There’s an old blues metaphor. You know, Robert Johnson found his sound at the crossroad when he made a deal with the devil. It seems to me that the country is at a crossroad, whether we are going to continue to invest and double down on the ugliness of our racist commitments, or [we’ll] finally leave this behind.
—Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
The blues singer and guitarist Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in 1911, grew up in Memphis, and was fatally poisoned by a jealous husband during a performance at a juke joint near Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1938. He recorded twenty-nine of his own songs for the Vocalion label in San Antonio in 1936 and in Dallas in 1937. In 1938, with the blues musician Johnny Shines, he traversed most of the eastern part of the country, playing from St. Louis to Chicago to Detroit to Harlem. Later that year the producer John Hammond, who had celebrated his recordings in New Masses, knew Johnson had to perform at his historic “Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall; learning of his death, Hammond played two of his songs on a phonograph on the stage.
Within the school of Mississippi Delta blues—where on a nearly fixed structure of verses and melodies a singer was called to craft an imaginative fiction using a persona who claimed to testify to the vicissitudes of his or her life—Johnson made music that went farther than that of anyone else. In 1931 Constance Rourke upended the boundaries of American speech in American Humor: A Study of the National Character, in which she found “lines from forbidden” slave songs in blackface minstrel tunes (“O I’se sorry I sold myself to the debbil”). The hauntings that were left in the American imagination after the first waves of the Great Awakening receded echo through Johnson’s songs, and the most distinctive of them—“Me and the Devil Blues,” “Stones in My Passway,” “Cross Road Blues,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Hellhound on My Trail”—mirror Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” as much as any other blues.
Johnson’s life was tangled. His mother’s first husband, Charles Dodds, escaped a Hazlehurst lynch mob in 1908 after a dispute with a white neighbor. He settled in Memphis and changed his name to Spencer, leaving his wife Julia behind with their younger children. Robert Leroy Johnson was born from her affair with a farm worker named Noah Johnson, though when she left him at the Spencer household in Memphis at the age of five or seven, according to different memories, he was taken in as a Spencer and used that name until, sometime in his mid-teens, his mother told him of his actual parentage, and he began to use the name Johnson.
He started playing music as a child; Charles Spencer, who played many instruments, was his first guitar teacher. Johnson began performing for audiences when he was seventeen, but at that age he married fourteen-year-old Virginia Travis and left music behind for work as a farmer. Within a year his wife and baby died in childbirth, and he tried to make his way in the sophisticated milieu of such older blues players as Charley Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown, in and around the Mississippi Delta towns of Clarksdale and Robinsonville, only to be turned away, House recalled, as a hopeless amateur.
He left for Hazlehurst, as if to reconstruct his life, looking for his spectral father. Instead he was taken in by the local guitarist Ike Zimmerman, whose sound all but silenced anything Johnson had heard before. Zimmerman liked to tutor unformed guitar players in a graveyard at midnight; some called him the devil for his ability to turn apparently unremarkable young men and women into masters. In 1930, while Johnson was still living with Zimmerman, he and a sixteen-year-old woman named Virgie Jane Smith may have conceived a child who, though he was raised and lived his life under another last name, would turn up more than sixty years later as Claud Johnson to successfully claim an estate by then worth millions of dollars. Turned away by Smith before her son’s birth, Johnson married an older woman, Caletta Craft, whom he almost immediately abandoned; she died soon after. In Memphis he was a beloved and responsible member of the Spencer family; outside of it, drinking constantly and pursuing women, playing plantation jukes or on the street, he was a hobo, a bum, a classic bohemian with dissipation his path to art.
When, after a year or more away, Johnson returned to Robinsonville, he so shocked those who heard his new music that more than three decades later, in 1966, Son House was still shaking his head. “He sold his soul to the devil in exchange for learning to play like that,” the blues writer Pete Welding quoted him as saying. Except for his first, “Terraplane Blues,” Johnson’s records did not sell well, even if he heard them himself on jukeboxes in Harlem. He was mostly forgotten after his death. Though some of his songs were taken up by others, his name was not attached to them.
In 1961 John Hammond assembled sixteen of Johnson’s recordings and released them on a Columbia LP bluntly titled King of the Delta Blues Singers. Though there were no facts about Johnson’s life and no photograph or even likeness on the jacket, the album caused a slowly rolling tremor that shook musicians and listeners around the world and has never come to rest. “I was already aware of the ‘myth’ of Robert Johnson, of selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads,” the singer and guitarist Jack White said of encountering Johnson’s music, long after his songs had captivated millions of people in recordings by the Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and countless others. “After finally listening to it, I could believe it.”
