Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus is the author of, most recently, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years and Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010. With Werner Sollors he is the editor of A New Literary History of America, published by Harvard in 2009.



"'Maybe Someday Your Name Will Be in Lights': Robert Johnson Takes the City"

The great producer John Hammond referred to Robert Johnson as a primitive blues singer; he was described as such in the notes to the first LP to reissue his music, in 1961. That meant a blues singer from the sticks—from small settlements, presumably cut off from the circuits of information, style, culture, and sophistication of cities. But during his travels in the 1930s, Johnson made his way through Memphis, Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, and New York.

Elijah Wald has speculated that had Johnson followed the path of Josh White, and become a Café Society singer, his now-celebrated 1936-37 recordings might have been dismissed, long before Johnson’s overshadowing impact on modern pop music, as slick, citified, and phony. Watching the Rolling Stones perform Johnson’s “Love in Vain” in the Ed Sullivan Show in 1969, Peter Guralnick imagined Johnson watching too, somewhere in Los Angeles, on a television “he still owed payments on.”

I propose to imagine that Johnson did remain in New York, and that rather than returning to Mississippi and being murdered in 1938, he lived an entirely different, altogether modern and urban life—with, say, collaborations with Big Bill Broonzy, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neal Huston; through the War years, with appearances on Alan Lomax’s radio show; turning up in Cleveland or Los Angeles after that as a record producer—sometimes to be confused with Bob Johnston—until, finally, he emerges as part of the world that, thirty years after his death and to this day, would celebrate a different Robert Johnson. I will explore how this different life—and the opposition between our ideas of the country and the city, the rube and the sophisticate—might affect both the music Robert Johnson did not in fact live to make, and our notions of the music that in fact he did.

My Speakers Sessions

Saturday, March 24

4:00pm EDT

Sunday, March 25

2:15pm EDT