The new Vanity Fair article “Searching for Robert Johnson” is ostensibly about a vintage-guitar expert and blues aficionado who may or may not have bought a hitherto unknown photograph of blues legend Robert Johnson on eBay and the daunting task of determining whether it’s actually of him when he’s been dead for most of a century and only two other photographs have ever been seen by the public. The detective-story aspect is pretty fascinating, but when author Frank DiGiacomo delves into the question of who’s owned and controlled Johnson’s image for the past 70 years the piece gains a bigger theme: the way musicians can be exploited long after they’re dead.
Under the assumption that she was Johnson’s next of kin–the second half-sister had reportedly died by then, though Johnson’s mother and other half-siblings were still alive–she also signed an agreement that transferred to [researcher Steve] LaVere “her right, title and interest, including all common law and statutory copyrights” to the two photographs, as well as a handwritten note Johnson had purportedly composed on his deathbed and, most important, all musical works and recordings of Robert Johnson.
LaVere’s stewardship set a precedent for litigious, uncompromising control of Johnson’s music, image, and name. Johnson’s apparent son Claud was so traumatized by the legal process of proving his relationship to his father that he refuses to even talk about the photograph with DiGiacomo out of fear that he might somehow violate an agreement he’s signed with HBO and open himself up to another lawsuit.