Moan That Particular Blues

A music born of loss resonates with Native people


| July-August 2008


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.