December 1, 2003

Robert Johnson Lost and Found
By Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch

Since his untimely death in 1938, Robert Johnson has not only come to epitomize the Delta blues musician, his legend has grown to literally supernatural dimensions. Johnson was an itinerant and emotionally disturbed loner, pursued by hellhounds and legions of personal demons, who acquired immense musical talent by selling his tortured soul to the devil at a crossroads at midnight—right? Wrong, at least according to the authors of this very compelling and well-researched little book. And what better time than during the Year of the Blues to take a fresh look at the “King of the Delta Blues?”

Pearson and McCulloch don’t present any new historical or biographical information about Johnson. Instead, they examine the existing documentation with the aim of understanding the mythologizing process, and deconstructing many of the most common assumptions about Johnson’s life and music. Starting with the testimonies of those that knew Johnson personally, then proceeding to the writings of jazz, folk, and rock critics who have “interpreted” his life and music (often with little understanding of African-American culture, specifically in the rural South and sometimes for commercial reasons), and finally incorporating information that has surfaced in recent years, the authors seek to demonstrate that, at least in Johnson’s case, the devil is not in the details. This book will, no doubt, be controversial—particularly for those who continue to capitalize on Johnson’s larger-than-life image. But when all the dust has settled, we will iltimately be better off appreciating Johnson for who he actually was, rather than who we would like him to be. University of Illinois Press.

—Barry Cleveland

A Guitarmaker’s Canvas
The Inlay Art of Grit Laskin
Fine inlay work on guitars has traditionally been considered decoration, but guitar maker Grit Laskin has elevated it to a true art form with his startlingly original creations. Working primarily by hand,

Laskin turns pieces of shell, metal, legal ivory, and stone into images of stunning beauty.

Many of the works portrayed in this 132-page book celebrate the human experience— though the 200-plus full-color photographs presented here include plenty of finely detailed scenes of animals, landscapes, spacecraft, constellations, machines, and mythical creatures to feast your eyes on. Laskin’s M.C. Escher-inspired inlay of lizards metamorphosing into shapes that eventually turn into geese is truly mindblowing, and the fact that no computer-aided machinery was used in this complex and challenging work makes it all the more impressive. In fact, Laskin says he has spent as much as 175 hours on a single inlay, which is longer than it takes him to build an entire guitar!

A Guitarmaker’s Canvas is a fitting tribute to a luthier who has built guitars for artists as diverse as Paco Pena and Rik Emmett, and is so respected for his craft that four of his instruments are now on permanent exhibition at Canada’s Museum of Civilization. Backbeat Books.

—Art Thompson


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