A graphic novel by a northeast Iowa man contrasts two radically different musicians who faced similar, simultaneous challenges.

Author and illustrator Gary Kelley, of Cedar Falls, says blues legend Robert Johnson and master cello player Pablo Casals  produced iconic albums the very same week in history — late November of 1936 — and it’s the subject of his new book, “Bach and The Blues.”

“I’d already done a book on Robert Johnson, a picture book for young readers, because I’ve always been a big fan of his history and his work,” Kelley says. “I did a little homework, a little research on Pablo Casals’ history. He had a very dramatic life as well and that’s what really got me into, or kept me I should say, kept me into the story.”

Johnson, a singer and guitarist, was born in Mississippi and during his brief career, recorded 29 songs in Texas during 1936 and ’37. He’s considered one of the greatest blues performers of all time, but the recognition came largely after his death. At the age of four, the Spaniard Casals could play the violin, piano and flute and became one of the world’s greatest cellists — while facing persecution for his political views.

Casals recorded Bach’s Classic Suites at London’s Abbey Road Studios, which The Beatles brought renewed fame some three decades later. Kelley, who’s 77, says the stories of these two musicians are compelling alone, but considering some of their best-ever recordings were made during the same week in 1936, it’s an amazing coincidence.

“Robert Johnson dealt with the Jim Crow South, of course, and was an iconic music man despite that,” Kelley says, “and Pablo was an iconic cellist despite Franco, Mussolini, Hitler, all those guys that did not want him around, and he had to survive in Europe at the same time.”

A performance of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony earlier this month featured the music of both men while images from Kelley’s novel were projected above the stage. “I love being able to do pieces, imagery that project on a large screen over the musicians to a large audience,” Kelley says. “This is all in color. It’s not black-and-white copies of the graphic novel. It’s not pages from the graphic novel. It’s the same story but with a little more color and depth.”

While he’s created more than 30 books of art, Kelley’s “Bach and The Blues” is his second graphic novel. The 64-page book is being published by North Liberty-based Ice Cube Press.


Radio Iowa