Misogyny and Respect in
Robert Johnson Songs
Robert Johnson displays two attitudes toward the women in his songs. In songs such as "Terraplane Blues," Johnson shows a misogynist attitude when he uses the sexual metaphor of a car as a woman' body. In other songs such as "When You Got a Good Friend," Johnson shows a high degree of respect for the woman about whom he is singing, by deferring to her judgment and appealing to her mercy.
In "Terraplane Blues," Robert Johnson has stripped a woman of her humanity and likened her to a machine for his sexual use. One of the differences between Johnson's treatment of the woman in "Terraplane Blues" and the woman in "When You've Got a Good Friend" is the degree of autonomy he acknowledges. In "Terraplane Blues" Johnson speaks of all the things he plans to do to this woman, even though it appears that she is not interested in doing anything with him. Even though Johnson acknowledges that "your horn won't even blow," that doesn't deter him in his plans: "I'm bound to check your oil"; "I'm 'on' get deep down in this connection, keep on tanglin' with these wires."
In "when You Got a Good Friend," Johnson grants this woman a high degree of autonomy. Even though she has left him, Johnson is not bound and determined to make her take him back. He is in fact hesitant about approaching her ("Wonder could I bear apologize / or would she sympathize with me") and acknowledges that it's her decision: ("babe, I may be right ay wrong / Baby it's yo'y opinion").
Another way in which Johnson's treatment of the two women differs is in his level of respect for them as evidenced by how he refers to them. In "Terraplane Blues" Johnson says "Somebody's been runnin' my batteries down on this machine" and then asks the woman, "Who been drivin' my Terraplane for you." He doesn't ask, "who have you been with," but instead, "who has been with my property." These lines evidence that, in Johnson's opinion, not only is this woman just a machine for his sexual pleasure, she is also merely his property.
In contrast, Johnson refers to the woman in the other song as a "good friend." Anyone familiar with Johnson's work will recognize the weight that the title "good friend" carries. This is probably the highest degree of respect Johnson has granted anyone in his songs. Indeed, "When You Got a Good Friend" is almost a statement of reverence. Johnson practically declares himself not worthy of this woman when he acknowledges how sweet, good and loyal she is ("just as sweet as a girl friend can be"; "a good friend that will stay right by your side"), and how he mistreated her ("I mistreated my baby / I can't see no reason why.")
Johnson's treatment of the woman in both of these songs is moving. Although "Terraplane Blues" may be dismissed as a harmless joke, a feminist analysis will recognize this song as a powerful, graphic, and terribly destructive, dehumanizing statement about women. When "You've Got a Good Friend" is equally powerful in an entirely different way. This song is one of Johnson's most open vulnerable statements about a love relationship, and I reveals a deep and genuine feeling about women that is not evidenced in so many of his misogynist songs.
One of the reasons these two songs are so fascinating in juxtaposition is that they seem to reveal the essential issue on which Johnson's alternately misogynist and loving attitudes toward women turn. The issue is loyalty. In his collected works Johnson sings about woman after woman treating him wrong and "doggin' him round"-cheating on him. These fickle relationships bring out Johnson's misogynist attitudes-he reveals in these songs that he is abusive, he treats these women equally badly, and he feels little emotion toward them beyond sexual attraction. "When You Got a Good Friend" is a good representative of the few songs in which Johnson reveals his sincere feelings of love for women. Johnson loves the woman in this song as a good friend precisely because she "will stay right by your side"-because she does not cheat him.