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Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson

Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson


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  • The Penderyn 2020 Music Book Prize (UK edition)
  • Living Blues Critics Choice Best Blues Book of 2019
  • Living Blues Readers Choice Best Blues Book of 2019
  • Certificate of Merit in the Best Historical Research in Recorded Blues, Soul, Gospel, or R&B category from ARSC (Association for Recorded Sound Collections)
An essential story of blues lore, black culture, and American music history

Robert Johnson’s recordings, made in 1936 and 1937, have profoundly influenced generations of singers, guitarists, and songwriters. Yet until now, his short life—he was murdered at the age of 27—has been poorly documented.

Gayle Dean Wardlow has been interviewing people who knew Johnson since the early 1960s, and he was the person who discovered Johnson’s death certificate in 1967. Bruce Conforth began his study of Johnson’s life and music in 1970 and made it his mission to fill in what was still unknown about him. In this definitive biography, the two authors relied on every interview, resource, and document, much of it material no one has seen before.

This is the first book about Johnson that documents his lifelong relationship with family and friends in Memphis, details his trip to New York, uncovers where and when his wife Virginia died and the impact this had on him, fully portrays the other women Johnson was involved with and tells exactly how and why he died and who gave him the poison that killed him.

Up Jumped the Devil will astonish blues fans worldwide by painting a living, breathing portrait of a man who was heretofore little more than a legend.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641600941
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 06/04/2019
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 262,127
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Bruce Conforth, former professor of folklore, blues, popular culture, and American history at the University of Michigan, was the founding curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Gayle Dean Wardlow is a highly regarded blues historian who has amassed one of the world’s largest collections of prewar blues records. His book Chasin’ That Devil Music is a classic of blues literature. He lives in Pensacola, Florida.

Read an Excerpt



The summer of 1936 Robert Johnson stood in front of Walker's General Store and Gas Station adjoining the Martinsville train depot. He put down his bag made of blue-and-white bed ticking packed full of clothes, at least one notebook, and other belongings, and began playing his guitar. He was there to advertise his nighttime performance at O'Malley's — a bootleg house not far from the old Damascus Church just north of neighboring Hazlehurst's city limits, up the railroad tracks on the east side of old Highway 51. Hazlehurst was a town of about three thousand souls sitting thirty-five miles south of Jackson, Mississippi. Robert had been born in Hazlehurst twenty-five years earlier, and now he was there to play his blues at one of the many juke joints he frequented throughout the area. A slight five foot eight, 140 pounds, Robert was well known for more than just his music.

Robert had already gotten one local girl pregnant — Virgie Jane Smith — and the men in and around Hazlehurst wanted to make sure that was not going to happen to their daughters. Rosa Redman was eleven years old that year. Later a short, plump history teacher, she lived most of her life on the old Mangold Plantation, near both the house where Robert was born and O'Malley's juke. She recalledthat Robert's presence would create a certain stir among the residents. "People would know when Robert was in town. The men would let people know, and if they saw him coming up the road, our mothers would make all the girls go inside. It was OK for our older brothers, uncles, or fathers to go see him play and get drunk, but it was off limits to us girls. They'd keep us inside and locked up!"

His blues was the devil's music and could only lead to sin.

Throughout the Delta region and beyond, Robert's rambling had left a trail of drunken men and brokenhearted women. Whether he was playing a juke like O'Malley's, a picnic, or a party, Robert was always looking for a woman to satisfy his needs, financially or sexually. His songs were often a tool to seduce some woman he took a fancy to, and the human remnants he left behind were well known to locals. He even bragged about his conquests in one of his songs, "Traveling Riverside Blues": "I got womens in Vicksburg, clean on to Tennessee, but my Friars Point rider, now, hops all over me."

* * *

Robert Johnson was using his guitar abilities to forge the transition from the older blues of Charley Patton, Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas, Lead Belly, or even Son House, to the more modern approach and sounds of Muddy Waters and the postwar blues players. He played blues, pop tunes, jazz, and ragtime; started to popularize the use of guitar riffs as signature elements of a song; and was one of the first to use a boogie beat for his rhythm accompaniment, copying the driving, rhythmic bass that barrelhouse pianists played with their left hand. His playing helped move blues guitar fretting out of the first position and into the use of the entirety of the fretboard, opening musical possibilities that had previously been reserved for jazz guitarists.

He was a dancer and harmonica player in ways that surprised his companions, and he used all his entertainment talents as vehicles to further his quest for fame and freedom from the burdens of sharecropping, and even, perhaps, from the Jim Crow racism of the South. Yet, in spite of his considerable talents, Robert displayed an untrusting and insecure personality. He refused to let you pay too close attention to how he was playing, turning his back on you or stopping his playing completely if he thought you were watching him too closely.

But Robert also had an unrelenting desire for a good time, and his personal exploits would eventually lead to myth and speculation. He did little to make his world clear, for he refused to speak about his family and life, and he never — if he ever knew about them — did anything to either validate or disavow the ideas about him that circulated among his listeners and acquaintances. He was a chameleon who was perhaps on his own search for his true identity.

