Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, by Bruce Conforth, Gayle Dean Wardlow

Canard

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I have just finished reading a book I got for Christmas, Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, by Bruce Conforth, Gayle Dean Wardlow.

I cannot recommend it highly enough.

It is both a Johnson biography and a social history of the times and places of Johnson’s life. It is a brilliant scholarly work (and I do mean a lot of hard painstaking work), a book that destroys the myths of Robert Johnson and builds something larger, Robert Johnson, a human being. It must, of course, resort at times to informed speculation, but the speculation is always firmly grounded in probability and contextual evidence.

For a long time, it was thought that very little was known about Johnson, but this was only because nobody ever really looked or asked for information. There was the mythical Johnson (fantasy and half-truths building upon fantasy and half-truths), and that was it. However, it turned out that there were a lot of people who knew him and/or who worked and travelled with him. They just needed to be found and asked. His descendants are alive and well.

So a lot is known about his life. Although born in a rural area, Johnson had an early education in an urban setting, until he was uprooted from a home he was living in with step-family by his biological mother and taken back to a rural area. He could read and write. He had some education in the rudiments of music.

Later, he was tutored by kindly elder musicians. He was extremely talented and had the gift of an amazing ear. The legacy he has left, his recordings, shows only the small section of his repertoire that the record label was interested in. The label wanted Blues and original compositions. Johson gave them that. However, Johnson could and did play pretty much anything, Folk, Country, Swing, Jazz, Gospel, Pop, Mexican, Jewish music, etc – anything that was popular on the radio or on jukeboxes. He needed to be able to play requests to make money. Most of the money from gigs came in tips. He was also particularly adept at adapting piano tunes to the guitar, much to the amazement of his contemporaries. He was a killer harmonica player. He was also a competent on piano. He seems not to have sold his soul to the Devil but does seem to have worked hard to build upon a natural gift of raw talent.

He was not just a Delta phenomenon. He travelled out of the South. He gigged as far north as Windsor, Ontario, and as far east as New York.

He was not intentionally murdered. He was intentionally poisoned, yes, but under normal circumstances, the particular weak and ineffectual poison used would only have made him sick for a day or so. The combination of the poison and Johnson's underlying health problems lead to a miserable and painfully protracted death. His death was an unintended accident.

And yes, he was a womaniser (perhaps an occupational hazard for working/touring musicians), and it is this aspect of his personality that lead directly to his death. This much of the legend is true.

The book also dabbles in musical biography/analysis, but this is not its focus. His recorded songs are discussed at length but not in a hardcore musical manner. His recording sessions and early recording techniques are also discussed. His guitars are discussed. The lack of musical hardcore depth is not a weakness. There are lots of excellent books devoted to Johnson’s recorded music and his techniques, but up to now, there has been no solid biography.

The book gets an A+++ (y)(y)(y)(y)
 
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shihan

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I agree with your excellent review. I was extremely impressed with the depth of research conducted for this book.
Gale Dean Wardlow’s other book, ‘Chasing the Devils Music’ is also very valuable reading
 

ruedi

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I have just finished reading a book I got for Christmas, Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, by Bruce Conforth, Gayle Dean Wardlow.

I cannot recommend it highly enough.

It is both a Johnson biography and a social history of the times and places of Johnson’s life. It is a brilliant scholarly work (and I do mean a lot of hard painstaking work), a book that destroys the myths of Robert Johnson and builds something larger, Robert Johnson, a human being. It must, of course, resort at times to informed speculation, but the speculation is always firmly grounded in probability and contextual evidence.

For a long time, it was thought that very little was known about Johnson, but this was only because nobody ever really looked or asked for information. There was the mythical Johnson (fantasy and half-truths building upon fantasy and half-truths), and that was it. However, it turned out that there were a lot of people who knew him and/or who worked and travelled with him. They just needed to be found and asked. His descendants are alive and well.

So a lot is known about his life. Although born in a rural area, Johnson had an early education in an urban setting, until he was uprooted from a home he was living in with step-family by his biological mother and taken back to a rural area. He could read and write. He had some education in the rudiments of music.

Later, he was tutored by kindly elder musicians. He was extremely talented and had the gift of an amazing ear. The legacy he has left, his recordings, shows only the small section of his repertoire that the record label was interested in. The label wanted Blues and original compositions. Johson gave them that. However, Johnson could and did play pretty much anything, Folk, Country, Swing, Jazz, Gospel, Pop, Mexican, Jewish music, etc – anything that was popular on the radio or on jukeboxes. He needed to be able to play requests to make money. Most of the money from gigs came in tips. He was also particularly adept at adapting piano tunes to the guitar, much to the amazement of his contemporaries. He was a killer harmonica player. He was also a competent on piano. He seems not to have sold his soul to the Devil but does seem to have worked hard to build upon a natural gift of raw talent.

He was not just a Delta phenomenon. He travelled out of the South. He gigged as far north as Windsor, Ontario, and as far east as New York.

