Ray Robertson, Samuel Johnson and the journey to Lives of the Poets (with Guitars)

The latest book by Chatham's Ray Robertson tells the stories of more than a dozen musicians and it also finds inspiration in a famous work of English literature.
Chatham's Ray Robertson has a new book that delves into the lives of 13 musicians. (Mike Evans/CBC)

For his latest book, author Ray Robertson took some inspiration from a well-known work written long ago.

His newly published Lives of the Poets (with Guitars) tells the stories of 13 musicians. The title of the work is a clue to its structure.

It's a nod to Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets, which was published more than two centuries ago. In that collective work, the late English writer got into the biographical elements of poets' lives, but Robertson said he was writing about broader issues, too.

"He'd introduce the poet and he would talk about their life, about their work, some of the moral issues that were raised, some of the trouble they got into in their life and I just adored those essays for many, many years," Robertson told CBC Radio's Afternoon Drive.

But the 49-year-old Robertson, who was born in Chatham, Ont., has long been a music fan as well. More specifically, he has admired "off-the-wall, outsider musicians that aren't particularly well known."

In Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), he has tried to take the same type of approach that Johnson would take, if he were alive today and writing about the musicians that Robertson is interested in.

"I'm telling the story, but I also talk about the music and the times they live in," said Robertson.

Some of the musicians covered in the book include The Ramones, Little Richard and Hound Dog Taylor. The story of Canada's Willie P. Bennett is also part of the book.

"Little-known, he spent a lot of time in London, [the] Toronto area, woefully underappreciated in his time, so his essay is about living in anonymity," said Robertson, in describing the part of the book that centres on Bennett.

In general, Robertson said he is partial to country, blues, rock 'n' roll and gospel music, which is why artists from those genres are featured in his book.

In writing about these musicians' lives, Robertson hopes that, like Johnson, he is probing deeper with questions that will stay in readers' minds well after they finish the last page.

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