Robert Johnson bio probes his life and his myths

Blues historians Conforth and Wardlow painstakingly go through decades of contradictory government documents and reminiscences from Robert Johnson's friends and family to sort out fact from rampant fiction.
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By Bruce Sylvester

BRUCE CONFORTH AND GAYLE DEAN WARDLOW
UP JUMPED THE DEVIL: THE REAL LIFE OF ROBERT JOHNSON
Chicago Review Press (326 pages, hardbound book)
5 Stars

Often called the king of Delta blues, Robert Johnson (1911-38) was barely murdered and in his grave before the myth making, spin and hyperbole began. Here, blues historians Conforth and Wardlow painstakingly go through decades of contradictory government documents and reminiscences from his friends and family to sort out fact from rampant fiction. They also give cultural context to the legend of his going down to the crossroads at midnight to sell the devil his soul in exchange for guitar wizardry.

He's been called a phantom. These authors call him a chameleon. Recordings like “Cross Road Blues” and “Me and the Devil Blues” suggest a dark soul. In contrast, his live performances had upbeat pop like “My Blue Heaven” and “Yes Sir, That's My Baby.” On a trip to New York to boost his career, he even played at an Italian wedding. Tracing some of his classics' roots, the authors say a verse of “Love In Vain Blues” was patterned after Leroy Carr's “When the Sun Goes Down.”

Friends have said that he was practical, private, and very clean. One recalls him reading constantly. Even as a youth, he kept notebooks of his ideas and lyrics. A loner in some ways, he was close to the family of his music-loving Memphis stepfather, Charles Dodds Spencer, long believing Spencer was his real dad and going by Robert Spencer. (His Mississippi Delta stepfather, Dusty Willis, repeatedly beat five-foot-eight, 140-pound Robert for playing the blues instead of working in the fields.) At 19, he searched in vain for his birth father, Noah Johnson, finding no one but taking on his last name.

He'd have been a family man were it not for cruel fate and prejudice against bluesmen among religious members of his community. (His traveling companion Johnny Shines remarked, “They was afraid [bluesmen] would bring a curse on them.”) He was heartbroken when his teenaged wife died in childbirth – along with their baby – which her family blamed on his playing the blues. Later he sought to marry a pregnant girlfriend, but her father rejected him. He subsequently tried to get her and their son to join the Spencers at his home base in Memphis, but she wouldn't leave the Delta. As for his mind to ramble, the authors ask, “Was it the loss of one wife and one potential wife and two children, all because he was accused of playing the devil's music? Was that the real crossroads in his life?”

Was it a factor in his going after women of any size, age, or appearance? (In Conforth and Wardlow's view, “He couldn't seem to stay away from imminent danger or dangerous women.”) His music attracted plenty. Near Greenwood, MS, he had an affair with a woman whose angry husband dissolved mothballs in a jar of home brew for his wife, which ordinarily would only incapacitate a drinker. Unfortunately she shared it with Robert, causing his ulcer and esophogus to hemorrhage fatally. He died in agony.

Basically, Up Jumped the Devil turns an icon into a flesh-and-blood human being, a “Steady Rolling Man” with “Walking Blues” singing of a “Hellhound on My Trail.” Robert Leroy Johnson's legend needs this book.