Nature and Robert Johnson

by: Carter Neil


A few months ago a graduate student asked an email list that I subscribe to for suggestions of texts for a class on African-American nature writing. She was literally bombarded with numerous novels, poems, essays, and such, but the most intriguing proposal, in my opinion, came about a week after the question was sent in. Some lonely scholar emailed the lyrics to a Muddy Waters song and asked that the Blues be considered as "literature that would shed light on Black relations with nature." What had always struck me about the Blues was the relative lack of natural images in the music, so I was troubled by this suggestion. What could we learn, I thought, from the Blues about how Blacks relate to the natural world when there are so few instances of natural images in the music? I let this thought go unanswered because, as they say, one thing pushes out another, and I was getting pushed by my finals.

The question came back to me as I started to read Robert Johnson's lyrics and hear his songs. I wrote down each occurrence of natural images in his songs in my notebook, and I tried to say what function these images played in the song (attached). Of the 13 separate images in 8 songs only three do not demonstrate some emotional state in the singer. The remaining ten images all conform to two basic categories. They either reflect the speaker's of isolation, his loneliness, or they reflect a sense of nature as threatening whereby they demonstrate his fear.

Johnson sings in "Preachin' Blues," "I can study rain/ Oh Oh Oh drive these Blues away..." He creates in these lines an incredibleamount of emotional intensity with the resounding timbre of his voice and the powerful beat and bass in the music. His voice clearly gives off a sense of isolation and loneliness-- a sense that is only enhanced by this image of rain. The word in this phrase that is a key to understanding the depth of Johnson's loneliness is not "rain" but "study." When he says "I been studyin' rain..." he is doing more than using the image of rain to reinforce an idea of isolation. He is telling the listener that he has knowledge about loneliness gained through a study of it, through an intense relationship to it. His use of the word "study" further serves to validate his attempt in the song to "preach" the Blues since a preacher must know what he's talking about.

The image of rain also occurs in "Come On In My Kitchen" as a reflection of an emotional state of loneliness. The idea of loneliness is intensified in this toned down (compared to Preachin' Blues) song not through a dramatic vocal and musical performance, but by compounding off the rain the sound of the wind and the anticipation of winter. The howin' of the wind and the dread of the coming winter combine with the oncoming rain to create in the listener a desire for comfort. Johnson fills this desire in his refrain, "you better come on in my kitchen." He presents an alternative to this dreadful world outside, an escape from rain, wind, and winter, in his home and company.

While in "Preachin' Blues" and "Come On In My Kitchen" Johnson uses natural images to reflect loneliness and a sense of isolation, he uses them for very different ends in "Crossroads" and "Stones in my Passway." In both of these songs natural images reflect some sense of fear, of distress in the speaker through their threatening nature. In "Crossroads" Johnson sings, "the sun goin' down, boy/ dark gon' catch me here." These are two really ominous lines accentuated by the almost nervous music coming from the guitar. This image of a man alone by the side of the road at night has lost some of its intensity and terror through its translation into our culture. To us being by the side of a road at night may contain a bit of fear, but to a Black man in the Delta in Johnson's time this was a terrifying position to be in. After dark a Black man could be considered to be a threat by a White man and could be beat up, or worse without any evidence of wrongdoing. So when Johnson sings about the oncoming night, he is singing about something terrible catching up to him.

"Stones in my Passway" is another song that makes use of the images of darkness and night to show the fear of the singer. Johnson sings, "I got stones in my passway, /and my road seem dark as night." He is singing about some problem in his life but without the phrase "dark as night" his problem would seem less distressing to the listener. When he says that this problem has made his "road seem black as night" he is telling us that his future is unclear and troubled by this problem. He is also imparting a sense of hopelessness with this image of dusk. In "Crossroads" this terror of dusk is catching up to him, in "Stones in my Passway" it is lying in wait down the road.

"Hellhound" is a song of true genius. In all of Johnson's work it is the only instance in which he blends the two uses of nature: in every other song nature either reflects the singers loneliness, or his fear. In "Hellhound" nature comes to represent both terror and isolation at the same time. He moves from the image of rain with its long-lived association with isolation and loneliness to the image of hail. The switch from rain to hail brings a threatening quality to the song that is only accentuated by the disturbing quality of the music. Where rain brought with it the sense of loneliness, hail brings with it both a sense of loneliness and a sense of fear.

The second natural image in "Hellhound" is another extension and revision of a previous image--that of the wind. In other Johnson songs, notably "Come on in my Kitchen," the wind's only function is to "howl," and its only use is to further a sense of the singer's isolation. In "Hellhound" the wind takes on a different function, it blows through a tree and causes the leaves to "tremble." When he sings this part of the song Johnson plays on the guitar music that trembles with the imagined tree. Just as the wind makes the tree to act afraid, to tremble, whatever it is that Johnson is running from is making him afraid, and his fear is reflected in his music and his words.

Earlier I asked, what could we learn from the Blues about how Blacks relate to the natural world when there are so few instances of natural images in the music? From looking at Robert Johnson's lyrics it is clear to me that a lot can be said by a few words. I still can't answer my question because Johnson is not all Blacks, but in his music the natural world serves to reflect his inner state. That is, he puts on to it what he is feeling at the time. If he is afraid, the sun starts to set; if he's lonely, it begins to rain; and if he is both lonely and afraid, then it hails down on him.