Confab Looks To Explain Myth Of Bluesman Robert Johnson

Influential bluesman was subject of a conference/concert series sponsored in part by the Rock Hall of Fame.

He may not have eluded the hellhounds on his trail that he sang about in

the 1930s, but bluesman Robert Johnson -- though dead now more than 60

years -- still manages to elude the grasp of those who, to this day,

pursue an understanding of his talent and why it was so influential.

That it was influential is a point of near-universal agreement.

Legendary rockers Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones are but two of the

myriad artists who have absorbed Johnson's sound and spread it

throughout the rock mainstream.

But even 500 scholars, gathered in Cleveland last weekend for a Rock and

Roll Hall of Fame conference and concert series devoted to Johnson (who

was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986), came up short of conclusive

answers as to what it was about Johnson's music that made it resonate so

deeply.

"There's something deeper in Johnson's music, something in the lyrics

that you can hear echoing around in Bob Dylan's Highway 61

Revisited or in [hip-hop artists] Eric B. and Rakim's raps. The

conference didn't really touch on that," said audience member Craig

Werner, author of "A Change Is Gonna Come: Black Music and the Soul of

America" (to be released early next year), who sat through some of the

speeches held over the weekend.

What the conference, titled "Hellhound on My Trail: Robert Johnson and

the Blues," didn't touch on in words, however, it communicated in

abundance through music. The Allman Brothers, Joe Louis Walker, Jimmie

Vaughan and former Grateful Dead guitarist/singer Bob Weir were just a

few of the artists who gave life to the spirit of Johnson in three

concerts over the weekend.

The conference, sponsored by the Hall of Fame's education department in

conjunction with Case Western Reserve University, was intended as both a

celebration of Johnson's music and an opportunity to discuss it in a

serious, but non-academic, setting. The conference was the third

installment of the Hall of Fame's "American Music Masters" series.

Johnson, who recorded 29 blues sides in 1936 and 1937, including the

seminal songs "Hellhound on My Trail" (RealAudio excerpt), "Crossroads

Blues" and "Love in Vain" (RealAudio excerpt), has become an icon to

blues and rock players alike.

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

recalled that the skinny Mississippi boy 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 arose a famous

legend, passed down through the ranks of musicians and historians, that

Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for the power of the

blues.

For author Peter Guralnick, the keynote speaker at the conference part

of the event, held Saturday, the Devil myth merely illustrates just how

remarkable Johnson's music is. "To say he sold his soul to the Devil is

to pay him the highest compliment possible," Guralnick said. "We're

asking, 'What does he have that I don't?'"

Writers, educators and recording-industry professionals spent the day

discussing and debating Johnson's work and impact. Some demonstrated how

he appropriated other musicians' licks, while others simply reminded the

audiences that other guitar players, such as Son House and Charlie

Patton, are at least as important to blues history.

For their part, the 20-plus artists who performed at the weekend's three

concerts seemed happy to simply play in Johnson's honor, rather than

debate the deeper meaning of his impact.

A concert, held at Cuyahoga Community College last Thursday, was a

tribute to Robert Lockwood Jr., Johnson's stepson and a minor blues

legend in his own right. The evening included performances from bluesmen

Henry Townsend and David 'Honeyboy' Edwards -- both of whom performed

with Johnson in the 1930s -- as well as younger players such as Rory

Block and Alvin Youngblood Hart.

Saturday's performance at the Odeon nightclub featured the weekend's

widest variety of music, from G. Love and Special Sauce's hip-hop blues,

to Govt. Mule's mix of heavy southern rock and soul, to a fiery set of

Chicago blues from Oakland guitarist Joe Louis Walker and Windy City

harp player Billy Branch. Fleetwood Mac co-founder and Hall of Fame

inductee Peter Green, whose psychological problems took him away from

the stage for much of the 1970s and 1980s, played delicate versions of

Johnson classics.

The evening also featured the weekend's biggest surprise, with

ex-Grateful Dead guitarist/singer Weir coming out in the concert's fifth

hour for a jam on Johnson's "Walking Blues" and Jimmy Reed's "Big Boss

Man." Weir never really looked or sounded comfortable playing straight

blues, but the crowd was clearly thrilled at his presence.

Sunday night's concert was billed as the weekend's high point, and it

certainly featured the biggest names. Lockwood opened the show, followed

by jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. Jimmie Vaughan laid down some Texas

bar-band blues, while Keb' Mo offered an updated version of Johnson's

own Delta sound. Former Jefferson Airplane guitar great Jorma Kaukonen

played two acoustic numbers; Weir unveiled a new composition with former

Dead lyricist Rob Wasserman and also played the Dead's "Victim or the

Crime."

The evening ended with an hour-long set by Southern-rockers the Allman

Brothers Band, who began with a half-dozen acoustic numbers before

tearing into blistering versions of their classics, culminating in a

lengthy jam on their hit version of Sonny Boy Williamson's "One Way

Out." The Allmans were joined by Kaukonen and Weir, ending the evening

with members of three Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees onstage.

The Allmans' long set, along with the sizable audience of Deadheads

excited to see one of their heroes, perhaps took the focus off Johnson,

leaving concert-goers with some great music but -- again -- little sense

of his particular legacy.

For Peter Green, though, Johnson's appeal is both simpler and more

complex than any critical analysis can reveal. "It's the reality of it,

isn't it?," Green asked. "It's just so real. People will be listening to

it in a thousand years."