By the time Rosa Redman saw him, Robert's rambling had become both his main way of traveling from one musical job to the next and his way to satisfy his need to just "get up and go." His travels on both sides of the Mississippi River took him on circuitous journeys throughout Mississippi and parts of Louisiana and Arkansas. He followed Highway 1, which ran alongside the Mississippi River, Highways 61 and 49, which went north and south through the center of the Delta, and Highway 82, which ran east and west.

Robert found places to play and sing in Greenwood, Itta Bena, Moorhead ("where the Southern cross the Dog"), Indianola, Holly Ridge, Leland, and Greenville, all located on Highway 82. From Greenville, Robert traveled north on Highway 1, stopping at Winterville, Lamont, Beulah, Rosedale, Gunnison, Sherard, and then into Clarksdale. From Clarksdale he had several options.

He could continue north on Highway 61 and stop at Jonestown (with a detour west to Friars Point), Lula (onetime home of Charley Patton), Tunica, Robinsonville (where his mother lived), Walls, and then his Memphis home. Memphis was where he spent his seminal childhood years, the home of the family he considered his true kin, headed by Charles Dodds Spencer, his mother's ex-husband. He would go back there as often as he could throughout his life. From Memphis he could easily cross into Arkansas to reach West Memphis with its freewheeling base of jukes and party houses, then go to Marianna, Helena, and West Helena — wide-open towns for black blues singers — which Robert could also reach via the Friars Point ferry.

If he went south from Clarksdale on Highway 61 he hit Alligator, Shelby, Mound Bayou, Merigold, Cleveland, and Shaw. Conversely, if he headed south on Highway 49 West he stopped at Tutwiler, Drew, and Ruleville. Highway 49 East took him to Minter City, Greenwood, Tchula, Yazoo City, Bentonia (where Skip James had lived and played), and finally into Jackson.

From Jackson south on Highway 51 Robert stopped at Crystal Springs (home of Tommy Johnson), Hazlehurst (where his Aunt Clara lived), Beauregard and Wesson, and from there to Bogalusa, Louisiana, and over to Gulfport, Mississippi.

Of the locations Robert frequented, Friars Point was particularly important — a ferry ran between there and Arkansas. Mississippi was still a dry state even after Prohibition ended in 1933, so liquor was transported into Friars Point by way of that ferry. That Delta river town was full of jukes, black lodges, and clubs. Robert loved playing in Friars Point for all those reasons and more.

Elizabeth Moore ran a Friars Point juke and recalled that her husband used to bring Robert, before he had recorded, to play there on Saturday nights. She had moved there from Robinsonville, where Johnson had first played for her. "He was staying over there in West Stover [a small sawmill community] cross the river and my husband went over there and got him. Brought him cross the river [on a ferry] and he played over here for 'bout two or three months. He had three or four songs he did then [his originals]."

In downtown Friars Point, Hirsberg's store carried every item that the local residents needed: drugs, farm supplies, clothing, food. They extended credit too, an important consideration during the Depression. As a main meeting place for area residents, Hirsberg's was the perfect location for Robert to play during the day, both to make extra money and to advertise where he would be that night. He would sit on one of the red wooden benches Hirsberg had placed on either side of the front door, and his afternoon appearances drew such enormous crowds that they created a bottleneck, making it hard for anyone to get to the door. The owners found a simple solution: they would climb to the roof of their one-story building and throw vegetables down onto the entertained assembly to get them to disperse. Robert was used to drawing such crowds, however, and they just made the possibility of his making a decent night's pay and going home with the woman of his fancy more probable.

* * *

The night in Hazlehurst that Rosa Redman remembered 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.

In a few short months Robert would be a recording artist, and the next time they saw him they might have even purchased his "Terraplane Blues" — a modest hit — and "Kind Hearted Woman Blues" for their own home Victrolas.

But on this particular night the audience had no inkling of what was to come, and neither did Robert. They only knew that Robert Johnson was in town: a good-guitar-playing, hard-drinking, woman-loving little man who kept them entertained.

So who was this Robert Johnson?

To find that out we need to go back to the beginning.



Saturday afternoon, February 2, 1889, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, was a clear and cool day. The temperature was in the sixties, the sun was shining, and the air was full of the expectation that spring was not far away. It was a good day for a wedding. Reverend H. Brown had driven his horse and buggy ten miles from his home in Crystal Springs to perform several marriages, and now nineteen-year-old Julia Ann Majors and twenty-two-year-old Charles C. Dodds stood before him ready to take their vows. Around them were family and friends all joined in anticipation of the ceremony and the party that would follow. Julia was a short, fair-skinned young lady, and Charles was a slightly taller, lanky young man. It was almost inevitable that they would meet and marry, for both their families had been residents in the Hazlehurst area for decades — and both the bride's and groom's mixed-race heritage went as far back as records existed.

