Instructor lectures with a case of the blues

Michael Shufro, Co-editor-in-chief

A good sized crowd filed inside Newman Auditorium as nationally published poet and SRJC English Instructor Richard Speakes swaggered around the stage, dressed in a black sport coat and blue jeans, snapping his fingers and singing along to the songs of legendary blues masters from the Mississippi Delta.
The musical hour revolved around the life of arguably the most enigmatic figure in the history of the blues: Robert Johnson.
Included with the choice selection of sampled songs, Speakes presented a kind of oral biography and slideshow on the man and the impact his melodies have had on American music since Johnson’s first recordings in 1936.
Named after one of Speakes’ favorite albums, the lecture’s title, “Beautiful Malady,” was an homage to the prolific musician Tom Waits, Speakes told audience members.
Speakes described Johnson as a kind of medicine man of music who was shy in demeanor, famously known to hide while playing his guitar. He was small and quiet, and had little hands with long guitar fingers. Of his many travels and experineces only two photographs of the mysterious bluesman are known to exist today.
Born in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, Johnson grew up along the delta at a time when nearly all African Americans in the area picked cotton for white plantation owners. While gospel songs filled the local churches, Johnson found his inspiration from ‘the devil’s music’ played in juke joints where heavy drinking and knife fights were common scenes.
From a young age he learned to play the harmonica and guitar, and eventually became known as a fellow “musicianer” in the surrounding black communities.
By the time he was 8 years old Johnson had moved with his mother to Robinsonville, Mississippi where he developed his craft studying under local bluesman Willie Brown, and years later playing and learning from the legendary Son House.
Speakes encouraged listeners to pay careful attention, hearing the high notes of the slide guitar, between playing snippets of Johnson’s “I believe I’ll dust my broom,” and House’s “Death Letter.” People in the audience shouted to let the song finish to which Speakes replied, “It makes me feel crazy stopping him in the middle of a song too.”
After a short-lived marriage in 1929 to Virginia Travis, who died in childbirth, Johnson is believed to have set out to Martinsville where he raised a child with Vergie Mae Smith.  While away from his hometown, Johnson mastered the style of Son House and learned new techniques from Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman, who was rumored to have acquired his musical abilities from visiting spirits in graveyards during the middle of the night.
Between the realms of mortals and myths, Johnson’s identity grew shadowy and mysterious. When he returned to Robinsonville, Johnson appeared to be a whole new blues musician with an unparalleled style and haunting melodies thrumming from his guitar. He told locals that while on his journey he’d come to a crossroads where he’d met the devil in the flesh and sold his soul to him to play the guitar.
“I think he knew he was extraordinary,” Speakes said in a moment of reflection on the soul of the blues legend.
In 1931 Johnson had married again, but soon found himself back on the road, unable to leave the life of a ‘walking’ musician. In his brief career he traveled from small towns in Mississippi and Arkansas to big music hubs like Memphis, Chicago and New York City.
“His music was known by only a few thousand blacks while he was alive,” Speakes said. “But he played the guitar wherever his wanderlust would take him.”
After a handful of wild years of countless women, nights of whiskey and endless days spent on the road, Johnson lost his way and died Aug. 16, 1938. Joined by Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and more recently Amy Winehome, Johnson is ranked as the first member of Club 27, a collection of famed musicians who all died at age 27. His death, nearly as controversial and unclear as his life, abounds with theories of murder and sabotage.
“There was reason to believe he was killed by a jealous husband,” Speakes said. Another theory suggests a bottle of liquor gifted to Johnson at a juke joint had been laced with strychnine.
While Johnson recorded no more than two CDs worth of music, Speakes says at least four or five of his songs carry the power of St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul and sit on a lofty shelf with the Book of Job and Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Johnson’s music was made of an assemblage of lyrics, some authored by him and others by various bluesmen. What Speakes finds so incredible about Johnson’s work is how “he mastered the use of time and made each verse an event unto itself.” He compares the songwriter’s three-lined verses and two and a half minute songs to the careful construction and syllabic balance of a sonnet.
Today Johnson’s successors from Muddy Waters to the White Stripes are still exploring the incredible power and range of the blues master’s work, which shaped the birth of Rock N’ Roll and influenced the American landscape of jazz and hip-hop.
In 2004 Eric Clapton recorded “Me and Mr. Johnson,” a tribute album to the legendary bluesman, and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant said, “Robert Johnson, to whom we all owed our existence, in one way,” on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2004.
“Robert Johnson’s Beautiful Malady” is part of this year’s Work of Literary Merit lecture series exploring Sherman Alexie’s book, “Reservation Blues,” currently being taught in several SRJC English classes. In the book, the spirit of Robert Johnson plays a part, as does his guitar, which magically endows its player with incredible ability.
Speakes’ wife and SRJC English professor Karen Walker said she knew her husband would be just right for the topic. She added, “Blues has always been at the center of his life.”