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Town & Gown

Down at the Discotheque

by Gillian Pasley | Town & Gown | Fall 2018

Images from the Fall 2018 issue

Forty years in ’Sco history.


Forty years and hundreds of thousands of wristbands later, it’s remarkable that at first glance the “Dionysus Disco” still looks like an empty room. If you don’t believe me, enter through the double doors early in the evening, before anyone arrives. Hand Shirley your ID, walk across the hardwood floor past the rust-colored pillars and blue high-top tables pushed against the wall, to the bar facing the slightly elevated stage. When the room is empty, nothing about the space asserts its storied history—it’s a blank slate. The ’Sco is humble, perhaps to its detriment. Yet there is a certain magic about the space, for those who’ve known it well—a sense of a chaos and catharsis in its history of late nights and tall tales. There are ghosts in the ’Sco, ghosts that linger onstage and on the floor long after the house lights go up at one o’clock and “Mama ’Sco” yells for everyone to get the hell off the ramp. The stories are in the air there—when you start to see them, it begins to look a bit less like an empty room and a bit more like a vibrant collection of reconstructed memories, gathered over years and years of dancing and drinking and listening. As a booker, I have my own ghosts, my own stories—but the ’Sco has meant something different to each and every person who has worked, danced, or played there. Its legacy is built from all those discrete memories and meanings, some true, some untrue, all largely unverifiable. It’s impossible, then, to construct a “true” history of a place that is so based on individual experience, selective and transformed memory. A linear history is hazy at best. But there are so many stories.

“It will be a place for the people who want to dance,” said Clark Drummond, former Associate Dean of Students to the Oberlin Review. It was September of 1978 and disco fever had hit Oberlin. Drummond noted an instance during the previous academic year when “the music was turned up in the lobby of Wilder [and] everyone started dancing.” So in the fall semester of ’78, a disco opened in the basement of Wilder Hall, forcing a beloved game room to move to Hales. In typical Oberlin fashion, many were unhappy with the move. “These people are behaving like feudal lords ruling their own private fiefs,” wrote a student in the Review. “This new ‘disco’ will be open only three hours a night for several days a week, and the game room is to be ejected to Hales Gym—where is that?” And although it sounds silly in hindsight, the frustrations of these game-lovers make a certain amount of sense. There was no budget, no beer, no real plan to speak of. Nothing but a hardwood floor, some speakers, and the idea of dancing.

It’s hard to imagine the ’Sco as it was—no live shows, no bar. “It was basically just one big empty room,” said Gareth Fenley ’83, who arrived on campus in 1979 to word of the new “disco.” But the student DJs played their music and sure enough, the room became the place for those who wanted to dance. “During that period, it was a dance club, not a music venue,” said Josh Rubin ’85. Jeff Hagan ’86, who worked at the ’Sco from 1983–1986, remembers that “we opened at 10:00 PM and closed at 1:00 AM and in those three hours you had such a cross-section of Oberlin… At about a minute after ten, someone would come over after just studying for hours at Mudd, dance by herself for 40 minutes, and then leave when everyone else arrived. It felt like one of the few places most of the campus came to.” The ’Sco was a place to meet, to hang out with friends in a time when texting was not an option. “The only way you could leave a message for your friend was to write a note and tape it to their mailbox,” explained Chris Baymiller, who worked for 32 years as the Associate Director of the Student Union. “So people would come by, and it would say ‘meet me in the ’Sco tonight.’” Although it was mostly a space for socializing, there were some live concerts in the space during these days, but they were infrequent and mostly Oberlin bands or local acts. There was no money to pay for artists or sound, and people seemed happy enough just dancing. Programming was “just basically DJs,” said Shirley. Shirley has worked at the ’Sco for 33 years. “Fridays and Saturdays we used to have security here, because we’d have lines out the back door,” she remembered.

