© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
One music critic called Robert Johnson “the Shelley, Keats, and Rimbaud of the blues all rolled into one.”
I’ve always been a Jazz guy in the sense that I appreciate The Blues within the context of this style of music [Think Count Basie’s Big Band with the blues belters Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams] rather than as a separate and distinct genre.
Beyond Jazz, it seems The Blues and its 12-bar structure lends itself to other adaptations as it’s also heard in Rock, Folk Music, and myriad other forms of popular music.
The Blues as a phenomena in Black culture, both as a pattern of music and as a state of mind, is something I’ve encountered through my reviews of books by Albert Murray which have appeared previously on these pages.
And while, over the years, I’ve heard some music by Robert Johnson, Son House, Charlie Patton, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Boy Crudup, B.B. King, Booker White and John Lee Hooker, the Blues and its makers in pure form has never been my specific field of interest.
In general terms, I knew very little about the background of Blues singers until I read Ted Gioia’s Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters who Revolutionized America Music [Norton paperback, 2009].
And, if truth be told, if it wasn’t for the fact that I read everything I can get my hands on that Ted writes, I doubt I would have gotten this far on the subject. Of the many Blues musicians that Ted deals with in his book, I was particularly intrigued by the iconic Blues musician Robert Johnson and the story [myth?] of how his Mephistophelian deal with The Devil resulted in his escalation to genius and greatness, not to mention his early death at the age of 27 when The Devil comes to claim his part of the bargain - Johnson’s soul!
Among Ted’s many acknowledgements, he mentions “...Gayle Dean Wardlow, a native Mississippian who has been researching the music for forty years.” Add ten more years to that and we now arrive at:
Up Jumped the Devil, The Real Life of Robert Johnson - Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, Chicago Review, 326 pages, $30
The book was reviewed in the May 31, 2019 edition of the Wall Street Journal as “‘Up Jumped the Devil’ Review: Cross Road Blues” By David Kirby,
The editorial at JazzProfiles is posting Mr. Kirby’s treatment to coincide with the release of the book on this date - June 4, 2019.
“More nonsense has been said and written about Robert Johnson than any other musician, and thus it is with fear and trembling that one opens yet another book on the enigmatic blues guitarist. Not to worry: From the get-go, “Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson” by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow bristles with photos, maps, deeds, census reports and graphics of every kind to back up their authoritative account of Johnson’s birth, training, travels, tragedies, triumphs and contributions to roots music. To all popular music, really: All you have to do is open your Pandora or Spotify account to hear song after song that might not be blues but still uses the basic 12-bar template: a line, the repetition of that line and a third line that embellishes the first. The music critic Bruce Cook called Johnson “the Shelley, Keats, and Rimbaud of the blues all rolled into one,” and like those poets, Johnson still shapes the art of his successors.
With as much precision as can be applied to a case as muzzy as this one, the authors report that Johnson was born to Julia Majors and Noah Johnson “on or about May 8, 1911” in Hazlehurst, Miss. Julia’s husband, Charles Dodds, had fled to Memphis, possibly to avoid being lynched after he was said to share a mistress with a white man. Julia and Noah quarreled so fiercely that she left with Robert, three other children and no plan to care for them. Eventually Julia ended up in Memphis herself, where she left her brood with Charles Dodds (who had changed his name to “Charles Spencer” to avoid detection) and set out on her own.
Thus 2-year-old Robert found himself in a house full of strangers and at the beginning of a life shot through with rootlessness and uncertainty. But the Spencer house was just a short walk from Beale Street, with its many black clubs and theaters. On its sidewalks, “guitar players strolled up and down the street, and blind musicians took their posts on their favorite street corners to entertain passersby with spirituals, blues, and pop tunes,” and as the boy grew, he naturally found himself on Beale Street more and more often. In Memphis, Johnson was also first exposed to hoodoo, the folk magic based on West African beliefs that was practiced in secret by slaves and became a way for African-Americans to seek the power that was denied to them by white society.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room, namely, the mature Robert Johnson’s supposed deal with the devil. According to legend, Johnson was just a journeyman musician. Then he disappeared for a spell, and when he returned, suddenly he could play licks that no other mortal could. How could that be? Only one way: There had to have been intervention from beyond, and God certainly wouldn’t be lending his powers to a juke-joint barrelhouser whose job was to drive an audience mad and, as one of Johnson’s contemporaries put it, make the women in the room start “shakin’ them fannies and . . . talkin’ trash.”
