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Old situations need old medicines

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OKLAHOMA CITY – “Life is a mystery. Everyone must stand alone …” – Madonna, “Like a Prayer.”

While reading David Lynch’s new autobiography (co-written by Kristine McKenna) Room to Dream (reviewed here), I was fascinated with Lynch’s interest in Alan Greenberg’s 80’s-era screenplay Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson.

Outside of, perhaps, the seemingly-cursed A Confederacy of Dunces film script that never gets made into a movie, Love In Vain “is the greatest film never made” (according to Greenberg himself) and Lynch has said that while he has been interested in making Love In Vain into a film about the Mississippi Delta blues legend and his final years and days, “a number of things would have to fall in place before that would occur.” (according to a 2013 Miami New Times interview – a few years before Lynch was lured back into the surreal world of Twin Peaks).

What those “things” are remains to be seen. It is simply another mystery in the world of David Lynch. And while he may never make the film does not mean another director could make a film about a mysterious figure whose life was cut short at age 27 under equally mysterious circumstances. His death, in fact, took place on August 16, 1938 – exactly 80 years ago today! (And exactly 39 years before the death of the "King of Rock n' Roll - Elvis Presley" - August 16th is a powerful music-related date, as we shall see).

Johnson’s life, death – and the legend of him selling his soul to the devil in exchange for immense musical talent – has captured the imagination and interest of countless people over the years, particularly musicians like Eric Clapton, members of the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and many others. Blues musician Elmore James – who would be later discovered and emulated by Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones – would be the performer who brought Johnson's “Cross Road Blues” to a wider audience in the 1950’s and early 1960’s.

But it would be a version by Eric Clapton that captures the essence of Johnson’s pain and yearning in his song “Crossroads” (based on Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues”) in the 1968 Cream song of the same name (on the Wheels of Fire album). Clapton – like Johnson before - asks the Lord for “mercy” as he is “sinking down” in misery. A condition understood on a universal level.

And to think, this man – one of the first inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – only recorded 29 songs – would pass into history as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, especially considering his early history, where his musical talents were marginal, at best. At least early on. But after vanishing for a matter of months, Robert Johnson would return to his Delta home having become exceedingly talented as a guitar player and a song writer.

In the film Crossroads, from 1986, aspiring blues guitarist Eugene Martone (Ralph Macchio) accompanies elderly bluesman Willie Brown (Joe Seneca) from New York to Mississippi where Willie made a deal with the Devil - like his friend Robert Johnson - so many years earlier. But Eugene (aka "Lightning") agrees to a guitar duel with the Devil's guitar player Jack Butler (Steve Vai) - and if Eugene wins, Willie gets his soul back - with a little help from some mojo. Interestingly enough, while researching this piece I tidied up a chapter on the 60's band The Rising Sons, featuring a young Ry Cooder, whose blues guitar playing is featured in Crossroads.

Greenberg, a filmmaker who worked with Werner Herzog in the 1970’s, became fascinated with Robert Johnson’s story – what little of it remained – and did his best to interview still-living folks in and around the towns of Greenwood, Rosedale, Clarksdale and Friars Point in Mississippi trying to learn what he could about Johnson and the lives of African-Americans living and working in the cotton fields and small, backward towns of a racist, Jim Crow, American South. Folks just trying to get by, and enjoying life the best they can.

As I noted in my recent Dust Devil Dreams post “Rolltop desk,” I highlight the Coen Brothers' 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the scenes involving blues musician Tommy Johnson, as played by musician/actor Chris Thomas King, and how the film highlights Tommy selling his soul to the Devil (“He’s white. As white as you folks. With empty eyes and a big hollow voice …” Tommy says, describing the Devil) and the powerful presence of a “certain secret society” – the Ku Klux Klan – which is shown for what it is. Fortunately, Tommy is saved from a lynching just in the nick of time, by his white comrades, Everett, Delmar and Pete.