To make matters even more unfamiliar, Oberlin was technically a “dry” town at the time. The only alcohol that could be sold was “3.2 beer,” which was, of course, only 3.2% alcoholic. The Rathskeller offered beer for students to purchase, but Chris Baymiller saw an opportunity. “We had this keg that was being run by food service,” he explained. “It was pathetic. I kept saying, ‘you guys have gotta do something more than have this friggin’ keg here.’” He urged Dining Services to do more with the 3.2 beer operation, but “they said [they] can’t make money. Who can’t make money on a bar? Come on. So it was like, give it to me, I’ll take it over.” When the town finally began to allow alcohol sales, the ’Sco was quick to meet the demand. “We started getting microbrew beers and everything,” said Baymiller. “The place exploded.”

In many ways, Chris Baymiller was the catalyst in the ’Sco’s transformation into the storied music venue it is today. In the beginning, he says, things were sparse. They needed to build an empire. “We had no money,” he laughed. “We had no sound, we had nothing.” The trick, then, was in the budgeting. “It did help that I was in charge of the budgets,” he confessed. “Within a number of years, we kept pumping up our own budget.” It wasn’t overnight, but a transformation occurred. Eventually they were buying $60,000 sound boards for Concert Sound. “We had systems that were second to none.” Thus ’Sco’s reputation as a venue began to kick off, as Baymiller and his team of student bookers worked to bring national touring acts to the big room in the basement.

We take this for granted now. Concerts are just a part of what the ’Sco is. Sometimes people come, sometimes people don’t. But at the time, what they were doing was somewhat revolutionary. While touring bands would sometimes set up in dining halls or town bars at other schools to play shows, Oberlin was the first to establish what was essentially a student-run nightclub and music venue on campus. “What was cool about it was not only were you the booker, other students that reported to me were doing the sound… That was so unique, nationwide,” Baymiller explained. “There was no college putting on shows like we were doing… It was an all in-house production. It was a great learning experience.” As a current ’Sco booker, I can attest to the magic of pulling off a show—some of my shows have led to my most treasured Oberlin memories. Last November, for instance, I brought Jonathan Richman, my all-time favorite songwriter, who played to a packed house before finding his van had been towed—at which point I had to drive my musical hero to a junkyard in Elyria, where we became actual friends. It’s moments like that that I feel myself mythologizing, even one year out—so one can only imagine how much reminiscing goes on after decades.

These sorts of beloved memories are especially important for ’Sco genealogy—regardless of their factual accuracy. Chip Vhite, a former booker, relayed one such memory, recalling that “the ’Sco was the first place outside of New England that Phish played. This was back in ’89 or ’90 or so. I was on Concert Board at the time, and Phish sent us this janky homemade press kit with a cassette, photo, and one-page write-up of the band. We listened to it, decided they sounded quirky and interesting, and I called up their manager, whose first response was ‘Wow, the mailing worked!’” Of course, if you consult the well-kept archives of die-hard Phish fans, you’ll find that Oberlin was not anywhere close to the first place Phish played outside of New England. But in a way, I don’t think that matters. This story, this memory, this individual or collective idea is part of the ’Sco’s constructed history. If the space is built from memories, it doesn’t necessarily make a difference if the memories are entirely accurate. What is remembered becomes true, becomes legacy. That’s how ’Sco history works.

At its height in the ’90s and ’00s, the ’Sco was hosting upwards of 60 shows per year. Bands like Guided By Voices and The Black Keys packed the house—as an advisor to SUPC, Baymiller liked to encourage bookers to “pull the trigger on [booking] a big band.” But the bookers were also willing to take risks on unestablished artists with promise. “We were able to get really early hip-hop shows, with Common and Mos Def,” said Baymiller. “Other colleges didn’t want them.” As humble as it may appear, the ‘Sco has traditionally been on the cutting edge in terms of booking—for many alumni, the shows they stumbled into might well be the shows they brag about to this day. Shows that became legendary for their importance in hindsight were often not wildly out of the ordinary in the moment. Acts that could now play for thousands were not always easily recognized. When Blink-182 played in 1997, the same week they hit MTV, the “room wasn’t even full,” said Shirley. “People hadn’t heard of them. They’re all over MTV but nobody had heard of them.” Sleater-Kinney, with a little-known band called The White Stripes opening, were famously turned away from a party after their show in 2000, because the house was “too full—as if there were a legal capacity to which they were adhering and only so many rubbery vegan hot dogs and red Solo cups to go around,” Carrie Brownstein wrote in her 2015 memoir. And when Kendrick Lamar played the ’Sco in 2011 before he released his first album, the Review reported that “Kendrick may not have been ready for Oberlin. Sure, he’s worthy of praise, but at this early stage, I think it’s too hard to tell just how much.” Knowing what we know now, I would be willing to bet that the Review reporter might tell that story a bit differently in hindsight.