Three decades after King of the Delta Blues Singers appeared, facts had been gathered, photographs had been published. In 1990 Columbia released the annotated and illustrated Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, which included the twenty-nine songs and twelve alternate takes. It won a Grammy and sold more than a million copies. In 1994 Johnson appeared on a US postage stamp. In 2012 his song “Sweet Home Chicago” was sung at the White House by President Obama. In 2017, in an attempt to capitalize on Johnson’s fame, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump announced that they would open a hotel in Clarksdale as part of the since-abandoned venture they trademarked as “American Idea.”
And yet the fascination Johnson’s music provokes has never lessened, or been contained by knowledge of who, what, when, where, and how—because “why” can never be reduced to a fact. “Robert Johnson shaped an art,” Stanley Crouch wrote in 1994, “that elevated his work from the amorphous world of Delta Ned Buntlines to that of fish stories lining up to march on the universe of Moby Dick.” In his own way, Bob Dylan said much the same thing this past June:
Robert was one of the most inventive geniuses of all time. But he probably had no audience to speak of. He was so far ahead of his time that we still haven’t caught up with him. His status today couldn’t be any higher. Yet in his day, his songs must have confused people.
Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, by the longtime blues researchers Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, is a comprehensive and often wonderfully detailed book. The Robert Johnson we meet in these pages is fitted with glasses as a child to correct the effects of a recurrent cataract. He receives a first-class education in segregated schools in Memphis, in music as well as English and history. He listens to songs through an open window on a radio in a neighbor’s house while conversing about something else and plays more than one at a show that same night. In New York he seeks an audition for the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, the premier talent showcase in the country, where, we’re told, Frank Sinatra got his start with the Hoboken Four quartet in 1935. Bob Dylan to the contrary on Johnson’s lack of an audience (not that Dylan isn’t onto something when he summons the distance Johnson’s music seems to place between itself and anyone listening), there are thrilling stories of his playing on town streets or even an open highway and drawing such crowds that he stopped traffic. We see Ike Zimmerman pushing Johnson through the door of a Robinsonville juke joint as he returns to make his mark: “I taught you.”
But ultimately the book is charmless and hollow. Attempts to bring Johnson into focus as a person dissolve in glibness and an unintentional but thoughtless condescension: “Robert” (he is always Robert, sometimes with such proprietary familiarity that you wonder why the authors don’t just call him Bob) “didn’t have to talk much about himself because his music revealed him as a vulnerable, deeply feeling man. And that’s what allowed him to have such success with the women.” As Annye C. Anderson, Johnson’s stepsister, states plainly in her Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson, “Being on a first-name basis is designed to avoid giving black people the respect they’re due. Using a first name is a privilege and not a right.” What remains is an account of a highly talented 1930s blues singer and guitarist who lived a short but colorful life. There is no sense of what in his life or art would compel anyone to spend years researching and writing such a book, or why anyone would read it.
From the start, there is a certain distaste and a leaning into conjecture that undermine the certainty of particular descriptions. “The night in Hazlehurst,” Conforth and Wardlow write, “was filled with men and women dancing and drinking, whooping and hollering, pairing up for a night of partying and sex. They frolicked until Robert either went home with one of the women or collapsed drunk on the floor of the store to sleep it off”—which means they have no idea what Johnson did that night. He could have gone back to Ike Zimmerman’s to read Cane.
There are attempts at vivid recreations of the scenes Johnson would have encountered in Chicago and Harlem in 1938. They fade against the drawings in the Mezzo and J.M. Dupont graphic novel Love in Vain: Robert Johnson, 1911–1938—in lurid blacks and whites, so that even in the daytime scenes it seems to be night, with Johnson often in a pinstripe suit so bright it seems on the verge of bursting into flame—that show him in the same places.
Across the top half of a page in a single long image, Johnson is seen from behind at the far left of the panel, in his blazing suit and a broad-brimmed hat, looking up at posters advertising Louis Armstrong and the blues singer Victoria Spivey on the South Side of Chicago. Then it’s as if the reader’s eye is drawn by a tracking shot as it rolls down the block, passing a movie theater marquee announcing Harlem on the Prairie and Oscar Micheaux’s Underworld, passing a man in a suit aiming a guitar like a rifle at two men sitting on a sedan in suits and Stetsons with their own drawn pistols, reaching a newsboy hawking the Chicago Defender with FREE THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS in a banner headline in front of more well-dressed black men, and behind them a poster reading JOIN THE NAACP SMASH RACIAL DISCRIMINATION.
This is the work of scholarly fans trusting their imagination. In 2014, when their book first appeared, they could hardly have known, as Anderson relates in Brother Robert, published this past June, that Johnson “knew about the NAACP and kept up with the Scottsboro Boys case—the people involved had been hoboing to Memphis, just like Brother Robert often did.” And in one poetic line, Mezzo and Dupont say as much about the murderous and inescapable racism of Johnson’s world as anything in Conforth and Wardlow, even their report that Johnny Shines refused to set foot in Mississippi for fear of death: “It could be fatal for a black man to catch a white man’s eye.”
