by Stuart Broomer
Licked By All:
A Postage Stamp of Robert JohnsonCopyright © 1995, 1998 Stuart Broomer
In 1994 the U.S. Postal Service issued an eight stamp series commemorating jazz and blues singers, perhaps the most attention the blues has received from the U.S. government since federal agents met with Junior Wells about "VietCong Blues." It's a thoughtful series, though it's hard to ignore the omission of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, who probably loom larger than Ma Rainey or Jimmy Rushing or Mildred Bailey. But I don't think anyone could argue with the other five - Billie Holliday from the world of jazz and Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf from the blues. If in life Bessie Smith couldn't get into a white American hospital, long after her death she can find herself on a postage stamp.
The most interesting thing about the Johnson stamp is the act of historical revisionism involved in the portrait. Johnson was an obscure talent before his death and was little subject to publicity portraits. The postal service had few images to choose from for their rendering and the one it chose had a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
Now political correctness is a two-edged sword. On the one hand it means that a marginalized genius like Johnson can now get attention from the official culture (and Bessie Smith, armed with Medicaid or money might get treated in any hospital). On the other hand, it means that Johnson must berevised, lest the official culture seem to sanction any destructive habit that he practised. Robert Johnson's image had to be cleansed, and the cigarette is gone. Similarly, among the popular singers, Al Jolson is represented without benefit of his "black-face" burnt-cork make-up, rendering him unrecognizable and meaningless in the process. There's a certain Stalinist humor in the simultaneous development of political correctness and digital imaging techniques. The past becomes both revisable and risible.
Now this presents a problem for much of the culture of the blues, which can only be celebrated in its erasure. Jazz usually cultivated grandeur in its naming - King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, the Pres' Lester Young, and Lady Day ("Fatha" Hines could, perhaps, be "Fatha" because he was already "Earl"). The blues, however, had an eye for the quickly noted disability. Apart from some early singers with regal titles - "The Queen of the Blues," Victoria Spivey, and "The Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith - the blues celebrated the infirm (Peg Leg Howell and Cripple Clarence Lofton) and the immature or diminutive (there are, after all, two Sonny Boy Williamsons, the Littles - Walter and Milton, Junior Wells, Memphis Minnie, and Little Brother Montgomery). Above all the visually impaired were singled out, as with Blind Lemon Jefferson, the doubly diminished "Blind Boy" Fuller, Blind Willie Johnson, and Blind Gary Davis before he became the Reverend Gary Davis. There are also the rube (Peetie Wheatstraw and Georgia Pine Boy) and the comatose (Sleepy John Estes).
If you were going to be enhanced by your name, it could comefrom sports (Champion Jack Dupree) or animals (Howlin Wolf). Usually the best you could hope for was "Big" as in Big Joe Williams or Big Walter Horton, but sometimes this connected to a diminutive, as with Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. It may simply be that Robert Johnson was chosen over Blind Lemon Jefferson because it's easier to erase a cigarette than a name.
If this weren't bad enough, there were the lyrics, wherein drunkenness is sometimes celebrated as are a range of reprehensible sexual practices. When Bessie Smith or Butterbeans and Suzie sang about "A hot dog for my roll" there was no mention of a prophylactic wrapper for the sausage. When someone sang "Good Mornin', Little School Girl" there was no suggestion that advice on street proofing would be more in order or was about to follow. When Sonny Boy Williamson sang of "some little girl who broke her Daddy's rule," he endorsed the patriarchal order in the most offensive way.
We can rest easy about the cause of Johnson's untimely death, traditionally described as poisoning. He was simply doomed by inappropriate lifestyle choices, and if the poison or the drink or the knives or the "women" hadn't got to him, the nicotine would. If Johnson now resides in some ante-room of the afterlife - limbo or purgatory - he can take posthumous comfort from all this. That wasn't a hell hound on his trail at all. It was just the Surgeon-General.
This article originally appeared in Coda, The Journal of Jazz and Improvised Music, Issue 264, November/December, 1995.