Robert Johnson, Magnet For Myths
Film probes what made (and what killed) a legend
Seattle Times film now available on DVD
Cynthia Rose

Bluesman Robert Johnson is one of music's enduring mysteries. He gave no interviews, wrote down no compositions and recorded only 29 songs. He died in 1938, at the age of 27. Yet his legend, and his influence, continue to be immense. Johnson's work shaped the music of numerous stars, from Woody Guthrie to the Rolling Stones. His tale, steeped in superstition, also helped to frame public ideas about the talented but hard-living, tragic "rock star."

Johnson is now the subject of "Can't You Hear the Wind Howl?," a docudrama by Texas-based Peter Meyer, shown at the Seattle International Film Festival. The work is anchored by actor Danny Glover, who narrates it, and by musician Johnny Shines. Shines, who died before the film was completed, was a bluesman who actually traveled with Johnson. His vivid recollections focus the compelling story.

Johnson was born in 1911, little more than a decade after the blues themselves. Like that musical genre, he came from the rural South. In songs with titles such as "Hellhound On My Trail," he sang of sex and fear and walking with the devil. Johnson had a fierce, poetic intensity – and a virtuoso style. Rumor said his originality came from a pact with Satan; that Johnson sold his soul to play so stunningly. When he was finally murdered, by a jealous husband, his death was enshrined as a kind of cosmic payback. Johnson lingered for days, says his legend and died howling, crawling like a dog.

Such stories flourished because of the bluesmens' status. Theirs was a world the ordinary people around them despised. Socially, bluesmen were on a par with hoboes. They were seen as feckless and faithless, as loners and drinkers. Theirs was a universe beyond the reach of family, community and the church.

Meyer's film evokes life in that world and it shows why Johnson became such a magnet for myths. The musician came of age in a broken, restless family, losing a wife and child while still in his teens. Then, when he turned to the blues, Johnson's commitment was total. According to witnesses, he physically lived his music.

Johnson, they testify, could hear the radio as he talked with you – then replicate, note-for-note, what that radio played. He could dance while he sang, while spinning off chords only he could manage. Johnson never practiced, either; somehow, he just knew everything. Says Shines onscreen, "Did he have a personality? I don't know. Certainly, he had an approach."

Meyer was beginning a project for MTV in 1987, a series on the "roots of rock", when he met Johnny Shines. It was the same year a photograph of Johnson surfaced, the world's first look into the face of a legend. Found years earlier but deemed of little value, the photo had been taken in a coin-op booth by Johnson himself. It shows a young man with a cigarette in his mouth, his guitar held up by long, spidery fingers. The right side of Johnson's face looks open and winsome. Cover that side, however, and he really looks like the devil's property.

The director's MTV pilot was abandoned; instead, he began to make a film about Johnson. He read and traveled and researched voraciously, turning up any link he could find to the elusive artist. Meyer never thought the project would swallow a decade, but he says he wanted to do it slowly and carefully. "Because the people involved needed to know and trust me. They had all been just as exploited as their music."

Johnson had – still has – living relatives. But they are not the people who know his story. That is the property of those who traveled with him, who played on street corners with him, who drank with him. Chief among these was Shines, who had suffered a stroke before he met Meyer. "But," says the filmmaker, "he still had this tremendous presence. And he introduced me to the blues community."

Meyer began to meet a range of people, many of whom decided to direct him to others. As Johnson's life took real shape through their memories, it changed Meyer's ideas of the film completely.

Transferring Johnson to film is nothing new, of course. The best-known of several screen projects is a feature-film script that dates from the 1960s. Titled "Love In Vain," it has been optioned by artists from the Rolling Stones to the artist formerly known as Prince. At one point, Martin Scorcese was slated to direct it. But then he saw some of Meyer's interviews, and found their voice and pace quite foreign. "I backed off," Scorcese has said. "I didn't know the first thing about these guys."

Meyer, too, sensed that a feature film was not the answer. "It couldn't capture the rhythm of these men. Because the way they speak is totally present, but it's also totally of another era." He had a daring thought: Why not re-create things? Why not show Johnson for what he is – a presence – and let the music continue to do his speaking? It seemed the simplest, and truest, solution. But who could "stand in" for a legend?

He found the answer in a Dallas production of Zora Neale Hurston's "Spunk." There, he discovered musician Kevin Moore. Not only does Moore bear an eerie resemblance to Johnson, but as "Keb' Mo'," he, too, plays the blues. (In fact, Moore is a two-time winner of the W.C. Handy Award for blues excellence, and in 1997 he won a Grammy.) Once Moore became interested in the project, Meyer began to construct his "re-creations." Some he filmed at sites Johnson had visited, including one not far from his own home.

As the film progressed, it, too, grew legendary. An English documentary crew started to follow Meyer, homing in on many of his interviewees. Their own film, "In Search of Robert Johnson" (made by Chris Hunt), was released over five years ago. It differs greatly in tone and approach and, in black communities, has had a cool reception.

Actress Yolanda Williams, who plays Johnson's wife, became the Meyer project's associate producer. She says she found his approach to the subject respectful. "That English crew filmed Johnny Shines in a liquor store! Peter sat him in a big velvet chair, just like a throne. He looks regal, which meant a lot to Johnny."