He was not intentionally murdered. He was intentionally poisoned, yes, but under normal circumstances, the particular weak and ineffectual poison used would only have made him sick for a day or so. The combination of the poison and Johnson's underlying health problems lead to a miserable and painfully protracted death. His death was an unintended accident.

And yes, he was a womaniser (perhaps an occupational hazard for working/touring musicians), and it is this aspect of his personality that lead directly to his death. This much of the legend is true.

The book also dabbles in musical biography/analysis, but this is not its focus. His recorded songs are discussed at length but not in a hardcore musical manner. His recording sessions and early recording techniques are also discussed. His guitars are discussed. The lack of musical hardcore depth is not a weakness. There are lots of excellent books devoted to Johnson’s recorded music and his techniques, but up to now, there has been no solid biography.

The book gets an A+++ (y)(y)(y)(y)

Interesting! Your review makes me want to read it as well 🤓
 

Westerly Wood

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very interesting--he died at age 27.
he mostly walked the earth and played on street corners.
he just barely got his songs recorded before he died.
 

dronge

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I have just finished reading a book I got for Christmas, Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, by Bruce Conforth, Gayle Dean Wardlow.

I cannot recommend it highly enough.

It is both a Johnson biography and a social history of the times and places of Johnson’s life. It is a brilliant scholarly work (and I do mean a lot of hard painstaking work), a book that destroys the myths of Robert Johnson and builds something larger, Robert Johnson, a human being. It must, of course, resort at times to informed speculation, but the speculation is always firmly grounded in probability and contextual evidence.

For a long time, it was thought that very little was known about Johnson, but this was only because nobody ever really looked or asked for information. There was the mythical Johnson (fantasy and half-truths building upon fantasy and half-truths), and that was it. However, it turned out that there were a lot of people who knew him and/or who worked and travelled with him. They just needed to be found and asked. His descendants are alive and well.

So a lot is known about his life. Although born in a rural area, Johnson had an early education in an urban setting, until he was uprooted from a home he was living in with step-family by his biological mother and taken back to a rural area. He could read and write. He had some education in the rudiments of music.

Later, he was tutored by kindly elder musicians. He was extremely talented and had the gift of an amazing ear. The legacy he has left, his recordings, shows only the small section of his repertoire that the record label was interested in. The label wanted Blues and original compositions. Johson gave them that. However, Johnson could and did play pretty much anything, Folk, Country, Swing, Jazz, Gospel, Pop, Mexican, Jewish music, etc – anything that was popular on the radio or on jukeboxes. He needed to be able to play requests to make money. Most of the money from gigs came in tips. He was also particularly adept at adapting piano tunes to the guitar, much to the amazement of his contemporaries. He was a killer harmonica player. He was also a competent on piano. He seems not to have sold his soul to the Devil but does seem to have worked hard to build upon a natural gift of raw talent.

He was not just a Delta phenomenon. He travelled out of the South. He gigged as far north as Windsor, Ontario, and as far east as New York.

He was not intentionally murdered. He was intentionally poisoned, yes, but under normal circumstances, the particular weak and ineffectual poison used would only have made him sick for a day or so. The combination of the poison and Johnson's underlying health problems lead to a miserable and painfully protracted death. His death was an unintended accident.

And yes, he was a womaniser (perhaps an occupational hazard for working/touring musicians), and it is this aspect of his personality that lead directly to his death. This much of the legend is true.

The book also dabbles in musical biography/analysis, but this is not its focus. His recorded songs are discussed at length but not in a hardcore musical manner. His recording sessions and early recording techniques are also discussed. His guitars are discussed. The lack of musical hardcore depth is not a weakness. There are lots of excellent books devoted to Johnson’s recorded music and his techniques, but up to now, there has been no solid biography.

The book gets an A+++ (y)(y)(y)(y)
Thanks for the review -- the book sounds interesting.
 

Canard

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what guitars did he play?
Well .... from possibly faulty memory and without leafing back through the book, I will say (with some of my own thoughts added):

He appears to have started with a DiddlyBow.

He then moved on to a homemade two or three stringed cigar-box instrument that a family member helped him make.

One of his sisters later helped him buy what was probably a used real guitar because it was missing its top two strings. He played that for a bit with only the four strings, until he had saved up the dime or so it cost to buy two new strings.

This guitar was replaced with another better guitar, but it was probably something inexpensive in the same league as a Stella.

By 1935 or so he was photographed holding a Gibson L-1. This may or may not have been his guitar. The clothes he was wearing that famous photo he had borrowed from a step-brother. The guitar borrowed, too? If it was his working guitar, then the L-1 was probably smashed in 1936 by the San Antonio police when they beat him up and falsely arrested him for vagrancy. L-1 or not, the police did destroy his guitar while he was in town waiting for his first recording session.

What he used on those 1936 sessions, who knows?

He ended using a Kalamazoo KG-14. He probably used this for his second session in Dallas in 1937.
 

FNG

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Another newer book by his step sister...Haven't read it.
 

Canard

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Another newer book by his step sister...Haven't read it.
Thx. Will have to check it out.
 
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