Sunday, October 3, 2010

Robert Johnson: Love in Vain

For new readers, if such there be, I thought to mention a past and on-going source of both pride and disappointment. Please read the following:

The story ain't half been told...

In the early Sixties, cued by Dylan's first album, the Blues at Newport releases on Vanguard, Columbia's issue of great selections by pianist Leroy Carr and Blues guitarman Robert Johnson, the RBF anthologies edited by Samuel Charters--all those and more--I began a lifelong fascination with the Blues, and particularly the more Rural forms. At first I tracked down every album and every related book I could lay hands on, which was still doable and affordable then because so few items were available. For the rest of the Sixties and into the early Seventies, I could literally buy a copy of every single Blues item that appeared.

This deep immersion in the music--especially the acoustic versions found in the Delta and Memphis region and the Piedmont on down to Georgia--and in the stories told by Charters in his groundbreaking book The Country Blues (1960) and Paul Oliver's great Conversations with the Blues (1965, from 1960 interviews, published only in England), plus the few interview articles in DownBeat (Johnny Shines, Howlin' Wolf, and others) and the subscription I had to England's amazing Blues Unlimited (a fanzine, but fully professional), convinced me that someone should write a Blues movie, maybe centering it on Robert Johnson, who seemed to be the most important and mysterious and tragic figure among the main musicians recorded back in the Twenties and Thirties. Because so little was documented about his life, I figured I could create a believable story line incorporating the myths and the few facts.

After a couple of years of researching and hesitating, of dipping and dabbling, I finally got down to business, wrote and rewrote and polished further a feature-length script I named Hellhound on My Trail after one of his most potent songs, and by '68-'69 had a solid enough piece that I could show to a few friends. But I won't bore the reader by continuing this blow-by-blow; suffice to say, after some feedback and further revision I had a script to take to Hollywood, registered, copyrighted, and all. Hellhound got a decent response as it made the rounds for several months... and then years... and then two or three decades; I received praise, with-strings-attached offers, invitations to write something else, phone calls out of nowhere from producers ready to launch an attempt, and so on--but never an actual production or sale.

Meanwhile I worked the project too. Excerpts from my script were published in a Boston magazine called Fusion. The movie Vanishing Point suggested a possible lead actor (Cleavon Little), and then Sounder persuaded me that Taj Mahal would be a good candidate for the other-than-Robert film score. I got generally favorable response from writers like Peter Guralnick and Greil Marcus; and folks ranging from actor/director Ozzie Davis to record producer Jerry Wexler, and from cinematographer Fouad Said to Taj (or his manager maybe), all read it and expressed interest and their willingness to participate. But... finally... nothing ever developed beyond talk. Cut to 2008:

Forty years had passed; and one day during a storage shuffle I came across a copy of the forgotten screenplay. I had been writing I Witness for a year or two by then, and I suddenly had the notion to publish my Hellhound script on-line--to post it, that is, for all to read (and for someone unscrupulous to steal perhaps). So I typed it up anew, making a few changes and painstakingly shaping chapter-like divisions out of the original scenes, with some photos added to suggest the visual possibilities, and then posted all these elements piece by piece on a new blog site. (Read it here if you are interested.) I also attempted to add a sentence or two verifying its existence, to the Wikipedia article on Johnson, but was thwarted by some confused rule prohibiting self-promotion. (As explained to me, it seems that ANYONE else could submit the information and it would be accepted, but the author himself could not be trusted to be disinterestedly accurate.)

There have been some later developments in the Johnson saga (photos found, relatives interviewed, more alternate takes discovered, court suits over copyrights) and a good many scattered projects generally dating from the mid-Eighties to the present, including partially factual biographies, documentaries "in search of," and related films skirting the edges of his story; but no feature-length fiction movie, with the itinerant Bluesman life and mysterious death of Robert as its main focus, has yet been made.

I doubt now that I'll live to see a Hellhound film ever produced, but I do wish I could claim a sentence or two--a brief footnote, even--in some valid book about the Blues. I think I was there first, but the world seems blissfully indifferent.

So I'll just sit here and listen to Johnson sadly sing:

When the train left the station,
There was two lights on behind:
The blue light was my blues,
And the red light was my mind...
All my love's in vain.

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