Today’s guest article is from Jason Rewald, of The Delta Blues Blog! Jason has been an avid and effective researcher into early delta blues, and has recently coordinated a successful effort to raise funds to purchase a headstone for the elusive Willie Brown, the musician that Robert Johnson sang about in his prophetic Cross Road Blues.
Blues research seems to be getting increasingly easier in some regards. In the early years, during the heyday of blues researchers such as Gayle Dean Wardlow, Jim O’Neil, Mac McCormick and others, blues documents were hard to come by. In fact, most early research required trips to small towns to dig through documents at courthouses, libraries, and face to face interviews with witnesses who may have known or heard of certain blues artists.
One thing the early researchers had going for them was living witnesses. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, it wasn’t too difficult to find people who had heard of, listened to, or played with some of the regional stars. However, they had their challenges cut out for them too. Most of what they know was first learned on linear notes, and frequent trips to the Mississippi Delta were required to learn more. Marriage certificates, death certificates, and other documents required travel. Now, that is no longer the case – most of these databases have been made digital and appear online.
With services such as Ancestry.com, Google, and other online resources, it has become increasingly easier to dig up documents of our favorite blues stars. However, there are several things that must be taken into take into consideration. Some of these things are easy to account for, and others are entirely guess work.
First of all, as a researcher, you are, in fact, a truth hunter. So many blues figures of the past are associated with poor or incomplete information. This is why it helps to focus heavily on documents. Sure, witnesses can tell a lot – but the fact is simply that documents are far more reliable. That is not to be misconstrued as documents always being truthful – but they are, in fact, more reliable. For this reason – regardless of past research and witness statements – I tend to hunt for documents to prove or disprove what has been reported on in the past.
Secondly, it’s absolutely necessary to take care with what research that is found, and how it that research is presented. Often times, documents will not reflect the personal stories of the blues figures themselves, or that of witness statements. It is up to you as the researcher to also question the documents. Robert Johnson’s death certificate is a good example. Have you ever really looked at the information? Robert Johnson – which was not only a common name in the Delta in the 1930’s, but also one attached to several musicians (one a banjo player). Johnson’s death certificate is so detailed that it raises eyebrows to many serious researchers. Here was rambling musician, who was allegedly poisoned at a gig. His death certificate, however, contains information on it that is so detailed, it seemed like it was filled out to guarantee that no one would mistake the document as belonging to someone else. His Mother’s maiden name is listed correctly. His birthplace and date were correct. His mother and father’s birthplace and names were correct. Everything on the document was highly detailed and painstakingly accurate – except the cause of death (listed as no doctor), and the informant, listed as Jim Moore. Here’s the thing you have to consider – how many of your closest friends know your mother’s maiden name, your mother and father’s birthplace, etc.? Tie that in with the fact that Jim Moore – at least the name – doesn’t pop up in any other Robert Johnson related biographical information, and we have a genuine mystery. Who was Jim Moore? How did he know so much about Robert Johnson? These documents are so often accepted as fact that they are rarely questioned, but a serious researcher must do just that to continually ensure the validity of research.
Also to take into consideration is the opinion of the researcher. So often, we as researchers are so excited to be the new “founder” of historical data or documents that when we write about them, the writing isn’t necessarily subjective. We as researchers need to make sure we do nothing more than present the facts, and let others form their own opinions.
It is also important to remember the timeframe of the artist you are researching. I often run into this issue with other researchers – it was certainly a different time back in the 20’s and 30’s for black men and women. Therefore, documents, mug shots, etc often fell by the wayside. For instance, I once thought there might be a way to find mug shots of some of these stars. Even Robert Johnson had at least one, and probably several run-ins with the law and arrests… So how hard can it be? Hard. After discussing the idea with other researchers, I discovered most of the photos from that era were destroyed. Gayle Dean Wardlow managed to find a local police station once that had some old photos – stored in an old shed out back. Storing these records were often simply not thought of back in those days. The problem is compounded by the fact that a lot of the blues artists used different names, listed different cities as home, had more than one wife, etc. They were often travelers who didn’t really settle down long enough for documents to be created. They avoided cameras too. Most of the pictures we have today of our favorite blues stars were paid for and taken by record companies to help promote the albums.
It also important to remember one other thing – follow leads using common sense. Sometimes we get blinded by our excitement to solve a mystery, and it always pays to remember to use common sense. At one point, I was contacted by another researcher who wanted to have a police/forensic sketch artist do a sketch of a famous blues star based on witness statements and such. The advice I gave was to go another route – try to find the picture. This particular star died in the 50’s, so photos were common. He was jailed. He was hospitalized. He stayed places for extensive periods of time. My advice was to start with hospitals who took in African-Americans in the late 40’s for alcoholism in Memphis. There can’t be too many – try to dig up those records, and go from there. The point is to base “new” research off of the hardest found facts. Census Records can prove (possibly) that a particular star lived somewhere. Compare that to old city directories. Cross reference. Due Diligence. Phone books. Newspaper clippings. Narrow it down. Use Common Sense.
The truth is, anyone can be a researcher. If you do it right and take it seriously, you’ll have a lot more luck. But we also have to consider the disappointing fact that some things are forever lost to time; there are some things we will never figure out. There are mysteries that will forever stay buried. And that, my friend, is part of the romantic attraction to the blues. Good luck, and happy truth seeking!