I just finished reading Bob Dylan's little memoir. Like the best of Dylan it's unpredictable, brilliantly written, and chock-a-block with flashing genius the author just seems to be stumbling upon.
The book apparently began life as essays that were to be used as liner notes to accompany a set of hybrid SACD reissues. So oddly, half the book is devoted to the stories of New Morning and Oh Mercy. The stories are better than the albums, especially in the case of the New Morning stories which revolve around Dylan's effort to collaborate with poet Archibald MacLeish. The Oh Mercy stories--an extended and welcome slam at the overrated producer Daniel Lanois--also include a piece about a motorcycle trip through rural Louisiana. The story may be fact, it may be fiction, but either way it is as good as the best songs Dylan has ever written.
But for me the highlight of the book is Dylan's discussion of the impact on his songwriting of hearing the Brecht/Weill piece "Pirate Jenny" (from Three Penny Opera) in a Greenwich Village theater in the early 1960s, and his stunning explanation of discovering Robert Johnson on an pre-release acetate of the influential 1961 Columbia re-issue of Johnson's then-forgotten music.
Johnson's rediscovery and rehabilitation in the 1960s--when he went from forgotten and unknown to titan and genius--was something like the critical rediscovery of Herman Melville's then mostly forgotten works in the 1920s. (At the time of his death Melville was a dimly recalled writer of once-popular travelogues of the south seas. In the 1920s the previously unknown manuscript of Billy Budd was discovered and published sparking Melville's revival.)
But in recent years there has been a critical backlash against Johnson. The contention of the Johnson revisionists is that because Johnson's work is derived from the earlier work of Tommy Johnson, Son House, Leroy Carr, Kokomo Arnold, the obscure Hambone Willie Newburn and others (say, WC Handy's "Yellow Dog Blues"), it does not deserve the reputation it has gained. It is a contention most recently articulated by Elijah Wald in his book, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Wald even goes so far as to suggest that because Johnson wasn't a pop star in his day (like Ma Rainey or Mamie Smith) his music doesn't matter.
As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note.
Wald's argument is a historical fallacy. The kind of fallacy that says that because in 1851 Moby Dick was considered loony or because only Emily Dickinson's family read her poems during her lifetime, the work is unimportant, overrated.
(Wald's book is one example of a current trend of 'gee-whiz' books of would-be erudition like A.J. Jacob's The Know-It-All : One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. These books exist in a vacuum and presume that all human knowledge begins with their page 1. Wald's stunningly ignorant presumption is that music fans would be shocked to know that Bessie Smith wasn't a field-hollering primitive but a polished professional or that white people and black people sang the same songs in the rural south. Gee whiz! You mean Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong recorded a blues together in the 1930s. Wow. No one ever knew that. Gee whiz, you mean Son House wasn't popular but Ma Rainey was? Shocking! And Rainey was a glitzy pop performer, the blues merely show biz? Can you imagine that. Hey, who knew Johnson's lyrics were funny, laced with double-entendres? Golly! "Who was the stupid editor that decided to publish this book?" would be a real question worth asking. For the record, in his influential 1981 book Deep Blues the late critic Robert Palmer made a point of noting that some of Johnson's finest performances went unreleased until the folk revival reclaimed the man. And why do we keep making the mistake of assessing an early performer's influence on the records he made when few people owned playback equipment in the 1920s and 1930s? Wald is reinventing the wheel, friends.)
The Dylan book illustrates that this debate over Johnson raged from the moment of the bluesman's rediscovery. Dylan describes arriving at the apartment of folk singer Dave Van Ronk and slapping the acetate of this unknown bluesman on the record player.
From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window. When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor. I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard. The songs weren't customary blues songs. They were perfected pieces--each song contained four or five verses, every couplet intertwined with the next but in no obvious way...They jumped all over the place in range and subject matter, short punchy verses that resulted in some panoramic story--fires of mankind blasting off the surface of this spinning piece of plastic....
...I was mixed up in it. Didn't see how anybody couldn't be. But Dave wasn't. He kept pointing out that this song comes from another song and that one song was an exact replica of a different song.
