Bruce Cornforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson. Chicago Review Press, 2019. 336 pp.
If you know anything about Robert Johnson, it is that he sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in order to become the greatest of all Delta blues musicians. It’s a powerful story, and one reinforced by many of Johnson’s most tortured lyrics, like “Cross Road Blues” and “Hell Hound on My Trail.”
And the days keeps on worryin’ me
There’s a hellhound on my trail, hell hound on my trail
Johnson’s myth – of the itinerant Hoodoo man who came out of nowhere with a guitar, spectacular lyrical and musical talent and a voice that tapped into something dark and powerful lurking beneath the everyday – became the reality. His mysterious murder at the age of 27, after recording only 41 tracks, reinforced it. But there has rarely been more than a hint of the contours of his real life. That he lived is beyond doubt – we have the recordings and his 1938 death certificate to prove that – who he actually was remains a faint shadow.
“Johnson is the subject of the most famous myth about the history of the blues,” Bruce Cornforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow write in the introduction to Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Live of Robert Johnson, a new book that seeks to drape garments of history on the figure of myth. “His story, a human story of suffering and joy, extreme highs and disturbing lows, has finally been told.”
It is a promise that blues fans will eagerly welcome; and Cornforth, the founding curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Wardlow, a music journalist who has been researching the early history of the blues since the 1960s, are certainly prepared to fulfil it. Indeed, Wardlow’s interviews from the late-1960s, with both important and marginal figures in Johnson’s short life, constitute both the book’s main thrust, and its most compelling sources. This mythical figure was a real human being, they say, these people knew him; therefore, he is knowable.
Using these personal reminiscences, the authors craft a narrative of amazing detail – far more detailed, in fact, than most previous accounts of Johnson’s life. The point of Up Jumped the Devil, more than anything, is to use this detail to establish a counternarrative of the blues legend as a hardworking, motivated artist embedded in the unique historical context and economy of the Jim Crow South before the Second World War. Indeed, Cornforth and Wardlow use the interviews to excellent effect, supplemented by census records, newspaper advertisements, and other sources to weave together a compelling account of African American life in the Mississippi Delta.
This world existed in constant conversation with broader cultural and social conditions outside of the region, yet it was simultaneously inward-looking and often parochial. It intersected with white America at key moments – Johnson’s father’s conflict with the Marchetti family in Hazlehurst, MS, Johnson auditioning for H.C. Speir to get a shot at a San Antonio recording session – yet remained mostly un-connected, a parallel universe of American life. Johnson’s professional and personal interlocutors are almost all African Americans, and the brief celebrity that he experienced in his lifetime existed almost completely within the constellation of a segregated black artistic economy.
Moreover, Conforth and Wardlow recover a Robert Johnson who is a far cry from the Faustian caricature or, worse, the unschooled natural genius who carried his guitar through the cotton fields in a gunny sack. They paint a portrait of a promising young man of considerable intellectual gifts, whose formal education might have been cut short by circumstance, but who was committed to his art, and driven to succeed as an artist. In many ways, the Johnson of Up Jumped the Devil has less in common with his own legend than with James Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus. And this image, shorn of all of the exoticization of popular music myth, is the book’s greatest contribution. That is an important achievement, and it makes for compelling reading, but the historical Robert Johnson is elusive enough to make a definitive biography difficult.
Part of the problem is that there just isn’t very much documentary evidence that speaks directly to his life, apart from census records, two photographs, documents from his two recording sessions, and his death certificate. Most of the detail comes from interviews recorded many decades after Johnson’s death. They inevitably create a kind of Rashomon effect where, even when the accounts do overlap, they undermine as often as they corroborate each other.
Cornforth and Wardlow often find themselves dismissing conflicting accounts on the basis of tone rather than substance. They accept Honeyboy Edwards’ recollection of Johnson’s death as “true” and corroborated by Rosie Eskridge, a plantation worker whom he might have met a few days before his death, without addressing how their stories might have influenced each other, and how any number of social and cultural factors might have shaped their narratives in the three decades before they were committed to tape. The authors simply reject other accounts as “falsehoods” based on their “histrionics or romanticism.”
While Up Jumped the Devil does a good job of describing the particulars of Johnson’s social and creative connections, the narrative is somewhat narrow. Cornforth and Wardlow spend considerable time on the significance of Hoodoo to the crossroads myth at the center of Johnson’s legendary mystique, but they might have situated it in the broader tapestry of African American folkways. Academic historians like Fred Hay, Thomas Marvin, and Patricia Schroeder have documented the complex intersections of African American folk beliefs, Christianity, gender, and regimes of power and race. This context might have enriched their narrative.
It is perhaps a little unfair to expect biographers to be fully engaged with the scholarly literature, but Cornforth and Warlow’s unfamiliarity with the historiography creates some unfortunate lacunae. For example, in the opening chapter, the authors cite Mississippi’s post-Civil War Black Codes to explain that, as a woman of mixed-race, Johnson’s mother enjoyed certain social privileges. Only she was born in 1870, and the Black Codes were struck down almost immediately upon their enactment in 1865.
Ultimately, Up Jumped the Devil is a fascinating, entertaining biography of one of American history’s greatest musical geniuses. However, in attempting to know the unknowable, Cornforth and Wardlow tend to rely on speculation. Johnson “hated farming,” they say, without explaining how they know this fact. “He wanted to be known and make an impression,” they contend without evidence, “and he wanted to be wanted.” It “must have bothered Robert” to hear a rival’s recording of one of his songs – a reasonable conjecture, but conjecture nonetheless.
Given the lack of historical documentation, any account of Robert Johnson’s life will be peppered with words like “probably,” “seems to,” “almost certainly,” and “must have.” Although Cornforth and Wardlow flatly reject the folklorist Mack McCormick’s description of Johnson as a “phantom,” that is what he really is; no amount of circumstantial evidence can change that. This is why the eerie sounds of his high-pitched voice, over the ever-shifting sands of his slide guitar, captured in only 41 acetate tracks 80 years ago, still fascinate us.
Up Jumped the Devil is a fine addition to the ever-growing literature on the myth of the man who sold his soul at the crossroads to play the blues. But it won’t be the last.