Rolling Stone called him the "undisputed king of the Mississippi Delta blues singers." But they were wrong—at least about the undisputed part. While Robert Johnson's striking body of work has been admired and obsessed over by wide audiences since its first re-release in 1961, the debate among scholars (if not among avid blues fans) over his real influence has become more and more heated.
The Johnson boom began in the 1960s, when music and pop culture were experiencing the early excitement of racial integration. Young white musicians were suddenly idealizing and emulating black musicians—the dominant worlds of rock n' roll and folk all had origins in music pioneered by black artists, especially the blues. For many white people, black culture in the Deep South, the home of the blues, was a distant, "exotic" world, one that they were learning about for the first time. At the same time, white freedom riders were joining black people in the south to fight alongside them against the racist brutality they had long endured.
But the progress made by the civil rights movement was hard-earned and uneasy, and sometimes that idealization went too far and ended up reinforcing racial stereotypes. To its newer audiences, "blues" became a special kind of "black music" with a primal, dark quality that white people could only hope to imitate. Robert Johnson, a genius in his own right, became something more: a symbol of a fascinating, violent, sexual and distant world that was the home of an especially "authentic" kind of music, the Delta blues. As one of Johnson's biographers puts it in the documentary The Search for Robert Johnson, "Of all the figures who beckoned to us from a remote, mysterious, and foreign past—certainly it was a past that was not our own—Robert Johnson stood out, tantalized, really, in a way that no other myth or archetype has ever done." It was impossible to separate the love of his music from the love of his image, and it is difficult to separate his image from a long history of racial segregation.
His image seemed to take on a life of its own. Biographer Peter Guralnick says it this way: "Robert Johnson became the personification of the existential blues singer, unencumbered by corporeality or history, a fiercely incandescent spirit who had escaped the bonds of tradition by the sheer thrust of genius." Kind of a tall order for a man about whom we still know virtually nothing.
Recently, some writers have begun to tackle the issue of the Robert Johnson image head-on. A 2004 book by Elijah Wald argued that "Johnson's primacy was largely a creation of white fans a music critics of the 1960s." Wald studied Johnson's fan base closely, and found that the new blues fans in the '60s wanted to see the blues as a sort of primal folk music at the roots of rock n' roll. He argues that blues was essentially pop music, not folk, and that Johnson had been a minor figure among a slew of struggling professional musicians. Hits that sounded almost exactly like Johnson's had emerged before his time; his influence was a later creation. Wald argues that the Faustian devil legend was of more interest to later white critics than early black listeners, and says that the story only resurged after a 1966 interview with Son House.
When the folksy 1960s crew got a hold of the idea of blues music, they reimagined it as folk music that came out of plantation workers singing in the fields and rambling bluesmen hopping trains from town to town. Largely because so little was known about him, Johnson was a perfect hero for this new vision of the blues. "He lived hard, played like a man possessed and died young -- at around 27 -- in mysterious circumstances," The New York Times recounts. "No wonder he appealed to the Jim Morrison generation."
Some blues historians find this argument appealing because it shows a proper respect for the development of blues music, shifting the history away from focusing on one hero while forgetting countless others of arguably equal talent. And it is true that in Johnson's day blues was a type of popular music sung by professional musicians, not a "rootsy" folk music. ''There are problems with the idea of the blues as a roots music,'' one researcher told the Times. ''Because if so, then rock 'n' roll is the flower…Blues is a music in and of itself.'' In the pantheon of professional blues singers of his own time, Robert Johnson was a striving minor star.
There are also problems with Wald's version of history. It may be true that white hippies idealized or "invented" the folksy rambling bluesman in their own minds. But Muddy Waters, a mainstream figure in his own right, was among many blues stars who really did grow up working and singing on plantations before making it big in Chicago. And countless other Delta blues singers actually traveled by freight trains and lived hard lives—quite simply because black people had little access to money, transportation, doctors or protection from violence in the deep south at that time. They may have aspired to fame and wealth, just like Robert Johnson did. But most of them did not "make it." The fact that Johnson was not a big figure in his time cannot be a complete argument against his genius or significance.
Whether or not Johnson's story is a creation of the popular imagination, in the pantheon of mythological cultural figures, Robert Johnson is a guiding light, and remains the king of the Delta blues singers. And unlike historians, big fans of blues music are generally not jumping all over the chance to diminish Johnson's importance, though they may be guilty of over-hyping the paranormal parts of his biography. Historians have the responsibility to seek the "truth" in Johnson's biography, but for fans and theorists the story can still be a choose-your-own-adventure and an unsolved mystery. If all of us were responsible for getting to the bottom of things, we wouldn't have nearly as many great stories to tell, and "Cross Road Blues" probably wouldn't be a song about the devil anymore, and what fun would that be? (If you lean towards the historians and want to pull apart how all of Johnson's stories and identities have been created and recreated in popular culture, check out this great book, Robert Johnson, Mythmaking and Contemporary American Culture, by Patricia Schroeder.)