Rock Hall To Pay Tribute To Blues Legend Robert Johnson

Upcoming 'American Music Masters Series' honoring fabled musical figure includes films, performances, lectures.

As legend has it, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, who gave him

the power of the blues in return.

Apparently, it was a deal that worked out well for the music legend. Sixty

years after the fabled bluesman's death, they'll be playing his music and

talking about his life at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"Hellhound on My Trail: Robert Johnson and the Blues" runs Thursday

through Sunday in Cleveland, with a series of performances, films and

lectures culminating in a conference at that city's Case Western Reserve

University

on Saturday. The event is the third installment of the Hall's annual

"American Music

Masters Series."

"We wanted to do a blues artist, and when you think of the blues and its

impact on rock 'n' roll and American culture, you think of Robert Johnson,"

said Robert Santelli, the Hall's director of education and the executive

producer of the "American Music Masters Series."

Johnson lived only 37 years and recorded only 29 songs, but few other

figures have had such a dramatic impact on popular music. From Chicago

bluesmen

Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf to British rockers such as Eric Clapton

and the Rolling Stones, musicians have been influenced by Johnson songs

such as

"Crossroads" and "Love in Vain." His influence can be heard today in

artists as disparate as R&B jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, country bluesman

Chris Whitley, acoustic funk artists G. Love & Special Sauce and even

rappers Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.

The "American Music Masters Series," which has previously paid tribute to

folk singer

Woody Guthrie and country musician Jimmie Rodgers, is held to honor one of

the Hall of Fame's "Early Influence" inductees. Johnson was elected in

1986, the Hall's inaugural year, along with Rodgers and rhythm & blues

singer Jimmy Yancey.

The conference will feature writers and historians, including Peter

Guralnick, author of "Searching for Robert Johnson," and Robert Gordon,

author of "It Came From Memphis," a look at that city's unheralded

musicians. Three concerts -- held Thursday, Saturday and Sunday -- feature

lineups that illustrate the extent of Johnson's influence: blues elders

Robert Lockwood Jr. (Johnson's stepson) and Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards, the

Allman Brothers, G. Love, Whitley, Wilson, Keb' Mo', former Grateful

Dead guitarist Bob Weir and Dead affiliate Rob Wasserman.

After two consecutive years focusing on white artists, Santelli said the

Hall also made a conscious effort to select a black performer.

"Our basic definition of rock 'n' roll is black and white music coming

together, and black and white culture coming together," he said. "Next, we

need to make sure we select a woman."

Guralnick said that Johnson's importance stems from the fact that, though

he worked within a musical tradition, he created a unique body of work

that's unequivocally his own. When pressed for an explanation for Johnson's

unique art, Guralnick said, "you can never explain genius."

Writers and musicians have been trying to explain Johnson's genius since

Columbia Records released King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 1 in

1961.

The album brought Johnson to the attention of young rock artists, from

folk-rock legend Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones and Keith

Richards.

The details of Johnson's life were sketchy, but his contemporaries recalled

that the skinny Mississippi kid who couldn't play a lick vanished for a few

years then returned with a singing- and guitar-playing style that blew

everyone else away. Thus rose the legend, repeated from blues greats such

as Son House through rock critics, including (Addicted To Noise

columnist) Greil Marcus, that Johnson had sold his soul to the devil.

"That mythology is wholly irrelevant," Guralnick said. "It makes him more

attractive to a certain audience, a mainstream audience."

Ed Komara, director of the blues archives at the University of Mississippi

in Oxford, Miss., agreed, saying it's a shame that the myth has overtaken

discussion of Johnson's musical contributions. "What you hear Johnson doing

on records took him eight to 10 years of hard practice. But he makes it sound

so simple. It really is amazing that he had enough practice and dexterity

and talent to pull these things off."

Komara has worked recently to help decipher some of the technical mysteries

of Johnson's music, comparing his songs with the work of earlier singers to

show that Johnson was more derivative than he's often portrayed. He doesn't

feel that his comparisons detract from Johnson's genius, though, he said.

"He was a very self-disciplined and skillful musician," Komara said. "He

had a way to match lyrics to a melody that would render it indelible.

'Hellhound On My Trail' sounds kind-of dopey when you read it, but

Johnson's singing burns it into your memory."

The circumstances surrounding Johnson's death were as mysterious as the

way

he learned to play the guitar. Depending on whom you believe, the story went

that Johnson was poisoned by a jealous husband or girlfriend; some

recollections had him on all fours, barking like a dog before he died. For

his part, Komara said he agreed with an account by the Mississippi Bureau

of Vital Statistics, which quotes a plantation owner who said Johnson

probably died of syphilis, likely contracted at conception from one of his

parents.

Santelli said the conference will explore every aspect of Johnson's life in

detail. "Myth is very important to the history of rock 'n' roll, and to

deny the importance of myth is wrong," he said. "Still, we hope to

delineate between myth and reality."