“World’s greatest blues guitarist”
“Went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil to play the blues.”
These are the things I had heard over the years, but not being into the blues, I had no idea who Robert Johnson was…and this lead me to buy Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow last week and read it in 3 days. It was published in 2021 and just 270 pages (without including bibliography and index).
I’ll admit, I’ve never been a fan of the blues, though a lot of people will say it’s the roots of rock n roll. But after spending years hearing about a mysterious blues artist from the Mississippi Delta that was so good, people said he had to have gotten his skills by hoodoo or the Devil, the only way to find out for myself was to find the best book written about him. And from this list of awards this book has won, I think this one is it.
The Mississippi Delta wasn’t an easy place to grow up in the 1920’s and 30’s. Most black families were sharecroppers working for plantation owners. On the weekends, though, these hard working people would find their release at balls or jukes (without or with alcohol, respectively), dancing and listening to music. This is where Robert Johnson was born in 1911. But he wanted no part of farming, he just wanted to play music. He’d sneak out and sit outside jukes at night just to hear the music. At 11, he built himself a diddly bow on the side of the family shack (strings connected between 2 nails on the side of a house), just so he could play. Not long afterward, his sister bought him his first guitar and from that moment on, he study and played wherever he could, learning from anyone who could teach him.
How good was Robert Johnson? Listen to Dead Shrimp Blues….a song that people have insisted there was no way one man was playing…there had to be 2 guitar players, they said. But there wasn’t….this was Robert Johnson:
Robert Johnson loved women almost as much his guitar. Families would hide their daughters when they saw Robert coming…”He plays that devil music!” He would be married twice and widowed twice by the age of 25. And just when the time had come for him to become a major musical force at age 27, he was poisoned by the husband of one of his lovers.
Did he sell his soul at the crossroads? Well, this book sets out to find out the true story behind this legend…a man who influenced Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin. Well researched, the authors have found more details about this man of mystery…a man who they say would turn his back when playing his guitar, so no one could see how he formed his chords. Now, it’s your turn to decide…
I rate this book, 4 out of 4 Beetles!