“Up Jumped the Devil”

. August 8, 2019.
Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow Published: June 2019 ISBN: 978-1-64160-094-1 Publisher: Chicago Review Press Price: $30
Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow Published: June 2019 ISBN: 978-1-64160-094-1 Publisher: Chicago Review Press Price: $30

A Genuine Account of Robert Johnson’s Life

By Jenny Hong

No more myths

The name Robert Johnson is foundational with American blues, but references to the singer’s life is mystified with dubious details. The most widespread story of Johnson’s life, his alleged selling of his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for his extraordinary guitar skills, is likely more legend than fact. Bruce Conforth (former professor of folklore, blues, popular culture and American history at the University of Michigan, founding curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) and Gayle Dean Wardlow (Blues historian, author of blues literature classic Chasin’ That Devil Music) have worked for fifty years, researching primary resources and conducting interviews with people who knew Johnson personally to compile this biography, and they convince the reader early on that Johnson did not become a legend overnight by supernatural means. Through tracing his life, family, and relationships from Memphis to the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta, Conforth and Wardlow aim to “free Johnson from being the sign and myth that blues fans created and return him to his human particulars”.

Jukes, drinks and women

Up Jumped the Devil unearths Johnson’s life in great detail, starting the story in 1889 before he was even born and following Johnson’s life through ups and downs as events unfold chronologically. Understanding Johnson as human, and not just a mythical legend, begins with him as a younger teenager, passionate and full of desire to pursue his interest in music “while the rest of his friends were content to follow a sharecropper’s life”. A diligent teen who, by fifteen, was already an “accomplished harmonica and Jew’s harp player”, over the years, meets a number of mentors who propelled his musical growth. Even Son House was impressed at his rapid improvement, a story often quoted with inaccurate assertions that build onto the rumor of Johnson’s deal with the Devil.

Stories of his rocky childhood and tumultuous romances that contributes to his heavy drinking and womanizing lifestyle, constantly on the move to perform somewhere new, provide glimpses of the people in his life and how they shaped him and his music. The truth about his death, a more real and saddening incident than the rumor that he was fatally poisoned by a jealous man, is also revealed.

Blues fell mama’s child

Conforth and Wardlow have reproduced numerous primary source materials in the book, including Johnson’s death certificate, marriage license and two notable portraits of the singer. The historical context of Johnson’s Delta is provided as well, including the origins of blues as the devil’s music, the Hoodoo folklore, and crossroads myth, all of which existed long before Johnson. Music enthusiasts will appreciate the in-depth analysis of Johnson’s lyrics and guitar-playing techniques. This biography fearlessly refutes myths about the singer while traversing an almost complete timeline of his life, showing how he became a recorded bluesman at 25, leaving behind a legacy that is still influential for musicians today. The book’s final lines: “Robert Leroy Johnson, the man, was gone. His legend was just about to begin.”

This book reiterates Johnson’s legendary achievements but vividly gives prominence to the celebration of Robert Johnson as a human.

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