the stylus. Before, the choreography of recording many musicians at once was a complex affair, requiring louder instruments to be placed further away from the horn and quieter ones closer, so that the balance was right in the recording. During solos, an instrumentalist would run up to the horn in order to deliver their phrase before retreating back into the group. The push and pull of sound around the horn was physical, dynamic.
With electrical recording, though, the musician sat somewhere in a room and the recording equipment around them could be adjusted to create what a lead researcher with Bell Labs called “the illusion of the presence of the artist.” The recordist could manipulate the electrical signals’ volume, dimension, and clarity to bend the sound waves into the voice, the guitar, the harmonica, that manifest on the record itself. The power of the recordist, dispersed throughout his electrical equipment, could be felt like a puppeteer tugging strings: pulling a riff a little closer to the audience, letting out the slack on a voice, leaning into the overtones or the undertones, shaping, turning, distorting.
The Fourth Origin Story of Robert Johnson, based on the account given in the Radiolab episode “Crossroads”
The origin of the Robert Johnson myth is more important than the origin of the man himself, although they are tied up together. After a time traveling around the Mississippi Delta, in 1929, Robert was married in at age 19 to a woman named Virginia. They settled down to a happy domestic life on their farm. She became pregnant soon afterward, and when the time came for the baby to be born, she went to stay with her family. Robert was to follow after her, but he went out of town to play a gig just before she went into labor, only discovering when he returned that she had died during childbirth. Virginia’s family ostracized him for this, blaming him for killing her by playing the devil’s songs. The grief of this experience is what turned Robert from a mediocre musician into an exceptional one—grief and guilt are what tore him from his life and then pushed him, haunted, back into it. That grief is what people refer to when they tell the devil story—the devil is just another name for death.
Record-keeping and white authority
The government record of Robert Johnson’s death, his official death certificate, is skewed because it relies on the opinion of a white plantation owner rather than taking the accounts of Black musicians who actually witnessed his death. The certificate is probably the most blatant instance of white authority distorting what we can know about him, but it is just one of many examples. The afterlife of his music commits another contortion, proliferating a legacy based in mythology.
Both the myth of Robert Johnson and his music were revived in the later 20th century, supposedly due to the interest of white rock and roll musicians, who were already making their fame on the theft and reappropriation of Black art forms (the blues being prominent among them). It was artists like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones covering Johnson’s songs that brought him into the national consciousness; their romanticization of his tortured-artist soul and young death was another kind of reaping. It is worth noting that they deeply admired Johnson and meant to pay tribute to him, not only exploit his talents and mythic pull. But it is equally worth mentioning that they were ultimately the ones getting paid.
With the white band covers, the white government records, and moreover the many white ethnomusicologists who have populated the blank spaces of Robert Johnson with speculation, some solid research, and rhapsody on the theme of his sold soul—our attempts to see and hear the truth of Johnson are tied up in the violences of white authority. It only feels possible to see beyond this, to stand facing Johnson, by listening to his records. Through the vibrations, the receivers, the diaphragms, the styluses writing grooves into wax, we can summon his voice and guitar out of a speaker, hear him sing:
I got to keep movin’, I got to keep movin’ Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail Hmmm-mmm, blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail And the days keeps on worryin’ me There’s a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail
The 26 songs that we have from Robert Johnson are the products of two recording sessions: one in San Antonio, TX, in November of 1936 and one in Dallas, TX, in July of 1937. In San Antonio, he was one of several acts scouted out by ARC, including a cowboy swing band and two groups of Mexican musicians.
Here are three accounts of what happened in that room. All are equally true.
Johnson had never played in a studio before. The other musicians’ eyes followed his every move. Suffering a bad case of stage fright, he turned away from the microphone toward the corner of the room. He drew a breath and closed his eyes, and began to play, letting his high clear voice rise straight from his chest.
Johnson sat facing the corner, turned away from the other musicians, to hide his patented picking patterns and slide hand. Dressed slick and sharp in a suit like he always was, he gave one glance over his left shoulder at the recording technician, just long enough to see him nod. He played the first chord, coaxing the whine out of it. His gaze rested on his left hand and followed the chords as they changed.
Robert Johnson mostly played in living rooms and crowded juke joints, and he never had an amplifier. He had learned to make the room do the amplifying for him. When he sat down in the studio, he faced the corner so that the sounds of his guitar and his voice would dissipate into the room. Even though his back was to the receiver, his voice sounded like it came from the walls themselves. He screwed up his face in concentration, sliding his hand and his voice together up the octave and back down, holding a wavering note before letting it fall, stomping the floor on two and four.
In October of 2017, I had a phone conversation with a recruiter from Teach for America (TFA) and nearly landed a full-time job. After I answered her questions about my upbringing and current life interests, she assured me that my application would be accepted if I submitted one. “You’d be a great addition for us,” she said. I considered this. I thought about how great it would be to land this job and to know what I would be doing for at least a year after graduation. But then I remembered that it was TFA and decided not to pursue it at all.
My reluctance to work with TFA has been shared by other people before me, but there are also many who believe in the mission and service of the organization. What TFA members are offered for their one- to two-year service at first glance is unclear, but the gist I got from my conversation with the recruiter was that TFA provides a livable, full-time teacher salary dependent on which region you teach in, health insurance, and the opportunity to spearhead a classroom without having a teaching license or any prior teaching experience. The recruiter also promised a strong network of TFA alumni and connections to graduate or professional programs as bait to try and recruit me. This is a good opportunity, especially for young professionals who have just graduated from college. But this tempting offer fails to consider the impact that such an organizational model has on the students at the low-income, underfunded schools that TFA partners with. I think that most newly recruited teachers who just graduated college are more invested in the benefits offered by the organization than the national concern of teacher shortages in urban public schools across the country.
