Somebody’s Got a Case of the Blues: Timeless Season 2, Episode 6, Recapped

The time team’s humming a new tune after a run-in with one of the most influential men in American music history

Robert Johnson (Kamal Naiqui) records some of his tunes that would later change rock music as we know it. (Justin Lubin/NBC)
smithsonian.com

A couple episodes ago we had witches, now we have deals with the devil.

This week “Timeless” is all about music. We haven’t had such a musically interesting episode yet, unless you count last season’s romp through 1920s Paris. Even then, Josephine Baker was a side character: Here, musicians are the stars.

The Time Team travels this episode to 1936 San Antonio to meet famed Delta Blues player Robert Johnson, who, legend says, sold his soul to the Devil to be able to play so well. The kernel of truth within the myth is that Johnson was a rather pedestrian musician before disappearing for a year, says Jeff Place, curator and senior archivist of the Smithsonian’s Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives. When Johnson returned, “he played fabulously all of a sudden. It could be he just practiced his tail off.”

Whatever the reason for Johnson’s newfound talent, he is credited with inventing a new genre of music upon his return to the scene, paving the way for the sounds of rock ‘n’ roll.

As Rittenhouse’s sacrificial-lamb-to-be of the week, Johnson is targeted to be assassinated before recording his influential first album. Rittenhouse’s reasons are as unclear as ever, maybe it wants you kids to turn down the volume on that darn noise you call music. Maybe without rock ‘n’ roll, their path to absolute power will be clear.

Plotwise, the episode is fairly straightforward. After an awfully convenient upgrade to the Lifeboat so it can now safely carry four people, Rufus, Lucy, Flynn and Mason—in his own words, once “a teenaged pimply-faced Blues geek”—travel to the hotel where Johnson made one of only two recordings he’ll ever make in his lifetime, just in time to save him from an assassin’s bullet. The attempted hit spooks both real-life figure and record producer Don Law, who’s heard about the deal with the Devil, and Johnson, who seems to believe it himself. Sufficiently concerned about who, exactly, the time travelers are, Law and Johnson flee.

Rufus and Mason track down Johnson on his way to his sister’s juke joint, where he says that the day’s events have pushed him to give up the guitar for good. Lucy and Flynn, meanwhile, convince the equally petrified Law to give the recording another shot, but it turns out his girlfriend was a Rittenhouse sleeper agent, and she kills him. But the show must go on -- American culture depends on it-- and they bring Law’s equipment to the juke joint where Mason convinces Johnson to make his recording, thereby saving the Blues, rock and counterculture.

Johnson’s importance to music cannot be overstated. “He had a profound influence on everybody that came after him,” says Place. “He recorded [only about] 20 songs, they’re all amazingly important to the history of Blues music.” His records didn’t even sell that well in his lifetime, but when music companies in the late ’50s and early ’60s started looking for old 78 rpm discs to reissue, Columbia found Johnson’s recordings.

According to The Blues Foundation, the 1961 Johnson record “was not a best seller...but it was arguably the single most important Blues reissue album in history.” Musicians that “discovered” it were profoundly influenced, musically--and did their own covers of his songs. That includes Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and so many more. (Eric Clapton even did an album called “Me and Mr. Johnson” in which he covered 19 songs.)

“If you look at white Blues players who went into Rock ‘n’ Roll you’d be hard-pressed to find a band that wasn’t doing at least one Robert Johnson song,” says Place. Johnson died at 27, the unofficial first member of the 27 Club. He was allegedly poisoned by a woman’s jealous husband. (These accounts are disputed, says Place, but “[According to] one of the guys, Honeyboy Edwards, who used to travel with him— it’s true.”)

As for the ill-fated Don Law, the British-born American record producer, Johnson’s recordings didn’t make him instantly famous (remember, Johnson’s initial records didn’t sell that quickly), but he did go on to have a very successful career. At Columbia, he recruited Johnny Cash and helped him produce some of his best work, and also worked with Carl Smith, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price and Johnny Horton. It’s fair to say that in the “Timeless” universe, Law’s death leaves a gaping hole in the country music canon.

Other quick notes, both historical and plotwise:

  • Did Johnson’s half-sister Carrie Thompson actually run a juke joint? Unclear. What we do know about her is that she gave the rights to Johnson’s music to a record producer in the 1970s in exchange for half the profits; this deal “dissolved into a catfight,” according to the Los Angeles Times, and left a lot of bruised egos.

  • Cameos at the juke joint include Muddy Waters, who learned from Johnson, Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” and “Son” House Jr., who taught Johnson.

  • The “deal with the devil” motif is played up here to the extreme, basically because Mason is now convinced that taking funding from Rittenhouse was his own deal with the devil. This is interesting, as it implies that he knew, to an extent, what he was getting into when he agreed to take their money.

  • A huge non-historical plot point leads Agent Christopher to ask Wyatt to wreck Rittenhouse’s base. He performs admirably. The evil cabal’s Nicholas Keynes, Carol Preston and Emma Whitmore escape in the Mothership to whereabouts unknown.

  • One of last season’s plot points involved a diary owned by Flynn that he said was written by Lucy. it had information on all of the #TimeTeam’s movements, and he used it to find them as they traveled through history. Lucy denied writing the diary and wasn’t sure how Flynn even got it. This episode, the diary resurfaces; Lucy’s still confused about how he got it or who wrote it. Hello, Lucy, you have a time machine - can you conceive of any possible universe where you might write this diary in the future and give it to a past Flynn? Any universe at all?

  • The last few moments of this episode are pretty tense! We see Lucy, still rebounding from the end of her...relationship? with Wyatt, popping over to Flynn’s side of the bunker. Is this the beginning of a love square or just a beautiful friendship? (Part of me is intrigued by the idea of a #Flucy ship, but another part is just...No.)

  • Plus, Jiya confesses to Rufus that she’s seen his own death at the hands of cowboys. Yikes!

Next week brings us to 1910s New York City, where hopefully for Rufus, there will be no cowboys.

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