Loathing and Longing

by: Tim Halloran


A Major motif of Robert Johnson's music centers around his attitude towards women. Two distinctly different treatments of women appear prominent in Johnson's works-namely the notion of women as healers, capable of allaying the fears and troubles of men, and contrastingly, a sentiment or utter loathing towards women, viewing them as the root of evil and cause of trouble in a man's world. "Walking Blues" and "Drunken Hearted Man" (take 1) respectively, demonstrate these opposing viewpoints. While one song illustrates the desperate longing and loneliness associated with the loss of a woman, the other exists as an ode to the awful life which results from falling prey to a woman's charms.

In "Walking Blues," Johnson sings of a man totally depressed because he has awakened one morning to the realization that his lover, Bernice, has left him. Not only does the speaker feel sadness because of the sudden loss of his woman, but he adds, "I feel like / blow-oon' / my lonesome home / ... who-all I had was gone," (16-18, 20) suggesting that in some way Bernice's presence added an intangible quality to his home which helped give it meaning. Through these lines, the speaker offers that Bernice has robbed him both of his joy and his home, making her loss felt all the more. The two-fold nature of this loss-both emotional and concrete-leaves the speaker completely dejected. Further illustrating the magnitude of his loss, the speaker talks of riding the "blinds" (23) out of town. Although the term blind probably refers to a train or other vehicle, the particular word choice distinctly resonates the mental image of one who has lost sight, and is subsequently conferred a new and impaired state of reality. And, as a result of this painful condition, the speaker sulks, "Babe, I been mistreated / baby, and I don't mind dyin'" (28-29). Despite the fact that this song never specifically praises Bernice, one must examine the lyrics within the broader context o Johnson's other works. The fact that the speaker's sadness flows from the loss of a woman, and that he now feels not only emotionally bereft of love, but as if his home's value has in some way been reduced by the lack of her presence, stands out noticeably against what one might term the "usual" sentiment towards women in Johnson's songs-that being one of scornful degradation.

In stark contrast to "Walking Blues," the tone of "Drunken Hearted Man" seems to come from a man who would be ashamed to know, let alone asociate with anyone who could ever conceive of such a song as the former. "Drunken Hearted Man" describes a cyclical and inter-generational process by which women bring misery to the lives of men. The song is driven by the notion that men, out of weakness or necessity, inevitably surrender to the alluring qualities of women under the pretense of love, yet ultimately reap the painful consequences for such foolish decisions. In the first verse the speaker says, "And if I could change my way of livin' / it t'would mean so much to me" (5-6). Here, the notion of a life-long perpetuation of suffering is introduced by the speaker as his language suggests something which has begun in the past, and continues to replicate in the present. The idea that the problems associated with women are not new, is supported by the speaker's mention of his father, leading one to infer that the same troubles which haunt him now, afflicted his father as well. Moreover, of particular interest is the speaker's choice of words in describing his father's father, indicates that the connection between past and present should not be ignored. By beginning the verse with the words, "My father died and left me," (13) and ending with "Every man likes that game you call love / but it don't mean no man no good," (17-18) the speaker draws a connection between his father's death and his love of a woman.

The son's final verse expounds on the history of women's destructive influence on men. Drawing on his father's experience and comparing it to his life, the speaker says, "Now, I'm the drunken hearted man / and sin was the cause of it all," (19-20) suggesting by the word "Now," that he has effectively become his father's modern substitute. Not only do these lines link the speaker and his fate with his father, but they make a Biblical reference to the first sin in the Garden of Eden. With the final verse, the speaker has finally deduced the catalyst for al subsequent female transgressions against men. In order to eradicate any possible ambiguity and also to insure the resonance of the song's anti-female sentiment, Johnson intentionally ends the song with a pun on the word "fall," alluding to the first time that woman tempted a man: "And the day that you get weak for no-good women / that's the day that you bound to fall" (24-25). Here, the speaker offers a final word of warning for all men to heed if they wish to stay sober and alive.

Whether Johnson truly saw women as healers and creatures of good will, or as wrongdoers with evil intents is inconclusive. Although the majority of his songs seem to support the latter, this does not necessarily equate to his having felt decisively one way or the other. In light of the fact that songs like "Walking Blues" and "Drunken Hearted Man" were written by a man whose short life unfortunately left several questions about his motivations unanswered, one can not be sure of Johnson's intentions. In conclusion, it seems that the gravely contradictory sentiments exhibited in his songs tend to reflect the attitude of a man who had not yet decided for himself exactly how he felt.