Yes, no less a contemporary than Son House testified that Johnson underwent a miraculous transformation. Yes, there is a longstanding folk belief that a musician can meet the devil at a crossroad and acquire supernatural powers in exchange for his soul; the 19th-century violinist Niccolò Paganini was also said to have signed a similar compact with the Prince of Darkness. And yes, Johnson himself wrote a song called “Cross Road Blues,” made popular by the English psychedelic band Cream. But he doesn’t mention the devil in it; instead, he talks about his sadness, his need for a woman and a friend.
More germane to the story is the fact that Johnson sometimes played his guitar in the cemetery at midnight, often with his mentor Ike Zimmerman. Cemeteries are quiet and restful, and there’s a deep spiritual resonance there akin to that in churches. Zimmerman’s daughter Loretha observed that if other people were afraid of graveyards at night, her father wasn’t: “He wasn’t never scared, but he wasn’t meeting the devil neither.”
But Zimmerman was far from his only teacher. Like innovators in every field, Johnson was a sponge, soaking up chords and progressions and showbiz tricks of every kind from the other bluesmen whose paths he crossed every day. He took in the world around him in careful detail; his one true hit recording, “Terraplane Blues,” is about a snazzy new 1936 Hudson Terraplane car parked near the Spencer home in Memphis that Robert admired. (And, yes, the authors include a photo of that model.) He was shameless about stealing from other musicians, and he was protective of his own skills, often turning his back to the audience when he spotted a rival.
Blues musicians often performed as duos, with one chunking out the rhythm while the other picked a melody. Not Johnson. He played both parts at once, the way one might play a piano, drawing out almost-voicelike sounds as he bent or hammered the strings. Once, another musician let him play his electric guitar, the authors recount, but Johnson handed it back, saying he “couldn’t make it talk.” Besides, lugging an amp around would hamper his train-hopping lifestyle. Then there was the simple fact that many of the jukes and parties and porches he played had no electricity.
At the age of 17, Johnson had married 14-year-old Virginia Travis, but she and their unborn baby died in childbirth the following year. His acquaintances recall a profound change in character, with Johnson taking to drink and cursing God so savagely that his listeners fled. Whether or not that event accounts for his standoffishness, he spent the rest of his life avoiding close relationships, though that didn’t stop him from going home with the women who came out to see him play. One friend remembers that “them gals pulled at him all the time.” Son House drew on his own experience with jealous husbands and boyfriends when he told Johnson simply, “You liable to get killed.”
Which is exactly what happened, though the various accounts of his murder and its coverup only add to Johnson’s mystique. According to Mr. Conforth and Ms. Wardlow, Johnson was carrying on with one Beatrice Davis, and when her husband not only discovered the affair but learned that Johnson was playing at the Three Forks juke joint on the night of Aug. 13, 1938, he handed Beatrice a jar of corn liquor in which he had dissolved several mothballs. Johnson drank from the jar during a break in his show, and though the aggrieved husband said years later that he hadn’t meant to kill him, Johnson began to hemorrhage violently and died three days later, a few months after his 27th birthday. Out of expediency or the desire to sidestep the possibility of foul play or both, the authorities were told that Johnson probably died of syphilis. He was buried in a simple wooden box under a churchyard pecan tree.
Cultural historians refer to a group of musicians including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison as the 27 Club because they all died at that age. The term reappears in the media when yet another musician dies at 27 (Kurt Cobain in 1994, Amy Winehouse in 2011), but it’s seldom mentioned that one of the club’s founding members was Robert Johnson. Yet in addition to sharing a lifespan with the others, he pioneered a twangy blues that echoed through their music and continues to resound today. He succeeded not by signing a contract offered to him by a sooty stranger but, as Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow show down to the last detail, by starting from an early age to listen, steal from others and play without ceasing. If only he’d been more careful about what he drank.
—Mr. Kirby is the author of “Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll.”