A novelist fills in the gaps in the short life of blues musician Robert Johnson.
What we don’t know about Mississippi blues legend Robert Johnson could fill a book — and that’s exactly what Snowden Wright does in his debut novel, “Play Pretty Blues.” The result is tantalizing.
Here’s what we do know. A death certificate says that Johnson died in 1938 at 27. He left only two photographs and 29 songs behind. He hit fame nearly a quarter-century after his death, earning two Grammys and going platinum, becoming one of the first inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and claimed as patron saint by superstar musicians from the 1960s on. Again, he did all this with just 29 songs.
Everything else is legend, including the circumstances of his birth, his death, even where he is buried. Of course, the most famous fragment of his legend is his crossroads bargain with the devil. But another bit involves his powers of seduction. As this “blues walker” traversed the South gathering an audience wherever he could, he groomed a woman in every town he played — one who would attend to his needs and await his next visit.
It’s the latter bit of hearsay that produces the engaging narrator for this inventive novel based on the musical genius who actually lived, but left us too soon. We are told that he left behind six wives, one for each string on his famous six-string guitar, who remain silently devoted to the man.
Years after his death, witnessing their previously unknown husband’s posthumous fame, they are distraught at how few facts they actually know about the man they still adore. Wright has this diverse group of six women speak in one voice, a Greek chorus of sorts. These audacious women take the reader along on a riveting quest of the lovelorn to unravel the mystery that was their husband. They knew from the start it was not going to be easy. He had warned each of them at one time or another: “What does it matter whether or not it’s true, play pretty? Anything’s true as long as people believe it. Don’t you know anything can be improved on with a lie?”
The wives peek under every rock stepped over by their blues-traveling husband. They relentlessly follow his long-dead trail into houses of flesh, juke joints, graveyards, gambling dens, Mobile mansions, New York jazz clubs and cotton-field churches. Wright authenticates his own Delta roots by sprinkling the setting liberally with hell hounds, shotgun houses, skip row cotton, bottle trees and buckshot mud — all woven together with a lyrical prose that evokes the blues performed by Robert Johnson himself. Wright begins with a ghost and gives us a flesh-and-blood man, a genius and a rascal, one destined to steal the reader’s heart.
In the South we have a saying, “All stories are true. Some even happened.” Snowden Wright’s fiction is about as true as it comes.
Jonathan Odell is a native Mississippian who has made Minneapolis his home. He is the author of two novels, “The View From Delphi” and “The Healing.”