There's Blues In The News

It starts, this strange album, with the mournful plunk of a mail-order guitar set against a backdrop of soft static. Think of rain falling and fish frying. Now consider that this double disc set so totally unsuitable for major radio playlists, costs about twice as much as, say, the new Whitney Houston album. If all that doesn't discourage the average consumer, there's the format, which seems geared for a specialized market--namely, six people who work in the basement of the Smithsonian. One song ends and Take Two of the same song begins; sometimes you can't tell what's going on, precisely, without wading through the 47 pages of liner notes. It would be hard to imagine a more obscure musical enterprise than "Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings," 41 blues cuts set down more than 50 years ago. Yet there it is: the boxed sets piled high at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, where Robert Johnson was the third best seller, behind Paul Simon and George Michael. And, have mercy, there it is again: zooming up the Billboard Top Pop Album chart to No. 104. "Wow, a guy who died in 1938 beating out heavy metal," says Skip Henderson, a vintage-guitar dealer and blues enthusiast from New Brunswick, N.J. "That's scary."

Someone must have their mojo workin' over at Columbia Records. While the company futzed around for years, pondering how to market an artist who accompanied himself with his foot instead of a drum machine, a blues revival slowly spread across America. Veteran players like John Lee Hooker and B. B. King got elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and started playing to jampacked halls. Major labels began reissuing the work of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. New blues clubs opened in New York, L.A. and Chicago's Yuppified North Side. And the time got ripe for Robert Johnson.

Highway 61: "How do I feel about the man?" said the woman who answered the phone at Antone's blues club in Austin, Texas, last week. "Listen, I'm wearing a Robert Johnson T shirt right now." An exquisite hard-cover essay by writer Peter Guralnick, "Searching for Robert Johnson," has been published. Johnson posters are popping up in dens and dorm rooms. And Henderson says he's thinking, half seriously, about selling a Robert Johnson board game to raise money for the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss. Players would try to get out of the South via Highway 61 without landing on Hard Times and having to go back and start over, one mo' time.

This may be silly but it's not really surprising. Johnson is a legend. No one squeezed more feeling out of the basic 12-bar, three-chord form. "To be honest, I can't listen to Robert Johnson except in very short doses," says Lawrence Cohn, the producer of Columbia's "Roots 'n' Blues" series. "There is so much emotion there, I find it disturbing." Johnson's role in pop-music history is unique. He is not a primitive version of anything that came later. He is more like a powerful concentrate which, when diluted, became 35 years of rock and roll. Chuck Berry filched more than a few of Johnson's two-string guitar fills; Bob Dylan still emulates his eerie, pinched-voice wail, the Rolling Stones recorded Johnson's "Love In Vain."

The roots of rap music also reach back to the Texas locales where Johnson recorded these songs in 1936 and '37. Like M. C. Hammer, Johnson employs a vocabulary that goes beyond moon / June / spoon rhymes. "She got a mortgage on my body, now, and a lien on my soul," he sings. Like The 2 Live Crew, though, he often prefers to dabble in the dirty ("You can squeeze my lemon 'til the juice runs down my leg") if not the downright misogynist ("I'm goin' to be at my woman, until I get satisfied"). Not that any of this harms his reputation. Johnson has always been a mythic figure: folks around Clarksdale used to say he sold his soul to the Devil to learn to play the guitar. Since then the myth has only gained momentum, no doubt because he upped and died young. "He had such a lonesome sound," says Big Jack Johnson, a contemporary Clarksdale-based bluesman. "The way he played the guitar couldn't no woman leave him alone." Johnson was 27 when the husband of one of his lady friends poisoned his whisky, a dramatic exit that makes him all the more tantalizing. "It is almost as if Elvis Presley had vanished into the Memphis projects," Guralnick writes, "after recording a handful of sides for Sun." Tourists, many from Europe and Japan, are showing up in Delta towns searching for Johnson's old juke joints and overgrown grave site near Morgan City, Miss. About 800 visitors a month turn up at the Delta Blues Museum, a cramped room above Clarksdale's public library, to look at the rare photos and album jackets.

"Same thing': The sudden popularity of a bluesman like John Lee Hooker is harder to explain. "He's been doing the De thing for 60 years," says club owner Clifford Antone, "and now I look and he's got Bonnie Raitt sitting next to him, he's got agents and managers." Hooker and Raitt's "I'm in the Mood" won a Grammy Award and his 1989 album, "The Healer," has sold almost a half-million copies. Last month he was the subject of a tribute in Madison Square Garden, the high point of the Benson & Hedges Blues festival. Yes, the music of John Lee and Willie (Wang Dang Doodle) Dixon is now considered worthy of corporate sponsorship. Scott Cameron, Dixon's manager, thinks he knows why. "People are discovering," he says, "that the blues isn't just somebody sitting on a stool half drunk crying that his baby left him."

No, as Lee Atwater fans no doubt remember, the blues can just as easily be a Republican National Committee chairman jamming away at a George Bush Inaugural celebration. The most striking thing about the new wave of blues fans is that they are, by and large, white. Partly out of nostalgia for college days spent listening to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, middle-aged whites are flocking to events like the three-day Chicago Blues Festival, which this year drew 650,000 people. A mostly young group of whites is listening to blues programs on college radio stations out of a hunger for something more substantial than today's overproduced rock. When a small Stamford, Conn., record company called Mosaic put a T-Bone Walker collection on sale last month, at $90 a pop, it sold more than 1,000 sets in three weeks. "There's nothing really stimulating now in pop music," says concert promoter George Wein. "The audience wants something more profound, and blues has that. " Singer Deitra Farr says she was shocked last year when she was booked to perform her "lowdown dirty blues" before a group of pro-life activists in suburban Palatine, Ill. As soon as she started wailing, the "totally white" crowd, she says, "just hit the floor."

It's exactly those tales of old-fashioned jumping and jiving that set some black people's teeth on edge. In an interview in Ebony magazine last year, Bill Cosby, whose tastes run toward jazz, said that it was time "to call a moratorium on the blues." His intentions were honorable, but the statement set off an entire festival's worth of moaning and hollering. And now that we have Johnson's Complete Recordings a ban on blues seems even more appalling. "The stuff I got'll bust your brains out, baby, hoo hoo, it'll make you lose your mind," sings Johnson. And as usual the man is telling the absolute truth, squared.