Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Devil and Mitt Romney: Lessons from Stravinsky & Robert Johnson

The anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the RNC convention in Tampa really got me thinking about what's in store for this country, so I needed music to help me make some sense of it all.

As my recent blog post about punk rock will attest, my musical tastes run the gamut but nothing soothes my senses while writing quite like classical does; I'm partial to baroque choral arrangements when working at the keyboard.

A few days ago I listened to Igor Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale" for the first time on WWFM radio. The unusual piece is one of Stravinsky's (pictured left) more eclectic compositions, which is saying a lot for the Russian-born composer known for creating in a wide range of musical styles.

According to the Website, Stravinsky's concert version of  "The Soldier's Tale"  is scored for just 7 musical instruments in a jazz-influenced style and interestingly features four characters with speaking parts; a princess, a soldier, the Devil and a narrator. The story is based on an old Russian folk tale about a soldier who decides to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for a book that reveals things about the future.  

The Faustian origins of selling one's soul to the Devil (or a demon) in exchange for youth, knowledge, power, wealth or love resonate in American folklore as well. British guitarist Eric Clapton and the band Cream popularized the song "Crossroads", but it was written by influential Delta Blues master Robert Johnson as "Cross Roads Blues" in 1936 two years before his death.
One of only two known photos of Robert Johnson.

Blues fans are aware of the claims that Johnson, who died under mysterious circumstances at age 27 in relative obscurity, was said to have sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his mastery of the Blues guitar; but there are many possible explanations for this popular explanation for his exceptional musical talent.

While Johnson was in many ways an enigma, interviews with many people who actually knew and played with him do shed some light on the origins of the Crossroads claims; that Johnson literally went down to a cross roads one night and met the Devil, who took Johnson's guitar, tuned it and gave it back to him along with an astounding ability to play.

As a spiritual person, I'm not in a position to say whether Johnson actually made a pact with Satan, but such stories probably have more to do with misunderstanding and Johnson's peculiar nature. In the late 19th and early 20th century, African-American musicians who played Blues often earned the  disapproval of the Baptist Church, and might be accused of having "sold his soul to the Devil"; owing more to the fact that Blues was associated with late night carousing in "juke joints" or little local bars where Blues musicians played live and alcohol (Johnson had a fondness for whiskey) smoking, dancing, casual sexual encounters and other behaviors perceived by more conservative "church folk" as "evil" were popular.

Another possibility stems from Johnson's relationship with Blues guitarist Ike Zimmerman. Ike was a black farmer born in Grady, Alabama in 1907 and he was not only an extremely gifted Blues player, he also taught a number of people to play; including Robert Johnson. Blues scholar Bruce Conforth interviewed Zimmerman's daughter who claims that Johnson (known to the Zimmermans as RL) was a diligent student who practiced frequently under Ike's tutelage during his lengthy stays with the family.

In order to play at night and not disturb anyone, the two of them would walk along a dirt path, pass a cross roads into a nearby white-owned graveyard known as the Beauregard Cemetery and sit on top of tombstones and play for hours; as it was quiet there and no one would disturb them. Neighbors who lived near the cemetery recall hearing them both playing at night and during the day and it's possible these accounts evolved into the stories of Johnson's guitar skill being mystical in origin.

During his all-too-brief life, Johnson traveled widely to various towns, hamlets and cities, some who knew him claim he was known to be in the habit of simply walking off and disappearing after playing onstage; and might not be seen for weeks or months. That may or may not be attributed to his love of whiskey; I worked as a bartender in New York for 6 years and knew many people prone to what's known as the "Irish Exit" - where some people get drunk and just leave the bar without telling their friends or anyone else; it's a habit of some drinkers.

According to Wikipedia, a widely-read article in 1966 by Pete Welding in Down Beat Magazine in which he related a story told to him by Blues guitarist Son House (who knew and played with Johnson), House alleged that he knew Johnson when he was younger and more of an average guitarist, but the next time he saw him play he had morphed into an exceptional player. House attributed that jump in skill to the "pact with the Devil" theory but as researchers discovered in later interviews, there was at least a 24 month period between the time House saw Johnson play; so it's quite possible during that time Johnson had been staying with Ike Zimmerman and mastering his technique so he was just a much better guitar player because of practice.

I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of "Searching for Robert Johnson: The Life and Legend of the King of the Delta Blues Players" by Peter Gurainick (1998). You can order a used copy for as low as $2.10 plus shipping from Amazon. It's a really informative read that gives fresh insight into Johnson's life and accounts of his peculiar, eccentric behavior; I tend to think it's those things, coupled with his short life and immense talent which serve as the fertile breeding ground for the stories of his supposed pact with the Devil.

Unfortunately there are tendencies, in my opinion, for historical achievements by people of African descent to be labeled as "mysterious" or attributed to other-worldly types of explanations because some people (sub-consciously or not) can find it hard to accept that a person of color was simply that gifted, or intelligent.

Take the ancient Egyptians for example, I read "Chariots of the Gods" when I was younger, I saw and enjoyed Roland Emmerich's 1994 Sci-Fi film "Stargate" ; there's a slew of oddball explanations that have become entrenched in popular culture as to how (and why) the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids, most having to do with extraterrestrials in spaceships coming down out of the sky to do it for them.

As someone who's fond of history, I think such theories tend to trivialize African history and their contributions to world culture. Some popular fiction entertainment (like Stargate) tends to function as a substitute to accepting the fact that ancient Egyptians had simply mastered complex concepts of advanced mathematics, science and engineering in the Nile River basin 3,150 years before Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth after Upper and Lower Egypt were united under the first Pharaoh Menes.

Back in 2009, I blogged about an Austrian scientist who determined that Cleopatra was in fact, of African descent; despite slews of films and television productions depicting her as a Caucasian female.

In a similar fashion, I think that illustrates the root causes of the stories of Satan bestowing magical guitar powers on Robert Johnson; the guy was just a prodigy, a highly-gifted guitar player. But for  some people, reckoning his skill with his dark skin and African-American features is hard. So they go with the Devil theory.

These things were on my mind as I watched bits and pieces of the Republican National Convention this week. Not because I think Mitt Romney is the Devil or anything, though the Mormon religion has some really strange origin theories that Willard avoids talking about in public.

As I watched speaker after speaker up on the stage in Tampa sharing their narrow-minded vision for America, I just kept thinking about all the billionaires who've poured hundreds of millions of dollars into his campaign and into Super PACs in an all out effort to defeat President Obama. Men like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers don't shell out dough like that unless they expect to get something in return.

As Mitt smiles and waves next to Paul Ryan, I can't help but wonder; if Mitt does win, what happens to the 300 million Americans who aren't in the top 1% when all these billionaires come-a-calling to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to collect on their investment? Like the main character in Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale", it's all good and well when you get that coveted prize you wanted from the Devil; but what's in store for the soul of America when the Devil comes to collect?

By the way, ever wonder why Mitt never discusses his religion?

No comments: