Brian Ward teaches southern, African American, and cultural history at the Northumbria University. His publications include A&R Pioneers: Architects of American Roots Music on Record (2018); Martin Luther King in Newcastle upon Tyne: The African American Freedom Struggle and Race Relations in the North East of England (2017); The 1960s: A Documentary Reader (2009); Radio and the Struggle for Civil Rights in the South (2004), which was selected by the American Library Association as a Choice outstanding academic title and won the best history book award from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication; and Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations (1998), which won the OAH James A. Rawley Prize and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. He is currently working on two books: one about sickness and health in southern music, the other about The Beatles and the U.S. South.
One of the most fabled recording sessions in US history occurred on November 23, 1936, in the Gunter Hotel, San Antonio, where bluesman Robert Johnson cut his first sides for the American Record Corporation. Although he enjoyed little commercial success during his lifetime, Johnson, since the 1960s blues revival, has become the most revered of all bluesmen: an iconic figure whose life and art seem to embody black resistance to Jim Crow. Near the heart of many celebrations of Johnson’s significance is the story that in San Antonio he chose to play while facing a wall—a gesture that has been interpreted variously as an act of proud racial defiance directed towards the white record company officials in attendance, as an attempt to alter the acoustics of the recording, and as a way for Johnson to hide his best guitar licks from prying eyes. This lecture revisits the historic circumstances of Johnson’s recording debut and considers what is at stake for our understanding of the Jim Crow South in the fiery debates about which direction he was facing.