Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson by Bruce Conforth, Gayle Dean Wardlow
Everyone knows the story about blues musician Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at a Mississippi crossroads to become the greatest guitar player the world had ever seen.
Most have probably heard the story about the bluesman being cut down in his prime by a bitter woman who poisoned him.
Johnson’s legacy is full of tall tales and inaccuracies that were never corrected after his untimely death.
Few facts are known about Robert Johnson’s life and those that are have rarely been shared because most prefer to believe the tall tales that create a myth rather than a man.
“What we produced is a book based not on conjecture about Robert Johnson, but on first-person accounts of who he actually was. By doing so we hope to free Johnson from being the sign and myth that blues fan created and return him to his human particulars.” *
Up Jumped the Devil collects these first-person accounts to share the story of Johnson’s life from birth to death and includes birth, marriage, and death certificates along with census records and a surprisingly complete geneaology.
Readers learn that Johnson was born the illegitmate son of Noah Johnson and Julia Dodds. Julia left Noah Johnson when Robert was still an infant and eventually turned to her ex-husband (whom she had three previous children with), Charles Spencer (former last name Dodds), for help with the children. Julia left all of her children, including Robert, with Charles and his new wife Mollie while she struck out to find a way to support herself.
Robert grew up believing Charles Spencer was his father and it wasn’t until much later he learned about Noah Johnson. Still, the Spencers became Robert’s true family and he divided his time between Memphis and the Delta to be near them.
His mother eventually came to collect him from the Spencer home after she married a sharecropper and Robert was expected to work the fields and could no longer attend school.
Robert’s disinterest in field work angered his stepfather and Robert would often disappear to visit the Spencers and ramble around with his guitar, which became his passion.
The one and only thing that ever took Robert away from his guitar was love. In 1929 he married Virginia Travis and became a sharecropper to support his wife. By the end of the year, Virginia was expecting their first child and she eventually traveled to her grandmother’s home to prepare for the baby’s birth.
Tragically, Viriginia and the baby died from birth complications and it wasn’t until Robert arrived weeks later that he learned of their deaths. Virginia’s family blamed Robert’s music for the deaths of his wife and child. Robert’s friends say he turned his back on God after their deaths.
At 19 years old Robert Johnson had lost his wife and his child. He eventually headed South to look for his biological father but instead found a friend and guitar mentor in Ike Zimmerman. Zimmerman helped Johnson realize his unique sound and part of their rehearsals led to the infamous myth of the Devil’s Crossroads.
Ike’s daughter admits her father practiced guitar with Robert Johnson in a graveyard but laughs at the crossroads myth; she thinks it was for the peace and quiet so they wouldn’t be interrupted.
“They would leave and go to that cemetery. It’s got them old tombstones, you know some of them new, it was some of them old ones. He’d sit back there with him. He wasn’t at no crossroads. [It] was just a path. There wasn’t no crossroads. They went ‘cross the road [laughs]. ‘Cause you gotta go across [the] road and go to that cemetery. They went over there and sat on the tombstones. Exactly. And that’s where they was. Sitting there playing.” *
By age 25, Robert’s dream was realized when he became a recorded bluesman and his records could be found on jukeboxes and in record shops. He managed to record eight songs in his first session, which couldn’t have been easy when he’d spent the previous night in jail and taken a beating.
As Robert’s fame grew, so did the tall tales.
“Since Robert never spoke about his family or background, none of his musical acquaintances had any idea that he had received music lessons in school in Memphis, that his older stepbrother Charles had given him some lessons on the guitar and piano, that he literally got beatings for devoting his time to music instead of field work, that he had apprenticed with Ike Zimmerman, one of Mississippi’s finest guitarists, nor that he might have had an eidetic memory for music. To them he was just a natural genius. They had no idea of the hours, months, and years he had devoted to learning his craft. Instead, his contemporaries attributed his abilities to some unseen talent that none of them possessed.” *
“Given Robert’s seemingly effortless abilities, it’s understandable that some people attributed his skills to supernatural forces. How else could one man be so good at so many different styles of playing? And Robert, as protective of his playing technique as he was, was certainly not going to reveal any of his secrets to anyone.” *
Johnson’s journey was a downward spiral, especially after he got a local girl pregnant. He tried to get her and the baby to leave with him but the girl’s family obviously thought Robert was no good and the girl listened to her family, refusing to leave after he asked countless times.
Robert’s livelihood was juking. He went from town to town performing, chasing women, and drinking heavily.
“He couldn’t seem to stay away from imminent dangers or dangerous women. He had no love for working in the cotton fields and the church had no appeal. All he could do was keep moving and try to outrun the danger, both imaginary and real.” *
It comes as no surprise that Robert Johnson’s downfall was a woman.
After a man discovered his wife was having an affair with Johnson, he dissolved several mothballs into a jar of corn liquor, which his wife shared with Johnson during a break from his performance. The tasteless poison isn’t usually fatal; normally it causes no more than a bout of nausea, vomiting, and confusion.
However, Robert had been diagnosed a month before with an ulcer and esophageal varices. The poison caused the ulcer and varices to hemorrhage and Robert Johnson died a slow and painful death at the age of 27.
Up Jumped the Devil is a fascinating look at Robert Johnson’s brief life, from his incredible talent to his inner demons. It strives to give an accurate account of a man who became a musician, rather than a musician who became a legend, and I believe it succeeds in its delivery.
While we’re left with far more questions than answers, it’s easy to see in this book the events that shaped Robert Johnson and his music. It may not be as shocking as the legend of the Devil’s Crossroads but the truth is just as appealing for me personally. I’m happy to finally have some solid facts about this talented musician.
Thanks to Chicago Review Press and Edelweiss for providing me with a DRC in exchange for my honest review. Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson is scheduled for release on June 4, 2019.
*Quotes included are from a digital review copy and are subject to change upon final publication.