Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
By Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow
Chicago Review Press
Robert Johnson is a definitive legend, though the dead-at-27 bluesman would’ve preferred to be a living one. Worse, it’s a legend mottled with misinformation. For years his biggest fans failed to properly explore his life, instead passing along hearsay and a folktale about a young man who stood at the crossroads one midnight and sold his soul to the Devil to learn how to play the blues. While a classic bit of American folklore, the devil story dismisses the blood, sweat, and too-short lifetime Johnson spent to become one of the world’s most influential musicians.
Happily, authors Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow’s new book, Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, delivers a stinging backhand to the myths with a thorough account of Johnson’s brief life. Both authors have devoted decades to studying Johnson and his career. Wardlow has interviewed many of Johnson’s surviving friends and family members since the early ’60s, and he and Conforth have apparently plumbed every available primary source. Good things come to those who wait, though the satisfying feast of previously unrevealed information here raises one big question: why did we have to wait so long?
Despite Johnson’s extensive musical influence—he recorded 29 songs in 1936 and 1937 that later inspired the likes of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton—he left the barest dent on the historical record. Like Johnny Appleseed, he seems more myth than man, and people are more likely to know the contract with the devil story than his name. But he was real. Very real. And according to Up Jumped the Devil, exceedingly human.
Born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, on May 8, 1911, Johnson never knew his real father. For part of his childhood, while his mother looked for work, he stayed with relatives in Memphis. Eventually, Johnson’s mother remarried and returned for him, and they relocated to a Mississippi farm with her new husband. Johnson picked up some schooling along the way, which later aided him as a lyricist, but his stepfather regularly beat him for avoiding his chores and spending time learning music instead. Robert was more interested in picking tunes than cotton, and went on to learn to dance, sing, and play several instruments, including piano, jaw harp, harmonica, and guitar—his signature instrument and the only one he was ever recorded playing.
The timeworn tale claims that, as a youngster, Johnson visited other plantations to see Delta blues musicians like Son House and Charley Patton perform. Asking House if he could try out his guitar, Johnson plunked out pure cacophony and was ridiculed until he ran off and disappeared. Johnson returned a year later, House claimed, and proceeded to display startlingly impressive chops on his own guitar. Such skill, folks whispered, could only be obtained supernaturally.
Absolute piffle, of course. The only deal Johnson made was with lesser-known Martinsville, Mississippi, guitarist Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman, who had a regular gig with a road crew working on Highway 61. Searching for his real father, Robert found Zimmerman, who, by all reports, was not Satan. The two did engage in the peculiar habit of visiting graveyards and playing on tombstones at night, but only because it was a quiet, isolated spot that guaranteed few interruptions. Johnson and Zimmerman formed a mentor/mentee relationship, and Robert moved in with Zimmerman’s family. The two practiced constantly, according to Zimmerman’s daughter, sometimes traveling to play street corners and juke joints, picking up new skills from other blues performers, then moving on. But Robert had bigger plans than playing for nickels and dimes. He wanted a record contract, and he didn’t need Lucifer to achieve it.
As Conforth and Wardlow nicely illustrate, as skin-tingling as the deal with the devil story is, it sets up an unreasonable expectation for Johnson’s music, not to mention the man himself. His repertoire wasn’t all hellish, tormented ballads, and his few demons were mental rather than supernatural. As a traveling musician, Johnson’s was a life fairly ordinary. He rambled the roads of the Mississippi Delta (and well beyond, eventually all the way to Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Canada) with a guitar slung across his back, drinking, playing, and carrying on with the ladies—young and old, thick and thin, single and, to his later detriment, married. Yet, he also maintained close ties with his Memphis family, returning home frequently. He married twice, but mostly associated himself with any woman who’d look after him. Musicians who accompanied him on his travels—among them Honeyboy Edwards, Johnny Shines, and his unofficial stepson Robert Lockwood (his only student)—recall a talented fellow. An occasional hellraiser who was a shade remote, secretive about his techniques, and prone to disappear in the night, but a committed crowd-pleasing performer all-around.