I think this era - 1930's-40's - is resonating because of the rampant racism that existed at that time in American society, and the specter of Fascism and Nazism spreading in Europe and infecting other parts of the world. And yet American blues was growing in influence. Hard times can bring out amazing art. Still, we are entering a dark time in American history. Kind of like what we are witnessing spread like a cancer under Trumpism, nativism and tribalism. It's getting ugly out there, gang.

And Greenberg does a remarkable job capturing the mood of the Delta in Johnson’s time. Full of interesting characters, it is on page 41, shortly after Johnson meets with a conjuror, where he is given a mojo charm to wear on his ankle, saying: “Old situations need old medicines. Like the song says, ‘Don’t you worry.’ Put you’ hands up like so an’ she be crawlin’ back ‘fore you say ‘Lemon Jefferson.’ Mmm. Right. Need a mojo. A ‘John Concubine’”...

Shortly thereafter, Greenberg paints a picture - Robert Johnson is drinking whiskey on a street corner and examing his new mojo. Johnson loves going to the movies and is said to enjoy Clark Gable pictures. When he notices The Painted Desert playing at a “colored” movie theater, he goes into the “primitive movie house” and is met by the “Devilman” (aka “Dutch Boy”) who tells Johnson to meet him down Charlie’s Trace – the “crossroads” – just around midnight and he will tune his guitar and play it, before giving it back to Johnson.

And the Devilman – like the shades-wearing sheriff in O Brother, Where Art Thou? – removes his shades in the theater to reveal “two blind eyes, white with cataracts” as Johnson “sinks into a dream.”

Later, close to midnight, we find Robert Johnson “(a)t a barren, lightless crossroads” where he is “picking his guitar nervously, his strings out of tune.”

The Devilman appears, wearing an "old, souvenir Confederate army cap" which reads "FORGET? HELL!" He takes Johnson's guitar, tunes it, turns and plays an astounding guitar part thgat sounds and resounds like an electric guitar." Johnson is stunned. And when the Devilman says he doesn't have two nickels to rub together, Johnson flips him a dime and "(t)he devilman picks it up, tips his hat, then stumbles off into the night." 

And that's when Robert Johnson's destiny is forever changed. Yes, he will become a blues music troubadour - better than Son House or Charley Patton or even Blind Lemon Jefferson - but he will pay a big price for his Faustian bargain, made there amidst the cotton fields at the crossroads of Charlie's Trace, right around midnight. 

"In the midnight hour, I can feel your power" ("Like a Prayer" by Madonna, who turns 60 today! In this Instagram image, Madonna calls herself "The Queen" in Arabic, the same day we learn that the "Queen of Soul," Aretha Franklin, has died at age 76.)

Greenberg keeps the reader glued to each and every page of his Love In Vain story. The successful recording sessions in Texas. The personal losses of the women in his life and the decisions he makes and the mistakes that come along the way. The violence. The ecstacy. Life as he knew it. And the songs he wrote that reflected those experiences.

At one point, later in the story, at a jook joint, Johnson says, "Y'know it say in the Bible that man come somewhere east of Eden under God all the same, through love an' pain and good an' evil consequence lie a ship on the sea, to live an' let live ...

You sense Johnson's resignation. And yet he wants to understand. Interesting that he mentions that bit from the Book of Genesis about folks "east of Eden," a phrase that I have been hearing a helluva lot lately. My recent "Dust in the wind" Dust Devil Dreams post makes note of the phrase. And a friend, down the street, made a point of telling me he is currently reading John Steinbeck's East of Eden because he was looking for something "weighty" to read. Yes, the sync is strong.

And sync plays strongly in my research into rock and its origins. My upcoming book, Rock Catapult, focuses on the rock music of 1966 and Robert Johnson's influence is felt that year as it is to this very day. That decision to go to the crossroads over eight decades ago on a humid Delta midnight was a decision that certainly had a direct impact on me, if it indeed did happen as the legend claims. And regardless, it's a compelling story.

As the Open Culture post on Robert Johnson's legend notes: "legendary or not—his evocation of devilish deals in "Me and the Devil Blues" and gritty, emotional account of self-destruction in "Crossroads" may on their own add sufficient weight to that far-reaching idea: "No Robert Johnson, No Rock and Roll."

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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