The same inability to bring Johnson to life is there when Conforth and Wardlow turn to his songs. Probably their most sustained and successful presentation comes with “Kind Hearted Woman Blues.” “It was both musically and lyrically aligned with Leroy Carr’s ‘Mean Mistreater Mama,’” they write,
and Bumble Bee Slim’s “Cruel Hearted Woman Blues.” But Robert’s genius was beyond just knowing good songs to copy: he rewrote them, changed the tempo, synced his guitar more closely with his vocal than those who preceeded him, added a guitar riff, and literally remade the piece. Although inspired by the original, the new song was really all his. Several aspects of his playing accentuated his ownership. First, Robert saw “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” as a complete composition. The song’s lyrics are thematically cohesive and the overall effect is of a musical whole, and not the type of whole that one would normally hear in a juke joint. This wasn’t a rollicking good-time piece designed to keep jukers dancing. On the contrary, “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” was a well-thought-out composition with a beginning, middle, and end.
With its words tired before they can complete the first sentence, there is no feeling for anything in the music that could produce the shock that runs from Son House in 1931 to Bob Dylan when he first heard King of the Delta Blues Singers in 1961 (“From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window…. I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard”), a shock that could seize up anyone discovering Johnson a hundred years from now. And there is no sense of what actually happens in the song at that moment when, emerging from the verses as if from sleep, Johnson’s voice rises, and then seems to rise again into an uncanny falsetto as a line comes out of nowhere and in the same moment returns to it, leaving the singer stranded, as if no one will ever hear him: “Oh babe”—and then slowly, each word standing alone—“my life don’t feel the same.”
Now ninety-four, Annye C. Anderson, Johnson’s youngest stepsibling—her mother, Mollie Winston Spencer, was Charles Spencer’s third and last wife—is quoted briefly and to little consequence (except for a nice story about a neighborhood Terraplane that Johnson admired) by Conforth and Wardlow, from an interview published twenty years ago. “At this point,” they say in their first pages, as if to place a KICK ME sticker on the back cover of their own book, “whatever remains unknown about Robert Johnson will probably remain unknown forever. Although this will almost certainly not be the last book on Robert Johnson,” they write, “the possibility of any new revelations surfacing seems extremely remote.” “So it comes back to me,” Anderson says: everyone else is dead.
She was born in 1926; she was twelve when Johnson died. She dropped out of high school to work, made her way to join her and Johnson’s half-sister Carrie Thompson in Maryland, worked in Washington for the government, married a scientist, got her degrees, moved with her husband to Cambridge, and taught business classes in Boston high schools; now she lives in Amherst. She describes the last time Johnson played in Memphis, on June 22, 1938, at a family house party with everyone gathered around the radio to hear the second Louis-Schmeling fight:
You should have seen him in his white sharkskin suit, Panama hat, and patent leather shoes….
That night, Brother Robert performed “Terraplane,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Kind Hearted Woman,” he and [his older half-brother] Son did “44 Blues.” My father took me home, because Brother Robert was going to play all night….
That night of the big fight was the last time I saw him. I wish you could have seen him jump for joy in his white suit. It looked like his legs about went up to the ceiling.
Anderson told her story to Preston Lauterbach, author of fine books on Memphis and the Memphis photographer Ernest C. Withers, and he edited her words into a seamless whole that despite its attention to the most quotidian details can read like a fable.
Her Robert Johnson, as she grows up in the Memphis houses he would light in, leave, come back to, and leave again as the years went on, is always making music. Just to hear the songs, along with all of those he recorded, that Anderson remembers him singing and playing to and with other family members, for little children, at house parties, in cafés—she and Thompson bought Johnson’s first record at Woolworth’s but never knew, until decades later, that there were any others—is to fully enter one version of the world of Robert Johnson.
There is Jimmie Rodgers’s “Waiting for a Train,” which Anderson and Johnson sang together again and again (“Brother Robert would do a double-take on ‘get off, get off, you railroad bum’”), Bing Crosby’s versions of “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking” and “Pennies from Heaven,” Bessie Smith’s “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon,” Gene Autry’s “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine” (“Buck Jones and Tom Mix were Brother Robert’s favorite cowboys,” Anderson says, noting too his love for Mae West and Erroll Flynn).
There are the folk and jazz standards “Salty Dog Blues,” “Trouble in Mind,” and “Careless Love”; “Take a Little Walk with Me” (an unrecorded Johnson composition he used to end house parties); and the unrecorded “Little Boy Blue.” There are children’s songs and folk songs and gospel songs, from “Little Sally Walker,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Humpty Dumpty,” and “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain” to “Mr. Froggie Went to Courting,” “John Henry” (“he made the guitar sound like a sledgehammer”), “Casey Jones,” “John Brown’s Body,” “Loch Lomond,” and “St. James Infirmary” to “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Dry Bones,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” and “Precious Lord (Take My Hand).”
