Baltimore’s Greg Yawman is a bit of a renaissance man. A semi-retired lawyer, Yawman is a full-time blues fan, history buff, artisan, and author. His incredibly detailed models of Mississippi juke joints, which he donates to the Blues Foundation, are auctioned off at the International Blues Challenge, and Blues Music Awards each year.
But it’s not just the jukes that draw Yawman’s interest. The legends of the blues, along with the history of the Mississippi Delta, have spurred him to write the historical novel, The Summer of the Terraplane Blues.
Published via Amazon, this is Yawman’s first work of historical fiction. Set in the summer of 1938, the book follows the story of James Howard, an African-American student from Baltimore who travels to the Delta to do research for a college project. James becomes the driver, confidant, and friend of Robert Johnson, during the last summer of Johnson’s life. Although the work is fiction, everything is painstakingly tied to known (although sometimes contradictory) historical facts.
We spoke to Greg about his book, the research involved, and why he chose the iconic “King of the Delta Blues Singers” as the would-be protagonist of The Summer of the Terraplane Blues.
JD Nash for American Blues Scene:
Is this your first dive into an historical novel?
It is. I had written two other mystery thrillers twenty years ago and then just kind of got away from writing for quite a while. I decided I wanted to do this, and it’s my first work of historical fiction.
What made you choose Robert Johnson?
He’s such an interesting character. I guess I’ve always been interested in him starting way back. Of course he’s such an important person in blues history. I think he’s probably the most interesting because of the myth of him selling his soul to the devil, and of course the mystery around his death. I’ve always been intrigued by him, so I decided to do all the research and try to write a book that brought him to life, and fleshed out more of his personality.
How long did it take for you to put all the research together?
It was a couple years. I traveled through Mississippi a number of times, and I read virtually everything that’s been written about him. Then, of course, there’s all the ancillary research too. I learned about share-cropping, growing cotton, and the other characters of the time that I built around him. It took quite a while to do that.
I noticed you seemed to nail the ambience of the places in the book.
Well, they’re all real places. In fact even minor places where James stays in a town, I went to the town and picked a place. You know, where he stays in a shotgun shack in Rosedale, I drove around town and found one that looked kind of just right. A place where an older person in the 1930s may rent a room to somebody.
I visited all the places mentioned in the book. When we went back this year, I was with my wife and friends, and we stopped in Friar’s Point. I was taking them around and showing them the house where the Moores had lived. It’s a place in the book where Robert and James had stayed. This year, we got there and it had burned down.
It’s sad that in so many of these little towns, there’s not a lot going on. Many of the small Delta towns are slowly dying.
Fire does seem to be a major cause of tragedy down there. Thinking back to Junior Kimbrough’s place that burned not all that long ago.
That is sad. There are so few true juke joints left. I did hear that Po’ Monkey’s has opened again, and of course there’s the Blue Front. Willie Seaberry was such a character, with his costumes and going table to table to make sure everyone was having a good time. It was so sad when he passed. As I said, I heard it is open again, but I’m not one hundred percent sure on that.
How did the title, The Summer of the Terraplane Blues, come about?
It was one of those things. I was thinking of a title, and in part of the story we have them driving around in a car. That was James’ connection with Robert, as his driver for the summer. Then of course with the song, “Terraplane Blues,” I thought oh, ok – Terraplane – car – so I put that together. I also wanted to indicate that this was all set in one particular time period. It was Robert Johnson’s last summer, so it became ‘The Summer of the Terraplane Blues.’
Do you use a certain space when you write?
What I’ve always done with my books, is I collect all the research. With this one in particular I had tons of information in three-ring binders. I would copy things out of books. I would cut and paste things I found online. Then I started drafting an outline. Finally I begin the writing, all of which I did at home.
I do get to that area a couple times a year at least. We always go the International Blues Challenge, and then to the Blues Music Awards in Memphis. For the last five or six years, just as a hobby, I’ve made models of iconic blues juke joints. Then I donate them to the silent auctions at those events. It’s fun for me. Twice a year, I’ll pick one to do, and then make them. I even made one of the Three Forks, based on what I thought it may have looked like in the 1930s.
There is probably more legend attached to Robert Johnson than historical fact. What did you find the most helpful in your research?
I noted several of the books in my acknowledgments. ‘Searching for Robert Johnson’ by Peter Guralnick, ‘Crossroads’ by Tom Graves, and ‘Escaping the Delta’ by Elijah Wald were really helpful. Also interviews with some of his contemporaries, even though they weren’t full-length books, were huge assets. I would find that someone did an interview with Johnny Shines, or Robert Lockwood, Jr., or Honeyboy Edwards. Those three were certainly his contemporaries and spent time with him. Those gave me a better picture of Robert Johnson than someone writing in present day.
There were definitely inconsistencies in their stories. For example Honeyboy has stated that Robert died in Baptist Town, while most of the research says that’s probably not right. He was probably staying in Greenwood while performing at Three Forks, so it wouldn’t make much sense to take him back to Baptist Town. At the time however, Honeyboy didn’t realize that he was witnessing one of the most important scenes in blues history, so he may not have been paying attention to all the little details.
In your personal opinion, how do you think Robert got so good, in so short a time?
I think it was practice. My guess is that it was probably a longer time than people remember. That’s what I’m guessing. I’m not a believer that he sold his soul to the devil to get his talent. I think he practiced, with Ike Zimmerman, for a bit longer than some others remember. My guess is that we was somewhat of a beginner when Son House first heard him play, but after going away and playing, probably for hours each day, for a year or so he came back as good as he was. You have to remember, he did have a great amount of talent, and probably with that amount of practice, became proficient at it. That’s my supposition.
There’s also some thought that Robert was still writing music. Do you think maybe he had a song or two in his pocket that perhaps someone else recorded?
It’s very possible isn’t it that there may be songs that he had played, and maybe Johnny Shines or Honeyboy Edwards heard them and started playing them as well. Upon his death there wouldn’t be anything to keep them from recording those songs. We’ll never know if there are songs that were written by, or inspired by Robert Johnson, and recorded by another artist.
In the book I have him working on a song the week before his death. Robert and James are talking about his songwriting, and how he does it and things. You just never know.
The Summer of the Terraplane Blues, devoted to the life, myth and music of Robert Johnson, creates a living blues musician. It is available now in paperback and on Kindle via Amazon.
Author: Greg Yawman
Title: The Summer of the Terraplane Blues
Publisher: Amazon CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Publication Date: March 9th, 2018
Format: Paperback 248 pages