As the hoary, misattributed quote goes: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Not that that’s prevented several generations of blues historians and critics from invoking every available synonym for occult to describe Johnson’s music. One’s first introduction to his work might disappoint. Despite promises of the deepest, darkest, most diabolical blues—learnt at Satan’s cloven hoofs, no less—Johnson’s songs are thematically varied. The dismal, keening “Hellhound on My Trail” best brings the hellfire, as does the voodoo-inspired “Stones in My Passway”.* But this supposed Mississippi incubus also recorded a goofball ragtime ditty (“They’re Red Hot”—a paean to hot tamales and, I’m guessing, sex), plenty of double entendre blues (the infamous lyric “You can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my leg” from “Traveling Riverside Blues” leaves little to the imagination), and laid his heart bare with the pained, pensive “Love in Vain.” As the book makes clear, Johnson was a performer par excellence—a superb mimic, able to play a song after one hearing; a technically adept guitarist with a knack for evocative lyrics; and a modernist, seeking new approaches to the old-style front-porch blues favored by his elders.**
The fact that Johnson was a man and not a demon is shown through several gutting moments of tragedy uncovered by Conforth and Wardlow. After a childhood of transience and abuse, and a half-hearted attempt to become a farmer, a 20-year-old Johnson’s first wife and their newborn son died shortly after childbirth while he was on the road. Relatives blamed it on Johnson’s wandering, drinking, and playing the Devil’s music, themes he returned to in songs like “Preachin’ Blues” and “Drunken Hearted Man”. Another hideous instance: as Johnson, Shines, and a fellow player, Calvin Frazier, traveled through Illinois, they found a gig at a cafe in a lily-white town. It brought the trio good money, then a repulsive revelation. Shines learned from a bystander that the cafe owner was charging 75¢ a head to see the black men—though he used a more repellent word. Disgusted, the three quit and moved on, refusing to be exhibited.
Up Jumped the Devil also has moments of simple nostalgic beauty and examples of Johnson’s ingenuity. After losing their instruments in a boarding house fire, Johnson produced a harmonica—an instrument Shines didn’t know he could play. Following Highway 61 northwards—Robert blowing and Johnny singing—they eventually earned enough money to buy new guitars in Steele, Missouri. A far richer anecdote than “Young man sells his soul to Satan for guitar lessons.”
I have a quibble or two, but only because Up Jumped the Devil left me wanting more. Despite the book’s solid writing and research—I confess the footnotes gave me the bibliographic vapors—it only slightly answers the chief question it raises: why did it take so long for a comprehensive, fact-backed Johnson biography to be written?
The authors provide a brief history of misinformation on the part of previous Johnson biographers like Samuel Charters, Alan Lomax, John Hammond, and Steve LaVere, among others, but no in-depth reasons about why they blew it where Conforth and Wardlow didn’t. An unspoken gentleman’s agreement amongst peers, perhaps, since each man did much to promote the music of Johnson and other African American artists. But the book also brings up blues scholar and collector Mack McCormick (tritagonist of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s incredible New York Times Magazine article “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie”), who followed Johnson’s trail for decades, amassing files of information and intending to write his own Johnson bio, Biography of a Phantom, before losing interest. McCormick made several distracting claims in the Sullivan article. He said Wardlow, semi-famous for finding Johnson’s death certificate, hadn’t found it at all. Also, he claimed to possess a third authentic photograph of Johnson. Only two are known to exist: the photo booth pic on Up Jumped the Devil’s cover, where Johnson likely poses with the same guitar he purchased in Steele, and the other, famously showing Johnson in a pinstriped suit and taken at the Hooks Brothers’ Beale Street photo studio, wasn’t really Johnson. Alas, the unseen photo remains unseen and Wardlow and Conforth don’t pursue McCormick’s claims. Trust me, if you care about such things, it’s vexing.
