This Week's Article: "The Dangerous Nickname Game"
by Marty Weil @ChiBluesHistory
Peetie Wheatstraw was known as "The Devil's Son-in-Law" and "The High Sheriff of Hell," nicknames he helped cultivate from the stage where he would tell tales of ...selling his soul to the devil and other not-so-nice behaviors. Of course, the nicknameless bluesman Robert Johnson is today more famous than Wheatstraw for his supposed dealings at the crossroads. Almost 100 years later, Johnson's legacy is clouded by ridiculous devil tales, which were, as likely as not, lifted directly from Wheatstraw's stage antics.
Johnson, relatively unknown during his lifetime, intended to excite small crowds in barrooms or on dusty city streets with his "devil-at-the-crossroads story." During his lifetime, he couldn't have known the permanent damage he was doing to his legacy. How could he have known of his unnatural death at 27? Or that his small catalog of songs would become the revered template for electric blues and rock-n-roll? Considering one in 10,000 men in the Delta shared the name Robert Johnson, it's incredible that Johnson is more closely associated with Beelzebub than the man who cultivated two devilish nicknames for himself.
Ironically, Robert "Jr." Lockwood, the only bluesman to have been taught to play directly by Robert Johnson, suffered professionally as a result of his nickname, which was designed to tie him to Johnson by blood. At the tender age of 15, Lockwood was already playing professionally at parties in Helena, Arkansas. In Helena, he often played with Robert Johnson, Sony Boy Williamson II, and Johnny Shines. On one occasion, he played on one side of the Sunflower River while Robert Johnson played on the other, with the people of Clarksdale, Mississippi, milling about the bridge, reportedly unable to tell which guitarist was the real Robert Johnson.
Lockwood relished the idea of being mistaken for the great Delta bluesman and took on the nickname Robert Jr. However, the association grew tiresome when Lockwood re-emerged during the Blues Revival of the 1960s. During the heady days of the Blues Revival, he grew weary of the attention he received because of his misleading nickname, as it connoted his being Robert Johnson's stepson, a fact that he rightly knew overshadowed his own achievements as an outstanding bluesman. His solution? He placed the Jr. after his given name, thus becoming Robert Lockwood Jr.
Marty Weil is the editor of @CHIBLUESHISTORY on Twitter. Marty is a blues researcher, educator, and social media influencer. He is a contributor to bBluesNote the Chicago Blues Network weekly newsletter.
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