As someone who values education, I am conflicted in my opinion on TFA. On one hand, yes, it provides graduating seniors like me job security for one- to two-years where we are able to gain experience and use TFA as a stepping stone to progress into our careers. On the other hand, no, it does not benefit the low-income, racially segregated student demographics in the schools that TFA works with. I situate myself as both a potential participant of TFA and a former student at one of those schools.
I attended Social Justice High School (SOJO), a small public high school in Chicago, between 2010 and 2014. The school is primarily comprised of Latino/Hispanic and Black/African American students. During my junior year, I overheard my principal in conversation with the school counselor about partnering with Teach for America. She had said, if I remember correctly, “They out they damn minds.” She justified her reluctance to partner with TFA with the fact that in other public schools, the majority of the TFA teachers are white college graduates. This is concerning, because despite obtaining a college degree, many of the TFA teachers are not knowledgeable about the school culture or culturally aware of how to teach the racially and economically diverse student population found in the schools they end up in. Had TFA promised to bring teachers of color to SOJO, I still think my principal would have said no. She firmly stated that the lack of teaching or pedagogical training hindered rather than helped the learning and development of high school students. A combination of these interactions and my relationships with teachers in high school inform the perspective that I have towards TFA. My biggest suspicion of TFA is the distinction between what the organization is, and what it does, compared to what it claims to do.
Teach for America prides itself on being a nonprofit organization that provides a useful service for communities in need. One of TFA’s values is service: It directly addresses the teacher shortages found in many public and charter schools across the country. It asks college graduates, who are presumed to be well-equipped to become teachers, to join in order to gain experience and skills necessary for other jobs. At the same time, their participation in TFA will have a positive impact on students in the schools. Because of this, many college seniors see TFA as a viable option after graduating because they earn a full-time salary, gain experience, and are able to pat themselves on the back for serving communities that need teaching positions filled. Why, then, are people so critical of TFA? Why did I push away the idea of working for them?
TFA only offers temporary employment. To my knowledge, based on interactions with the recruiter and peers who have done TFA, I understand that the most time you can spend with the organization is two years. If you opt in for a second year, you will most likely be placed at a different school than the one you were placed in for your first year. This means that the service you are providing for schools in need of teachers is short-term and fails to address long-term needs. TFA teachers gain meaningful experience and learn how to manage a classroom along the way, but this short-term stint benefits the teacher more than it does the student body. Shouldn’t the learning process and achievement of the students be what’s most important?
I have peers who made the decision to work for TFA, who refused to join or who are currently weighing the benefits and drawbacks of joining the organization. I spoke with some of them in order to gain insight on this matter; my intention was to figure out whether or not they share my concerns about TFA. One of them, who graduated from Brown University, opted into a second year with the organization in the Los Angeles region, and was placed in a different school than he had worked during his first year. As a product of public schools, he initially joined to give back to the school system that had helped him get into college. He shared that despite not being placed in the school that he wanted, he was servicing schools that needed teachers, and that was enough for him. When I asked him why he decided to opt for another year with TFA, his response was simple: job security. However, he does not intend to stay in the field of education after his second year with TFA; instead, he said he’d rather work at a think tank. Another peer who decided to join TFA in the summer of 2018 shared a similar sentiment about the ways that TFA uses “service” to lure college graduates into becoming teachers. But she’s also a firm believer that TFA is a good option for those who intend to remain in the field like she does. “It’s good experience to become better teachers,” she said. Another peer of mine who graduated from Oberlin in 2016 mentioned that he joined TFA not for its mission, but because it allowed him to teach without having to go to school for teaching; it will be at most two years of his life and then he gets to move on. Once again, mandating a short-term commitment benefits the teachers and not the students in the schools.
As part of my independent research, I interviewed young men of color who had attended SOJO at one point in their high school trajectory. In those interviews, I asked them about their interactions with teachers, and many of them talked about teachers who have worked at the school for at least four years. Most of them were able to name at least one teacher from SOJO that taught or mentored them throughout their time in high school. One of the young men praised teachers at SOJO who have been there for a long time: “I wouldn’t have been done with high school without them… they annoyed me, yeah, but they cared for me,” he said. Remember that SOJO did not partner with TFA, instead, all teachers were full-time employees under the Chicago Public School system. Many had prior experience with teaching or student teaching, and because of those experiences, these teachers were able to connect with SOJO students and witness their growth as they progressed through school. For short-term teachers, this experience and interaction with students is not possible.
Teach for America has been successful at recruiting short-term teachers for many public and charter schools across the country. I mean, they almost had me too. The organization will continue to exist and expand, but the reason why I decided not to take an offer from the TFA recruiter came after considering the adverse effects on the students. A friend of mine told me that TFA is transparent about their short-term model, which is a selling point for college graduates because many want to go on to do other things. Why not provide them with an opportunity to get experience, serve as teachers and role models, and then move on with their lives? I get this. But who is this truly benefiting? Certainly not the students. Sure, TFA teachers have positive interactions with the students, but are their students’ academic needs being met? How do you leverage the inexperience of TFA teachers with the fact that many of their students are low-income and/or students of color? Previous research by Pedro Noguera and others has shown that schools of this demographic struggle the most academically—having short-term teacher guidance will not help this matter.
While TFA has made improvements over time, it is still unable to improve the educational inequality brought about by teacher shortages in public schools. Short-term teacher appointments and trainings do not prepare teachers for the classroom, and it is a faulty way of framing ‘service’ for college graduates. TFA must rethink its organizational model to consider privileging the impact on the students of the communities they are trying to serve, instead of the convenience it provides the teachers. Maybe then I would have considered Teach for America after college.