For a venue with such poorly kept official records, it’s remarkable how every ’Sco patron retains their own version of events, their own ’Sco mythos and favorite, or “top five” favorite shows. And for some, those memories mark life-changing moments. Ashley Roberts ’10 recalls seeing Cat Power at the ’Sco when she visiting as a prospective student—“she had everyone in the ’Sco sit around her in a circle, cross-legged like children, because it made her feel less anxious,” she recounted. She fussed over the lighting, the tuning of her instrument, implored audience members to bring her a beer, which they did. And then she gave this incredible performance, with all of us rooting her on. After that day I remember saying to [my friend who hosted me] ‘you found our people!’ and to the person at admissions that interviewed me later on ‘I found my people!’”

This is what ’Sco history is made of—not a list of shows, not a rise or a fall, but moments like these. A true chronology of the ’Sco cannot exist, because each student, each DJ, each bartender, each booker knows it differently. A show that someone left to smoke on the ramp or go to a party changed someone else’s life. And therein lies the magic. An archive couldn’t do that justice.

The “Disco” began in 1978 as many Oberlin institutions do, in a strategic move from the administration to meet some perceived student need. In this case, the Associate Dean thought that the students needed a place to dance. And dance they did. Over the years, the ’Sco has strived to meet the needs of the students at that time, but I think it’s important to note how much those needs have evolved. For instance, the ’Sco of the ’80s, complete with student DJs playing their favorite records every night and kegs of 3.2 beer, would simply not be viable today—the needs of students are just not the same. Less inclined to stop by to just dance to a student’s playlist on the way back from the library, today’s students are much more committed to creative programming, so the ’Sco tries to evolve with its patrons. With each new cohort of students, each new generation, the ’Sco is reconstructed, and takes on a new meaning. For the most part, students today don’t have any sense of the groundbreaking history of the ’Sco, we don’t have pride in the legacy we’re contributing to, and in some ways, perhaps that’s a shame. This room, this ugly, magic room and all that it stands for and has stood for, exists largely in the memories of the individuals who’ve been here through the years. So while those memories are treasured by many, they often fade from common ’Sco knowledge once a couple of years pass, and are relegated to alumni get-togethers and unintentionally kept far from current students. But on the other hand, there’s something so wonderful about a place that exists only in memories, that is defined only by the people who frequent the room. “I enjoy my job here, I enjoy working with you all because you are fascinating,” said Shirley. “You are some of the most fascinating people on the planet.” Ultimately, it’s these fascinating people who write their own ’Sco histories. The room empties out at the end of the night and is swept and mopped and born anew, ready to take on a new meaning.

So what is the ’Sco, really? It’s a bar, it’s a music venue, it’s a dance hall, it’s a big empty room in the basement of Wilder. These things are all true. But more than any of that, I think that the ’Sco is a collection of stories—and over the past 40 years, there have been a lot of them. But as long as someone’s remembering that time in the mosh pit, that one time at Splitchers, that great show freshman year, that time their world turned upside down and everything felt right, or wrong, or something—the space is alive, and learning, and growing. The stories are in the air there—in the corners, at the bar, on the stage. Try to see them, next time. They fill the room. 

Categories
Field Notes

Like An Echo, Like A Lie

by Olivia Pandolfi | Field Notes | Spring 2018

Image by Francesca Ott

The reverberations of Robert Johnson.


Prelude

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.

Images by Naomi Langer

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

***

Postlude 

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.