Trust also deepened other people's recollections. Bluesman David "Honeyboy" Edwards was with Johnson the night of his murder; he gives fascinating details of the fatal evening. Edwards also guided Meyer to Willie Mae Powell, the woman for whom Johnson wrote his classic "Love In Vain." "When we visited Willie Mae," says Williams, "a second photograph of Johnson had been issued but it still hadn't been authenticated. However, when Peter showed it to her, she just grabbed it! Just clutched it to her chest. It was Robert for sure and she hadn't seen him in decades."

In the film, Johnson's charm becomes almost palpable. Says Meyer, "Everyone speaks about Robert like they saw him yesterday." Much of Johnny Shines' fame may have come from his links to Johnson. But to Meyer, Shines reveals how – over and over – "Robert left me behind." Edwards also describes the affair that got Johnson murdered and the film reveals a startling deathbed note.

During Meyer's long project, Johnson leapt from cult to celebrity. In 1990, his recordings were reissued, and they leapt right onto Billboard's charts. It set off a kind of Robert Johnson mania, yielding everything from souvenirs to a U.S. postage stamp. The stamp, which was issued in 1994, drew its likeness from Johnson's photo-booth picture. But, fastidiously, his cigarette had been erased. This was symbolic of what else had vanished: the early, scornful view of the bluesman's world.

Yet Meyer found he often ran up against that reputation. "When we met Willie Mae, she was delighted to see us. But she was very, very worried about being filmed. She didn't want people knowing she dated a bluesman." While visiting one of three graves ascribed to Johnson, Meyer fell into conversation with some local churchwomen. "I told them why I was there, to look for his grave. One lady shook her head and said, `Well, it won't be here! We would've thrown that man's body in the river!' "

Another twist in the tale occurred when a son, Claud Johnson, suddenly appeared. Claud, who has staked his claim to years of publishing, has been recognized somewhat in the estate. (The estate also endorses Meyer's film.) But, says Meyer, this involved a court deposition. "Once again, that showed the life Robert Johnson lived. Here's this very charming videotaped confession, in which Claud's mother appears very reluctantly." Eventually, she reveals her story: an after-school encounter on a roadside. Johnson, as usual, was on his way out of town.

Robert Johnson's life remains a musical cornerstone. It stands between the blues born around 1900 and much more modern musics – musics both his style and his power prefigure. It also stands between an antiquated world, that of agrarian black Southern culture, and that world's inevitable demise. Now, with that culture almost gone, works like Meyer's are even more valuable.

"When I started on this," says Yolanda Williams, "it was just as an actress. I didn't know about Robert or about blues music. Now, his story often makes me stop and think. I think about people like Tupac or Biggie Smalls, singing a 'dirty music' and being killed for it. Being killed inside our own community."

"It's the same thing Robert Johnson went through. The coincidence comes with his age, with the fame, with all the women, the cursing of God. I mean, we've made a film which really says something. In the age of films like movies like 'Booty Call', that feels good."

• So what killed Robert Johnson?

Viewers of Meyer's film hear David "Honeyboy" Edwards detail the evening of August 13, 1938, when someone, somehow, murdered Robert Johnson. It would take the singer three long days to die; legend says he howled in agony, crawling on all fours "like a dog." Poison killed him, says Honeyboy, poison slipped into his whiskey.

Honeyboy isn't sure what the fatal ingredient was, but says onscreen he thinks it could be "passagreen".

Johnson's death certificate lists no cause of death, bearing just the poignant scrawl "No doctor." But for nearly 60 years, archivists have pondered: just what did kill Johnson? If it was "passagreen", what exactly could that be? Meyer has been told it was a backwoods drug, "something distilled from mothballs."

Stephen LaVere manages the commercial portion of Johnson's estate. He says he doubts the mothball theory. "Johnson fell sick on Friday; by Monday, he was dead. Everything else is really speculation."

A mothball distillate might be fatal, says Dr. Corinne Fligner, head of autopsy services at the University of Washington. "Napathelene, which is one mothball ingredient, can cause nausea, vomiting and seizures and – in black victims – hemolytic anemia. But we don't know what was used in mothballs then."

Fligner has never heard of "passagreen'; neither have many other Northwest toxicologists. But Mississippi pharmacist Joe Gerache has. Gerache is a student of pharmacy history, and his Vicksburg drugstore is a museum. Here one sees drugs used in the Civil War, in voodoo rituals, in old country cures. Honeyboy, he says, "must mean Paris green, which is an arsenical preparation. It was very prominent then, one of the only poisonous substances used in farming."

"Paris green," he says, "would certainly do the trick."

Fligner agrees. "That makes a lot of sense; Paris green is copper arsenite. It would therefore be consistent to have a three-day illness. And the reported symptoms fit quite well, too." The "howling," she says, could come from abdominal pain; so could the bluesman's reported crawling on the floor.

Fligner thinks Paris green may have caused the whole confusion. "Because it was used as an insecticide, that could be where the moth-killer story came from." Michael Hughes, managing director of the Mississippi Regional Poison Center, also knows Paris green. Although he can't comment on the Johnson case, Hughes says arsenic figured in many such instances of "backyard justice."

As a Johnson historian, what does Stephen LaVere think? He intends to get in touch with Joe Gerache. Says LaVere, "After over 50 years, this is intriguing."

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