Fun Myths and Inauthentic Fun: Robert Johnson and Gogol Bordello

The man that rock and roll fans most associate with acoustic blues, Robert Johnson, is not one of the more accessible blues singers. His music does speak for itself, provided you can get past the thin 1930s recording quality and the sometimes difficult-to-decipher singing style, but what’s really won Mr. Johnson more acclaim than other (I would say equally) worthy blues singers of his time like Blind Willie McTell, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James, is the particularly alluring body of legend that surrounds him. The stories vary in credibility – that he was fatally poisoned at 27 for sleeping with another man’s wife (probably more or less true); that only two photographs of him were ever taken (true as far as anyone knows); that a few weeks before his death he had gone electric and started a rock band-like trio, fifteen years before Elvis (it’s at least conceivable); that he had sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for his phenomenal guitar skills (most likely he just practiced a lot) – but as a whole they tend to build him up into a sort of metaphysical being sent to earth to plant the seed of rock and roll. Much has been written about the cult of authenticity, and how it’s really a sham, and I don’t have anything to add on that topic, but with Robert Johnson it’s not authenticity that matters, but myth, and even though it’s a sham the mythology really does work – it really makes listening to his music more fun. The question is, does it work better before you find out it’s all just myth – that he was probably just a regular entertainer trying to make a living and get laid?

At the other end of the myth spectrum is the Brooklyn-based “Gypsy punk” band Gogol Bordello. Roma music has very little place for the illusion of authenticity – like the culture, it’s heterogeneous and malleable to the point that the “real thing” is impossible to pin down – and it has no scruples about wearing its appropriation on its sleeve, which makes it pretty much immune to origin myths. (Their Web site has an “Origins” section, but it’s jokey and it seems designed to instantly shoot down any sense of mystique that might develop: “But let’s not get too nostalgic here…” ends one page. “That was basicly [sic] two weeks ago.”) Robert Christgau writes that the guitarist of the Serbian Roma band Kal, who toured with Gogol Bordello, uses Chicago blues-style licks “not as a reference but as a common resource, just like the Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan speed syllabics.” Gogol Bordello relates to its source material in much the same way. There’s certainly some artifice to it – I suspect that the singer, Eugene Hütz, who grow up in the Ukraine, exaggerates his thick accent on purpose, and I’m pretty sure some of the grammatical errors in his English lyrics are intentional. But when I listen to the music I don’t care – if Hütz is exaggerating the signs of his eastern-European origins, he’s not doing it to distance or even distinguish himself from the listener. It’s not self-conscious multiculturalism, but more like aculturalism, and the result is that the band actively resists being mythologized as exotic. They never sound like anything more mysterious than a bunch of people playing whatever they want to play, not worrying about what cultures they’re borrowing from.


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