There is the street music and radio music and movie theater music of W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues,” “My Bonnie,” “Annie Laurie,” the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sitting on Top of the World,” Paul Robeson in Showboat, James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known in the years since its composition as “The Negro National Anthem,” Ethel Waters’s “Am I Blue?,” “Coon Shine Baby,” Ginger Rogers’s “Let Yourself Go” from the Astaire-Rogers film Follow the Fleet (Johnson helped Anderson work out an arrangement of the song for her performance on a radio amateur show, then listened at home with the rest of the family), the unrecorded “1937 Waters,” and perhaps the foundation stone of the blues, “Poor Boy a Long Way from Home.” At family gatherings, he’d raise his guitar: “What’s your pleasure?” On the street, like any drop-a-dime blues singer, he took requests.
As Lauterbach writes in his introduction to Brother Robert, Johnson “kept his road life quiet around his family, and he kept his family life quiet on the road.” Anderson never saw him drunk. But even as a young girl, she could glimpse what the women Johnson never brought home could see plainly, and so the great artist comes to life in a way that he never quite has before, with an intimacy to which no one else, not even girlfriends from the 1930s interviewed thirty or fifty years later, has ever given voice:
Brother Robert kept his hair neat, using Dixie Peach pomade. He didn’t have nappy hair. He could put it anywhere he wanted. He greased Vaseline on his arms and legs to keep his skin from getting cruddy or scaly. Looking up at him, I noticed that his skin had a beautiful reddish undertone.
He was tall, slender, and built like the way women like men, especially black men, to be built. He had the African physique. He didn’t have overly broad shoulders, he was high-hipped, had narrow hips.
When she retells the family stories of her father’s flight from Hazlehurst, the account matches that in Conforth and Wardlow, but again there is an intimacy that fires the story to life:
Marchetti came to my father’s barbershop, accosted him, and cut him with a long blade knife on the left side of his jaw. Being a barber, my father carried a razor on his left side, and cut Marchetti back.
When Spencer, disguised as a woman, is waiting for the train to Memphis, with white men stalking him around the depot, you are still frozen in suspense over what might happen, as with a movie you have seen before. And just as Anderson can judge the racist power she has encountered wherever she has found herself (“It must be known that there is only one region in the United States, you’re either up South or down South”), she can judge the incident that sent her father to Memphis just as sharply: “Neither me nor Brother Robert would’ve come into this world without that knife fight in Hazlehurst.”
The second part of Anderson’s book is Bleak House: the nearly thirty-year struggle of Carrie Thompson, and finally Anderson herself, to hold on to Johnson’s legacy—the photographs they loaned sharpsters who never returned them (one sent back an empty envelope), a paper with Johnson’s last words, the fortune they would never touch—a struggle that ended in 2000 when a Mississippi judge cut the family, by then only Anderson living, off from its own story. It is an awful story; when Anderson quotes a long letter from Carrie Thompson about a nightmare Dickens—or for that matter Jordan Peele—would have killed for, you may feel you will never get out of it.
There is far more. I have only scratched the surface of this short, rich book. I haven’t mentioned the photo of Johnson, never seen before, from a visit he and Anderson made to a twenty-five-cent photo booth, on the cover. But the person she has described, too, is not someone whom, through the thousands of pages that have been written about him, or even through the recognitions and fantasies of the millions of people who have listened to him, anyone else has really seen before: an ordinary young black man who even had he lived might never have escaped the backwaters where he made a living, cultivating a spirit that was his alone, making his way through the main currents of American culture, the devil take the hindmost—as if it were that simple.
“The stories about his dealing with the devil took away from his real talent,” Anderson writes. That really ought to be the last word on the notion—but of course it won’t be. Near the end of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Rodham, an alternative history published last spring, it’s 2015. Hillary Rodham, having broken up with Bill Clinton in 1971, is at the end of her fourth term as a senator from Illinois, and in her third run for the presidency. Her main opponent in the Democratic primary is Bill Clinton, who after his presidential campaign collapsed in scandal in 1992 became a Silicon Valley billionaire and has now pulled ahead in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses.
To cut him off, Rodham inveigles Donald Trump into endorsing her, flattering him that he should run himself, and then sits squirming, watching him on TV as he does so: “We’ve been very close for some time,” Trump says, after saying in another interview that he’d never met her. “I’m one of her most trusted advisors.” “Donald,” asks the host, “have you left the door open even a crack to running yourself?” “I’d be so good at it,” Trump says. “I’d be better than Hillary if I’m being honest. But I have other things to do.” “Who’s the blues musician who supposedly sold his soul to the devil?” Rodham asks an aide. “Robert Johnson,” she answers, “but have you ever listened to his stuff? It was totally worth it.”