I think a lot of the argument about Johnson derives from an obsession that has become pervasive in our culture, one that has always driven blues fetishists--the idea of authenticity. The earliest, rawest material that can be found is somehow the most authentic, and therefore the most artistically valid, so the thinking goes. Johnson took material that had been floating around among his peers and predecessors, cleaned it up, approached it with a kind of ambition and precision--professionalism even--and therefore wasn't keeping it real. (Wald's argument is different, because he wasn't a major figure in his time, Wald seems to suggest, Johnson shouldn't be considered important today.)
Obviously I line up with Dylan in this argument, and here's why. The story of Othello--a perfect archetype of cross-racial longing, lust, and envy--had been floating around the Mediterranean at least since the middle 1500s when it was written up by an Italian author known as Cinthio. But we don't read Cinthio today. We read the version William Shakespeare concocted in the early 1600s. Shakespeare and his rival Christopher Marlowe both wrote a plays about Henry IV. Why do we cherish Shakespeare's works today while Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great Parts 1 & 2 are academic curiosities?
The answer, of course, is art. With the same basic material at their disposal Shakespeare was able to make the better work. He was the greater artist. Authenticity isn't at issue. In fact, authenticity is never at issue in art. The whole matter of authenticity is a canard. Art, by its nature, by its definition, is inauthentic--it is artifice, it is invention, it is the process of creating artifacts.
Johnson did what hundreds of great artists have done--he took folk material from around him in the world and through an act of creative molding, turned that material into something more than just found stuff. He turned it into literature. It was a performance literature to be sure (as was Homer's btw), and, like Shakespeare's, Johnson's literature is best experienced in performance. That's why Johnson's spellbinding, slow, first take of "Come On In My Kitchen," moves us in a way that other versions don't.
The nature of Johnson's artistic transformation was clearly audible to Dylan ("I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard"). And it is clearly audible in the evidence today. Listen to the recordings. For all his protean fire-stealing, Charley Patton was never a great songwriter. Outside of the miraculous "Spoonful" Patton's work is frustratingly incoherent. A signature performance like "Screaming and Hollering the Blues" seems to feature random verses strung together without connection. There's no development from beginning to middle to end. It is slapdash. Accidental. And although the recorded performance is full of energy it lacks the drama and nuance of which Johnson was a master. This is typical of nearly all of Patton's work. Patton may have come first. He may pass the test of authenticity. He may have been keeping it real. But he was (and is) the inferior artist.
"Come On In My Kitchen" lifts the melody of one of blues music's biggest early hits, the Mississippi Sheiks' "Sitting on Top of the World" (the Sheiks probably got it from somewhere else but that source is lost to time). Now, I love to hear the Mississippi Sheiks singing "Sitting on Top of the World," but it's not half the record that Johnson's is, hell it's not one tenth the record Johnson's is.
To be sure some of Johnson's influence can be put down to the Faustian myths that grew up around him (an accrued romantic haze surrounds and obscures his work, much like the one that surrounds Sylvia Plath's). Also, some of Johnson's influence can be put down to the high quality of the extant recordings. Paramount, which recorded Patton, House, Ma Rainey, and Tommy Johnson, made records of notoriously poor audio quality even for the 1920s. Robert Johnson's sides, cut later (the 1930s) under more controlled conditions for Okeh, sound fabulous and clear. That means performers equally as great as Johnson ( Blind Lemon Jefferson--the first and possibly best blues guitarist, singer/songwriter--or Skip James) are sadly less well known.
But just like West Side Story doesn't suck because Romeo and Juliet came before it, just as Moby Dick is important now even though it was rejected in its time, so too Robert Johnson remains the king today no matter what he was in 1936.
Art, it turns out, lives outside of time.
Fans who chase an imagined "authenticity" in art by fetishizing the most raw, most primitive, least composed work don't get the brilliance of Robert Johnson. Scholars who insist on the primacy of history never will be able to reconcile themselves to the notion that Johnson's influence post-1961 is more important than his obscurity in his own time.
UPDATE: My boy Tom Watson has a great piece up about the Dylan book. Tom hits the nail on the head not only about the book but about the way in which Dylan's private obsessions and influences in 1961-1962--when he was a wayfaring stranger on the Greenwich Village folk scene--gave rise to an entire school of American literature, music and culture.