Showing posts with label Robert Johnson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Johnson. Show all posts

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Don't Look Back

Son of the god Apollo (proficient on the lyre) and Calliope (Muse of epic poetry), Orpheus was a richly gifted musician admired for his immense skill with the lyre as well as his lyrical acumen. Orpheus is thus largely seen as an archetypal figure for the poet and musician. Legend has it that soon after he married Eurydice, his young bride, she died. The inconsolable Orpheus descended into Hell in order to get her back. Improbably, he charmed the gods of the underworld into accepting his demand that she return to the land of the living with him. His demand, though, was subject to one fundamental condition: he had to walk ahead of her from Hell, and must not look back until both of them were safely in the sunlight. But, alas, Orpheus looked back at the very last moment, and Eurydice vanished. (Milton: “I woke, she fled, and day brought back my night.”) Having lost his beloved wife twice, Orpheus vowed never again to touch a woman. His swearing off women earned him the wrath of the Maenads, devotees of the god Dionysus, and as a consequence he was torn to pieces. His dismembered body parts were gathered by the Muses and buried, and his lyre became the constellation Lyra. (In J. W. Waterhouse’s famous painting, “Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus,” his head and lyre are discovered floating side by side.) The figure of Orpheus is thus more than the archetype of the artist as poet and musician, but also the figure of the artist who has the power to exorcise death by his song, the power to descend into Hell—and return. As a figure unafraid to confront the darkness—and more importantly, to conquer it—Orpheus is a figure for immortality.

I’m by no means the first to observe that the blues is Orphic in the sense that it confronts the darkness and conquers it. Understanding the blues is much like understanding jazz, which reminds me of the famous line of Louis Armstrong, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” In “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin characterized the blues as “the only light we’ve got in all this darkness,” while Langston Hughes observed, “For sad as Blues may be, there’s almost always something humorous about them—even if it’s the kind of humor that laughs to keep from crying” (qtd. in Saadi A. Simawe, ed., Black Orpheus: Music in African American Fiction From The Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison, p. 66). The existential theme underlying the blues—I can’t go on, I will go on—is one that Samuel Beckett recognized: the hope that emerges from recognizing one’s despair. Freud observed that the feeling of anxiety couldn’t be questioned because it is absolutely and unquestionably real: one doesn’t “doubt” the feeling of anxiety because it is indisputably true. Despair is also real, in the sense that it can’t be doubted. But it can be fought, which is what I take to be the meaning of the injunction at the center of the Orphic myth, “don’t look back.”

In “Run Through the Jungle,” a song I take to have been inspired by Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail” (as was Creedence’s “Bad Moon Rising”), John Fogerty sings:

Thought it was a nightmare,
Lo, it’s all so true,
They told me, “Don’t go walking slow
‘Cause Devil’s on the loose.”
Better run through the jungle,
Better run through the jungle,
Better run through the jungle,
Don’t look back to see.

The Devil, the Hellhound, “the voice of rage and ruin”—these are all tropes for the darkness that the music serve to dispel (or at least ward off, like apotropaic magic), and why Orpheus’ singing is capable of transformation, why he allegedly could charm nature itself.

A Few Songs With the “Don’t Look Back” Theme:
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “The Lyre of Orpheus”
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Run Through the Jungle”
Charlie Daniels, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”
Don Henley, “The Boys of Summer”
Madonna, “Jump”
Robert Pete Williams, “Prisoner’s Talking Blues”

This article explores the Orphic theme that informs the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004). There’s also Belle & Sebastian’s “Like Bob Dylan in the Movies” that references D. A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back (1967), an orthographically incorrect title that is apparently a deliberate reference to the Orpheus myth. The early Bob Dylan was also inspired by Johnson’s “Hellhound On My Trail”: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” owes as much to Johnson’s surreal, apocalyptic image of “Blues falling down like hail” as it does to metaphorical nuclear fallout. Later Dylan songs such as “Man in the Long Black Coat” also strike me as being influenced by Robert Johnson’s demonic Hellhound as well.