In the mid-1930s, Robert Johnson transformed himself very quickly from an ‘embarrassingly bad guitarist’ (not my words, the words of the great Son House) into one of the most important blues musicians of all time, and the King of the Delta Blues style that underpinned much of what followed in popular music.
As the now often recounted tale goes, he was alleged to have sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads near a plantation in Mississippi in exchange for the ability to master the six string weapon he was attempting to use to tell his stories of love, loss and hoodoo. The Devil apparently took his guitar from him, tuned it, played a couple of numbers (I don’t know which ones, but I’d certainly love to find out) and handed it back to him. Johnson was transformed into a mesmerising, complex guitarist, who was suddenly not only adept within Blues, but also other related genres too. My favourite Johnson moment is undoubtedly the ragtime-influenced ‘They’re Red Hot’, which arguably isn’t even Blues at all.
The veracity of this tale is clearly up for debate. The more time passes, the more sceptical we become, and this sort of Faustian tale isn’t going to wash with the majority of right-thinking people in 2011.
But, to question the veracity of the story is to miss the point.
Throughout the history of popular music, the best artists have built a world and a myth around them and resided within it. They’ll construct a series of tales that add to their legend and blur the lines between fiction and reality. When Bowie transformed himself into the androgynous Ziggy Stardust, it was not enough to dress like him and sing songs about him. He had to believe there was only Five Years until the end of the world, he had to become him. Johnson’s tall tales were simply an extension of his myth, which he propagated further with his songs ‘Me and the Devil’ and ‘Hellhound on my Trail’. The music may have been primitive, but he knew the value of a good story.
C.W. Stoneking is a character. No-one can live in the manner that he apparently lives; taking sloops to Africa, being washed up in shipwrecks and owning the last Dodo in existence. But he means it. He lives it, and because he lives it, we believe it. To see Stoneking live is to take a time-machine back 75 years as he stops to tell us about his time as a Hoodoo Doctor’s assistant, before breaking into another song with his Primitive Horn Orchestra.
To listen to Stoneking on record is to be transfixed to the point of hypnosis for 40 minutes as he gallivants around the Deep South, administering potions to would-be sweethearts after escaping 25 years hard labour (the sentence sent down by a ‘monkey in an old wicker chair’, naturally) in sub-Saharan Africa where he was washed up in a shipwreck. Meanwhile, he pays homage to General Douglas MacArthur and his sterling efforts in the Pacific in World War II.
As an aside, the reason the homage to MacArthur, emotively titled ‘Brave Son of America’, is such an important song on his Jungle Blues record is because it adds context. To reference a prominent figure in history within the era you’re trying to resurrect is a smart move, it covers the entire set of stories with a varnish of authenticity.
The song I’ve chosen to accompany this post, the yodelling ‘Talkin’ Lion Blues’, isn’t necessarily his strongest work on his second record Jungle Blues (out on King Hokum), but it perfectly encapsulates the importance of building a myth as an artist. Our protagonist starts off as a gold miner, has a brief tête-á-tête with a talking lion, and, well, I’ll leave the rest to Mr Stoneking. He’s a much better storyteller than me.