Jean-Michel Dupont: Love In Vain
From ‘Crossroads Blues’ to ‘Sweet Home Chicago’, ‘Hellhound on My Trail’ to ‘Come On In My Kitchen’, Robert Johnson wrote some of the most enduring and formative songs of the original blues era, songs that would go on to help shape the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1960s. Beloved of Clapton, Dylan and the Stones, Robert Johnson remains one of the most iconic and mythologized figures in popular music (and the first of many to die at the age of 27). Born in the in the South in Mississippi, Johnson made his way to the urban North as a traveling musician, but it was only when he returned to the South that he recorded the twenty-nine songs, in two sessions, which would create his legacy. Exploring the stories and legends that surround his life and death — his childhood, his womanizing, his pact with the devil at the crossroads — Mezzo and DuPont have produced a fittingly creative and beautiful depiction of this most extraordinary life.
Jean-Michel Dupont & Mezzo / Photo by Roel Ebbinge
Robert Johnson born in 1911 and dead at the tender age of 27 in 1938 – presumably poisoned by a rival in love – Robert Johnson was a street performer whose skills were unsurpassed – a stew of singing, guitar playing and songwriting that has influenced world-famous artists like Eric Clapton and Muddy Waters. He died as fast as he lived, and the tight script by French writer Jean-Michel Dupont puts the finger where it hurts: racial tensions, the downright shoddy back areas of the Mississipi delta, the run-down bars where Johnson was forced to perform and the general living conditions of African Americans in the Southern States. Dupont writes not only about Johnson, but about the state of America in the thirties and how, for Johnson, music was the only thing that kept him going (coupled with the booze and women that life entails).
One clever choice to recount the events that shape Johnson’s life is Dupont’s decision to have everything recited by a mysterious narrator who is linked to rumours of Johnson’s fabled deal with the devil at the crossroads (which took me back to Tom Coker’s incredible The Ride: The Devil Don’t Sing No Blues, inspired by Johnson’s legendary bargain. As inspired as Johnson’s story and Dupont’s script are, the visuals by Mezzo (of hardboiled noir drama King of the Flies fame) are equally strong. Mezzo’s solid black style, with heavy line work and strong staging, ups the ante on his previous work, and he turns in the best art I’ve seen from him yet. The landscape format allows him to go all out with rowdy crowd scenes, poverty-stricken rural areas and menacing skies of apocalyptic blackness. His figure work is also livelier and more fluid, showing an effort and a love of the subject. Hailed as album of the year by French comic shops in 2015, Love in Vain. Robert Johnson – 1911-1938 by Jean-Michel Dupont and Mezzo is a dazzling read about a life dominated by the power of music and its ability to deliver hope in despair, and the dichotomy of a life searching for comfort as an escape. Dupont’s tight scripting coupled with Mezzo’s visceral visuals give rise to a powerful graphic novel.
Interview by Michael Limnios
How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
As I was born in 1956, I’ve been very much influenced politically and philosophically by the spirit of the sixties and I still remain, but the music which impressed me the most emotionally is obviously the blues. I discovered it when I was 12 or 13 by doing a presentation at school in music class. I worked on it with a schoolmate whose father was a big jazz and blues fan and had hundreds of old 78 rpm records. That was the first time I heard about such artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker or Jimmy Reed. I loved it and it made me understand where some sounds I knew already through such bands as the Rolling Stones or Canned Heat came from. When I started playing guitar at 14, as every beginner, I played mostly blues thinking it was easier, but I discover later that it was quite more difficult than I thought to play the blues properly. As for my journeys, I first went to Chicago as a pilgrim and I loved the city, but I was quite more moved a few years later went I went to Mississippi to make research’s for “Love in Vain”. When you go there, you’re exactly where the blues comes from and you can feel it. And even if you’ve been listening this music for a long time, you can feel and understand this music quite better. It’s a question of atmosphere.
How started the thought of “Love in Vain”? What touched (emotionally) you from Robert Johnson’s music and life?
Mezzo isn’t really a blues fan, but he loves the work of Robert Crumb who has been for him a great inspiration. Basically, he was more interested in the visual universe of the blues, which Crumb depicted so well, and that was his main motivation when he asked me to work with him on a graphic novel about the early blues. The idea of a biopic on Robert Johnson came after. We needed a strong character to tell our story and, among all the artists of that time, he was not only one of the well-knowns and the most essentials musically, but also the more dramatic. A guy who has lost his wife and his child at 18, is alleged to have made a deal with the Devil and has been murdered by a jealous husband, that makes a good start for telling a story!
Why do you think that the Robert Johnson music and life continues to generate such a devoted following?
Of course, because of his haunting voice and his exceptional musical skills which make him one of the best blues artist of all time, but this can’t be the only explanation. People like Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or, more recently, Jack White played a major role to make him well known by covering his songs and singing its praises. Also there is this alleged story of a pact with the Devil which is quite fascinating and was heavily promoted by “Crossroads”, the Walter Hill movie, which was a huge success in the 80’s. Then there is the tragic death of Robert Johnson at the age of 27, which makes him a member of the famous 27 Club along with Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. For all these reason, one can see why he became so iconic.
Are there any memories from your travels in Africa and Mississippi which you’d like to share with us? Which meetings have been the most important experiences?
