Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. At a crossroads one night, he bartered eternity for adulation and walked away with 29 songs on a six-string guitar. He became the master of the blues, and, in the spill of years since, you can still hear the rattle, hiss, and spit, the yowling tomcat strut of it.
If you believe the legend, you believe that Johnson’s gift was a dark one, that the blues haunts us with a spectral backdrop of pain and suffering and forces beyond our control. If, however, you simply believe in the music, you believe that Johnson was the everyman, dipping into his soul for the expression of his world. There’s darkness there, to be sure. But it can be plumbed and known.
The blues slinks out of the alley, all whiskey-throated and rumpled, and wants to be taken home. Within it are the voices of everyone who ever cried, hurt, moaned the loss of love, became displaced and wanted nothing less than to be borne away on wings of glory. Redemption is always just a seventh chord away, riding on a blue note just slightly off the melody line of life.
I discovered Robert Johnson in the mid-’70s. There was a song on late-night radio, and I heard it in the darkness. It was called “Hellhound on My Trail,” and it seemed that Johnson’s voice, all mottled by the antique recording device of 1937, rasped with knowing, surrendered to a hard, dark fate, and it resonated with me. I remember clutching my pillow to my face and feeling the blues inhabit me.
I don’t know where I’d be sometimes without “Terraplane Blues,” “Love in Vain,” or “If I Had Possession over Judgment Day.” Those great Robert Johnson songs pushed me forward into the sweat and ache of the blues, and within it I found the wail and howl I’d sought expression for all my life.
The blues is big with Native people. There are a lot of talented Native musicians playing forms of it, and it’s spectacular to watch. Perhaps it’s the free form of the music itself, the inherent permission to break the strict rules of music theory and just holler, belt it out, whack that sucker and make it hum. There’s a wildness there that’s warrior spirit and healing all at the same time.
But I think the appeal is more about lineage. The blues was born of a displaced people crashed on the coast of a foreign shore and made to feel unwelcome. It was born of loneliness, of desperation, of hardscrabble fields and little to eat, and of needs and wants and dreams unfulfilled and shriveled like a raisin in the sun. It was a crying for what was taken away and a moaning for the pittance that was offered in return.
When I heard it I wanted to cry. Against the four-four push of it was the continuo of pain, the underlying pulse of hurt and hardship. It reminded me of my isolation, of my lack of a cultural linchpin, of a people disappeared, a history ruptured and a family fractured, split apart and never reassembled. The blues contained all of that, and I embraced it.
Within it I found the purple world of a small boy confounded by forces beyond his control and puzzled by the way “home” was never about belonging. In the blues I returned to the beatings meant to engender discipline, the banishment meant to create cohesion, and the jarring differences never addressed, never mentioned, and never healed. The blues let me see that I was not alone in all of that, and that was healing in itself.
It’s the same with a lot of Native people. The blues gives you permission to shout. It gives you permission to vent everything that life has stoked in you, return it to the air all ragged, rough, and rude, to proclaim the fact that you’re righteously pissed and that you won’t be slave to it anymore. It’s music. And in the clack of the skeletal bones of Robert Johnson that serve as its meter, you can mask the political with passion.
There’s a lot to sing about. That’s the sad thing. I heard an Ojibway artist called Shingoose sing a song called “Reservation Blues,” back in the ’80s, and within it was the sum breadth of our experience. He sang of trading his moccasins for white man’s shoes, and in that small metaphor was the unspoken hum of Canada, the swapping of cultural history and tradition for someone else’s sense of the order of things.
Not that the blues is all-encompassing. One blue howl won’t assuage everything. The language of the blues is the lexicon of experience, and the thing with Native blues is that we’ve barely touched on it.
The difference between blues and gospel, the jubilant cousin, is salvation, justice, mercy, and grace. Gospel is still built on the same universal chord, but the expression is different. Right now, as a country, Canada is working hard toward that, but we’re still largely doing the holler-and-response routine in the fields of aggravation.
Someone said that W.C. Handy took the notes of the blues and committed them to paper for the first time. When I heard that I wondered how that was possible, how you could transfer what was born in the guts and granted to the air, charged with emotion and grit and drama, and expect the ink to bear it.
Well, it translates fine if there’s a commitment to learning the soul of it. Marks on paper can become music only when you immerse yourself in the intent of the message within the notes themselves. For Native people, communication is the great key signature. It’s what will ultimately define the tempo of our times, the harmony we’ve sought to build into every bridge and chorus of our time here.
Like Robert Johnson, you take experience, inhabit it, sing the truth of it, and, when you moan that particular blues, someone always feels that truth.
Richard Wagamese received a 2007 Canadian Authors Association Award for his third novel, Dream Wheels; www.richardwagamese.com. Reprinted from Canadian Dimension(Jan.-Feb. 2008). Subscriptions: Outside Canada, $39.99 Canadian/yr. (6 issues), in Canada $29.99 from 2E-91 Albert St., Winnipeg, MB R3B 1G5, Canada; www.canadiandimension.com.