He was cursed, but not by the devil—rather, it was his first biographer that ensnared the soul of bluesman Robert Johnson. When musicologist Sam Charters published his landmark 1959 book The Country Blues, the first scholarly treatise on the genre, he noted of Johnson: “Almost nothing is known about his life.” But that didn’t stop Charters from propagating myths that have influenced the world’s view of Johnson, who had faded from the consciousness of all but the most avid collectors of old 78s.
Since then, Johnson has become a major influence on blues and rock artists. The 1961 release of the King of the Delta Blues fueled the ’60s blues revival and captivated such British blues-rock gods as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and Peter Green. His recordings—dutifully remastered—are readily available to anyone with a smartphone. And Johnson has been the subject of several films, including the recent Netflix documentary Devil at the Crossroads, which again sells the myth that Johnson sold his soul in exchange for guitar chops and a handful of juke box hits.
Up Jumped the Devil is the latest book to search for the man behind the myth. It may be the best. Coauthors Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow arrive with strong credentials: Conforth—a former professor of folklore, popular culture, blues, and American history—is a cofounder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Wardlow is a blues historian and owner of the world’s largest collection of prewar blues records. Fifty years ago, he uncovered Johnson’s original birth certificate, a discovery that set off a wave of research into Johnson’s origins.
Born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, Johnson was the illegitimate son of Noah Johnson and Julia Dodds. He was abandoned by his mother and raised by her ex-husband, Charles Spencer. Dodds later remarried a Delta sharecropper and reunited with her son, who was expected to work the fields. Unable to attend school and bored with fieldwork, Johnson took to the guitar and harmonica. At 18, he married and settled down to become a sharecropper. After his wife and baby died at childbirth, Johnson turned his back on farming and resumed his interest in guitar. He found a mentor in Ike Zimmerman, who offered lessons in an old graveyard, a setting that is the basis for the story of Johnson’s dalliance with the devil. But in the book, Zimmerman’s daughter says her father chose the quiet cemetery because he didn’t want his lessons to be disturbed.
Up Jumped the Devil also offers a detailed account of Johnson’s previously unknown touring. According to the authors, Johnson and the late bluesman Johnny Shines performed together in Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Canada, Buffalo, New Jersey, and New York City. In the Big Apple, Johnson reportedly met jazz guitar legend Charlie Christian, who even showed Johnson his electric guitar (Johnson didn’t care for the sound).
Conforth and Wardlow have transformed a mountain of research, including many previously unpublished first-person interviews, into engaging prose. In the process, they have peeled back the myths to reveal a tragic figure who mastered his art but lived a hard life and died an agonizing death at 27. Johnson was a gifted guitarist and a hard-drinking womanizer, and jukin’ was his life. But it was his inner demons with which he grappled, not Satan.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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