Constructing Robert Johnson

Sean Lorre


Robert Johnson — at least the Robert Johnson that is knowable today, one hundred years after his birth and nearly seventy-five years after his death — is best understood as a discursive construction formed by generations of critics, fans and scholars. Faced with this dearth of historical facts, many  writers — having nothing else to go on other than the sound of his voice and his words — imagined psychological profiles of Johnson from their interpretations of his lyrics and their own preconceived notions of black culture. In this regard, "Robert Johnson" can be thought of as an empty/ied signifier, at once a man, a voice, and a blank slate.

This study focuses on the formation and development of the Robert Johnson discourse in an attempt to trace the ideological assumptions, hermeneutic frameworks, and narrative strategies that facilitated a construction of Johnson by addressing representative selections from the Johnson literature by John Hammond, Samuel Charters, Greil Marcus and others over a span of roughly sixty years. Throughout theses writings the scant historical facts of Johnson's twentyseven years of life have been modified, manipulated and at times fabricated to serve a romantic narrative in which this poor, virtually unknown/unknowable bluesman stands in as the antidote to generations of commercialization and alienation. Whiles these works consider the historical figure and the music, in essence, it is the embedded layers of meaning and signification that critics and fans have poured into the "Robert Johnson" that reflect back at us most clearly.

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