Second quibble: while the introduction gives a quick rundown of Johnson’s postmortem influence, Up Jumped the Devil could use a deeper chapter on the subject. Perhaps Wardlow and Conforth are representatives of their scholarly 78-record-collecting milieu, seeking the past without speculating overmuch on its aftereffects. As mentioned, the 1961 rerelease of Johnson’s songs on the LP Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers led to Johnson and his Mississippi Delta contemporaries being rediscovered and sometimes ripped off by ’60s British rock gods like the Stones, Clapton, and Led Zeppelin. Beyond Boomer cock rock nostalgia and the fiddlings of the Black Keys and Jack White today, however, how does Johnson fit in or sway today’s music, or even culture and society in general?*** While Johnson is certainly historically important, does he remain vital? Now that the mysteries are revealed and every devilish myth has been exorcised by Conforth and Wardlow, will people still search for Robert Johnson?
To answer that, let’s return to 2006, when, to the boredom of my friends and family whenever I retell the story, I mounted a road trip through the Deep South. Like many a melanin-deficient blues fanboy before me, I started in New Orleans and rode the remnants of Highway 61, up through Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri, coming home at last to Chicago. In the spirit of honesty, while I love the blues (mostly the early stuff, ending sometime around Elmore James’ death), I’ve always been more attracted to the stories behind the songs.
I stopped in Greenwood, the site of Johnson’s poisoning by a jealous husband in 1938, and gravesite. Paying my respects, and collecting a pinch of goofer dust in a jar, I returned to my rental car to consult my printed-out maps, still years away from Siri pouring directions in my ear.
Hearing an engine’s roar, I looked up at the rear-view mirror and saw a pick-up truck in the distance, kicking up a red cloud of Mississippi dirt. The truck pulled alongside me with a sudden stop, and I found myself face to face with a trucker-capped white guy sporting a Fu Manchu mustache and bushy hair. My regional suspicions activated, I wondered if I was in for a fight with a son of the confederacy.
“Uh… Is this the place where that blues feller, Robert Johnson is buried?” he asked politely with a Texan twang.
I re-evaluated my personal regional prejudices.
“Yeah!” I replied. “He’s right up there, under the big tree,” I pointed at the massive spreading pecan tree overhanging Johnson’s grave.
Suddenly sheepish, his voice went low, and he half-covered his mouth with his hand.
“Uh… Is it… uh, okay to look around?”
“Sure. Go ahead. I didn’t have any problems,” I said with a friendly wave, and I pulled away. In my rearview mirror, Trucker’s Cap got out, and cautiously went to pay tribute to where poor Bob Johnson finally sunk down.
With my very good friend Trucker’s Cap in mind, I do think folks will continue to listen to and search for Robert Johnson. Wardlow and Conforth have made it much easier and a distinct pleasure to do so.
Up Jumped the Devil:The Real Life of Robert Johnson is available from Chicago Review Press and most local bookstores.
* Those looking for particularly unsettling blues should give Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, Skip James, Tommy Johnson, and Blind Willie Johnson a listen. Such 12-bar, minor-chord jewels are rare though. As Steve Buscemi’s character tells Thora Birch’s in the film Ghost World after she asks him to suggest other records that sound like James’ “Devil Got My Woman”. “There are no other records like that.”
** Ponder what today’s blues and rock music might have sounded like had Johnson moved to Chicago before Muddy Waters and electrified his sound. Up Jumped the Devil dangles this possibility with an anecdote about Johnson’s short stay in New York, where he played a fellow musician’s electric guitar. He dismissed the thought, knowing that transporting an amp and depending on rural juke joints to provide electric outlets was unlikely.
***Excepting, of course, Johnson’s song “Sweet Home Chicago.” Partially cribbed from Chicago-based Kokomo Arnold’s “Old Original Kokomo Blues”, the song is both thematically and geographically far from the Windy City (“Oh, baby don’t you want to go?/Back to the land of California/To my sweet home Chicago”???). “Sweet Home Chicago” got a third wind after John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd performed it in John Landis’ The Blues Brothers, leading to its subsequent adoption by every damn Chicago sports team and their snockered fans. Perhaps Satan had a hand in its creation after all.