I went in Benin, in West Africa, a couple of years ago, and I had the opportunity to accompany a friend who had an audience with Daagbo Hounon Houna II, the pope of Voodoo. That was absolutely thrilling. In Mississippi, when I went there with Mezzo recently for the shooting of documentary around “Love in Vain”, I met a lot of fascinating people as RL Boyce who received us at his place in Como and played some tunes just for us. But my best memory is about Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, when I saw him five years ago playing in Clarksdale à the “Red’s Lounge”. At that time, he was only 14 but was already an amazing guitar player, and the gig lasted about four hours. I talked a bit with him and got the phone number of his mother. Two years later, as “Love in Vain” was just released and very successful in France, the Comics Festival of Angoulême presented an exhibition around the book. As they also wanted to organize a blues concert, they seeked advice from me and I called Kingfish’s mother to tell her that we’d like to invite her son to come and play in France. Of course, at first, she didn’t believe me! It was Kingfish’s first gig outside the US and even outside Mississippi, and also his first time in a big venue, but he did a great job.
What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
If you mean an advice about “Love in Vain”, I guess the best advice we’ve got came from Lawrence Cohn, the producer of the famous CD “Robert Johnson: Complete Recordings” who is also a great blues historian. As we were working on this project, some parts were published in the French magazine “Soul Bag” and we knew he loved it. So, I got in touch with him and he gave us a warm encouragement. When the book was finished, we sent him a pdf before the release and he was so enthusiastic that he accepted to write a foreword. That was a kind of blessing.
What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
When I was 17, I saw Big Joe Williams playing in my hometown, in the north of France. It was in a very small venue and there weren’t more than 100 people in the audience. That’s for me an amazing memory. So, what I miss the most today is the opportunity to see legendary blues artists playing live, because they’re all dead! About the future of blues, I feel rather confident. First, there is obviously a revival of interest for this music, specially the Delta blues, and, to take an example I know very well, the unexpected success of “Love in Vain” shows this point. Secondly, a new generation of talented blues black artist is emerging at the moment, one of the best example being Kingfish. Unlike the previous generations of Afro-Americans since the 60’s, they don’t see any more the blues, and specially the very old blues, as a symbol of the segregation era, but as a major base of their cultural identity. Maybe, with all the racial issues which still exist in the U.S., this music could become a symbol of pride in the fight against discrimination.
DuPont & RL Boyce, Mississippi
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?
I guess, I would go and listen legendary blues artists who never recorded, like Henry Sloan and Ike Zinnerman. Henry Sloan was working at the Dockery Farm, near Ruleville, Mississippi, at the end of the 19th century. He taught guitar to such people as Charley Patton and Son House, and according to the scholars he’s the inventor of the Delta blues. As for Ike Zinnerman, Robert Johnson learnt from him a lot of licks and tricks he used in his music. You can believe if you want that Robert Johnson got his fabulous talent from a pact with the Devil, but the lessons he got from Ike Zinnerman seem to be a more plausible explanation!
What has been the hardest obstacle for Robert Johnson to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped him become a better blues musician?
As we know very little about his life, and as he was very secretive with his friends, nobody can tell what was in his mind, but if you take the known facts, you can imagine the problems he had to face. That’s what we tried to do in “Love in Vain”. Obviously, as he never knew his real father, he must have suffered of this, and obviously, when he was 18, the loss of his young wife and their baby was a big trauma. At that time, he worked as a cotton-picker and was starting out to become a family man, and it’s after this tragedy that he decided to become a travelling musician. Then, he had to face another obstacle when his mentor, Son House, tried to discouraged him, thinking he was a poor guitar player. He felt so humiliated that he moved away to live somewhere else, in Hazlehurst, his birthplace, where he met a new mentor, Ike Zinnerman, who seems to have been a better teacher than Son House!
How you would spend a day with Robert Johnson today? What would you say and what would you like to ask him?
First, I would offer him a bottle of good bourbon and ask him to play a couple of songs. Then, as we know so little about his life, I would ask him to tell me his all story. I would like practically know why, as he was starting to make a name of himself in New York and Chicago, he decided to go back in Mississippi to live again as a street musician. Also, I would talk with him about his alleged pact with the Devil, and it would probably make him laugh a lot, because according to people as Johnny Shines and Robert Lockwood Jr who knew him very well, he never told such a story. Finally, I would warn him not to drink the bottle of moonshine that was offered to him at the Three Forks juke joint, because it was poisoned. A couple of month after his death, John Hammond, the famous producer who discovered such people as Billie Holiday, Count Basie or Bob Dylan, wished to invite him in New York to perform in a big concert, but it was too late. At that time, if Robert Johnson had remained alive, that would be a quite different story.
What is the impact of the Blues on the literary tradition, and on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?
Even if the blues lyrics inspired a lot of writers and songwriters, for example Bob Dylan, its main cultural impact is obviously musical because it’s the source of the music styles which are the most popular around the world: rock’n’roll, soul, R’n’B, rap… About the racial, political and socio-cultural implications that’s different, because as I told before, when the fight for the civil rights increased in the 60’s, the angry young black people saw the blues as a music of resignation rather than a music of pride. Today, as the blues is unanimously considered as a major part of the north American culture, that could be a strong symbol for the Afro-American community.