Sunday, September 29, 2019

A Robert Johnson obituary

The New York Times has added an obituary for Robert Johnson to its Overlooked series, which recognizes people whose deaths went unremarked in the newspaper.

The problems with this obit begin at the beginning: “Johnson gained little notice in his life, but his songs — quoted by the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin — helped ignite rock ’n’ roll.” Well, no. Rock ’n’ roll, as a 1950s phenomenon, owes little or nothing to Robert Johnson. And the musicians mentioned didn’t “quote” Johnson; they performed his songs or created their own near-versions of his songs (as the obituary goes on to acknowledge). Another odd point: Johnson didn’t play walking basslines, as the obit claims; he played (sometimes) with a boogie or shuffle in the bass. His borrowings via the phonograph from other blues musicians in widely divergent styles go unremarked. And there’s no mention of the 1938 From Spirituals to Swing Carnegie Hall concert that might have brought Johnson broad recognition had he not died earlier that year. The concert was produced by John Hammond, who would later reissue Johnson’s recordings on LP (as the obituary notes).

I could probably go on.

[I suspect that the writer of this obit was not familiar enough with the subject to get things right. For instance: the Times article that he cites about Johnson’s purported walking bass makes no reference to walking basslines. Instead it refers (accurately) to boogie bass.]

comments: 2

Slywy said...

But does the story get this right?

"In the late 1960s, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin covered or adapted Johnson’s songs in tribute."

Michael Leddy said...

True. I’ll add that. But why begin with “quoted”? Maybe both the headline writer and the obit writer were out of their element here.