Seeing Robert Johnson’s Face for the Third Time

In 2008, Vanity Fair published a story about a guitar salesman named Steven Schein, who found a photograph of Robert Johnson, the world’s most influential Bluesman, for sale on eBay for $25. The photo was mislabeled “Old Snapshot Blues Guitar B.B. King???”. Only two photos of Johnson had been publicly released. The article is about Schein’s experience buying and identifying Johnson’s face, and the issues it raised about who gets to control and profit from the music and images of one of the world’s most influential musicians, and one of Columbia Records’ big sellers, who happened to be a black man:

With the eBay photo still on his computer monitor, Schein dug up his copy of the Johnson boxed set and took another look. Not only was he more confident than ever that he had found a photo of Robert Johnson, he had a hunch who the other man in the photo was, too: Johnny Shines, a respected Delta-blues artist in his own right, and one of the handful of musicians who, in the early 1930s and again in the months before Johnson’s death, had traveled with him from town to town to look for gigs or stand on busy street corners and engage in a competitive practice known as “cuttin’ heads,” whereby one blues musician tries to draw away the crowd (and their money) gathered around another musician by standing on a nearby corner and outplaying him.

Shines had died in 1992. His picture was included in the boxed-set booklet, and Schein saw a resemblance; if both of his hunches were right, then the photo was even more of a find. At that point, Schein became possessed of two thoughts: One was “to hold the photo in my hands,” he says. The other was “to protect it.”

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