Robert Johnson’s Music is Timeless. Now It’s Also on ‘Timeless.’
NBC’s Timeless sends its time-travelers to old San Antonio Sunday. But instead of the obvious moment, which would be the 1836 siege of the Alamo, they drop in a hundred years later on the first recording session of revered blues guitarist Robert Johnson.
It’s a bold call for Timeless, which airs at 10 p.m. ET, and one that deserves high praise.
Timeless, to summarize briefly, pits a small band of good guys against an evil organization called Rittenhouse whose goal is using a time machine to change the past in ways that would have catastrophic consequences for the present.
Think of Michael J. Fox realizing in Back to the Future that if one little moment in history were tweaked, his parents might never have met and he might not exist. Multiple that by billions of people and all the nations of the world and you see the urgency for good guys Rufus Carlin (Malcolm Barrett), Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer), Jiya (Claudia Doumit), Connor Mason (Paterson Joseph), Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter), Garcia Flynn (Goran Visnjic) and Denise Christopher (Sakina Jaffrey) to thwart Rittenhouse.
Their missions typically tackle big stuff. Last week they rescued future President John F. Kennedy.
Robert Johnson, arguably, represents a narrower historical niche.
To its great credit, however, Timeless declares he had enormous significance. Mostly through Mason, it declares culture and music play a huge role in shaping who we are, how we perceive the world and the general richness of our lives.
Johnson’s recordings, Mason argues, led directly to rock ’n’ roll, the dominant popular music for the last half of the 20th century.
The rest of the Timeless team says yes, without Robert Johnson, maybe there would have been no rock ’n’ roll. And without the rock ’n’ roll revolution of the 1950s, maybe there wouldn’t have been other parallel revolutions, like civil rights.
That’s a stretch. In real life, Johnson was known only to a very small, mostly rural Southern audience until 1961, when John Hammond persuaded Columbia Records to release 13 of Johnson’s 29 recordings on an album called King of the Delta Blues Singers.
That album, while a modest seller, reached musicians like Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. It became a touchstone for the 1960s blues revival that brought back black blues singers from a generation before and inspired hundreds of young, mostly white guys to sit at the feet of those bluesmen and learn.
The ripple impact was massive. We hear its echoes today. But as almost always happens with popular culture, pioneer artists like Johnson over the years have gradually receded into the mists of history.
That’s why it’s so gratifying that Timeless brings Robert Johnson onto prime-time network television.
In real life, there isn’t even total agreement that Johnson really was the king of the Delta blues singers. Clapton, not alone, says he was. Others bestow the title on Charlie Patton, who’s very hard to argue against.
But Johnson comes with an extra dimension. Blues legend has it that he “went to the crossroads” and sold his soul to the devil in return for being granted the gift of playing the blues like nobody else.
Make of that what you will. Did he get his eerie, arresting guitar style through Satanic intervention, or because he studied Son House and had unusually long, nimble fingers?
Timeless, wisely, treats the legend with a wink. The Johnson character (played by guest star Kamahl Naiqui) talks extensively about being “cursed.”
To make its own story work, Timeless takes some liberties with Johnson’s first recording sessions. But it starts him out on the right date with the right real-life producer, Don Law, in the right real-life place, San Antonio’s Gunter Hotel.
Naiqui’s Johnson is seen performing two songs, “Cross Road Blues” and “Stop Breaking Down,” and they sound wonderful. If you agree, you should go out and buy the double CD of Johnson’s real-life complete works.
Elsewhere in Sunday’s episode, Johnson visits his sister’s juke joint and meets House, Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith. Let’s not be absolutely certain that happened, but the mere fact they’re being referenced on network TV in 2018 justifies conjuring the scene. It is true they were all alive in 1936.
The real-life Johnson, for the record, did carry some curses. By the time he was 21 he had lost two wives in childbirth, and in 1932 he went on the road full-time, playing blues for the sharecroppers one night and light popular parlor tunes for a whole different clientele the next. He used multiple aliases and reportedly cut a swath through the women of the Delta.
He had just two recording sessions, that first one in San Antonio and a second the following June in Dallas. He died two months later, on Aug. 16, 1938, age 27. Legend long held he was poisoned by a jealous boyfriend or husband, though that tale, as with so many others about his life, has never been conclusively documented.
Whatever the details that we will never know, Robert Johnson was a wonderful and influential musician. In the great musical chain, he was a gold link.
The more we remember his music and his story, the more culturally literate and enriched we become. For Sunday’s shout-out, Timeless can take a bow.