Julia was born in Hazlehurst in October 1870, the daughter of Gabriel (b. 1850) and Lucinda Brown Majors (b. 1853). Gabriel's father, Wiatt Majors, was born in Virginia in 1814, as was Lucinda's father. All Julia's family dating back to the eighteenth century identified as mulattoes, not as Negroes. This meant more social, legal, and cultural acceptance; mulattoes had greater freedom to own personalproperty and could "acquire ... and ... dispose of the same in the same manner and to the same extent that white persons may." Cohabitating mulattoes were considered legally married, and mulattoes were even considered to be "by law competent witnesses ... in civil cases, and in criminal cases where they are the victims." These were rights that blacks in the Mississippi Delta simply did not enjoy.

Charles C. Dodds was born in Hazlehurst around 1867. His father, Charles Dodds Sr., was born in 1831 in North Carolina, and his mother, Harriet (last name unknown), was born in 1846. She also listed herself as a mulatto.

On that Saturday the young couple was starting a new life together, and this would have been a time for celebrating. As an increasingly prosperous carpenter and maker of wicker furniture, Charles would have had the ability to provide a pleasant time for his new wife and anyone else in attendance. One can imagine the crisp afternoon air becoming full of the smell of barbecue or a fish fry, both Mississippi culinary standards, and possibly the sounds of music makers: perhaps a fiddle and guitar. There was little that would not have made the prospects seem bright for the newly married pair. With Charles able to provide comfortably for his wife and family-to-be and Julia a hardworking housekeeper, the freedom they found in Hazlehurst seemed welcoming, as it had to their parents and grandparents.

Even in those early years, according to a 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, the nine blocks that comprised the town proper contained at least seven general merchandise stores, five grocery stores, three drugstores, two hardware stores, at least two restaurants, three livery stables and harness shops, two women's clothing and notions stores, three churches, a Masonic Hall, a bank, carpentry shop, three hotels, a dentist/doctor's office, a barber, a courthouse, a jail, a train station, a cotton gin, and a school. Blacks and whites at least appeared to peacefully coexist. It was everything that a new family could want.

Although not in the Delta proper (Hazlehurst is some thirty-five miles south of the state's capital, Jackson, fifty miles southeast of Vicksburg — generally regarded as the southern tip of the region — and two hundred miles south of Clarksdale, considered the "heart" of the Delta), the town is still in the alluvial plain created by thousands of years of regular flooding of the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, a plain that boasts some of the most fertile soil in the world. European settlers in the eighteenth century grew sugarcane and rice at first, but the invention of the cotton gin at the end of the century made the cultivation of cotton more profitable, and an increased demand for labor drove the domestic slave trade, forcing more than one million slaves to fill that need. After the Civil War the need for labor to farm this rich land attracted thousands of migrants who traded their labor for the opportunity to purchase some of its acreage. Somewhat surprisingly, by the late 1800s two-thirds of the independent farmers were African American. Economic conditions changed, however, and the price of cotton fell, causing many black landowners to sell their property and become sharecroppers, laborers for white landowners. Between 1910 and 1920, the first and second generations of African Americans after slavery lost almost all of their stake in the land.

Although sharecropping and tenant farming replaced the slave system, there was little actual difference in social and working conditions, and since many black families were illiterate, they were often horribly exploited by plantation owners. The number of lynchings of black men rose dramatically, and due to its harsh and tenacious brand of oppression, the Delta became known as "the most Southern place on earth." But Hazlehurst, though still within a state whose racist history was considerably worse than that of its neighbors, developed a culture that was far more liberal in its treatment of African Americans, especially those who were biracial, such as Robert's ancestors.

Of the approximately twelve million Africans brought to the Americas, as few as 350,000 came directly to the territories that would become the United States. Virtually all of those slaves were brought to the East Coast, primarily to Virginia and the Carolinas. Among them were the ancestors of Wiatt Majors and Charles Dodds, who were given their freedom in their respective states prior to the Civil War and moved from Virginia and North Carolina to Mississippi as free men. There are no records that they settled anywhere else in between, and there is no indication that members of either side of the family were enslaved in Mississippi.

Free blacks in the South were not uncommon. In 1810, there had been 108,265 free black persons there, representing "the fastest-growing element in the Southern population." By 1860, more free blacks lived in the South (261,918) than in the North (226,152). Forty percent were mulattoes, and for the most part they had been released from slavery through manumission (formal acts of emacipation by their slaveowners). After receiving their freedom they often moved, as did Robert's ancestors, from the Upper South (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee) to the Lower South (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas). For the most part, such movement was instigated by the possibility of money to be made in the Lower South's cotton industry.

Because of their status as free black persons before the Civil War, and as mulattoes after, the Dodds and Majors families enjoyed a better lifestyle than most black families who lived in the Delta. They had more legal and cultural opportunities. Julia and Charles settled in Beat One in the west part of the Hazlehurst and Martinsville precincts of Copiah County and had six children in their first eleven years of marriage. The 1900 United States Census listed Charles Dodds, head of household (35), wife Julia Majors (25), children Louise (12), Harriet (9), Bessie (8), Willie M. (5), Lula B. (4), and Melvin Leroy (1).

On December 4, 1901, Charles purchased "eight acres, more or less" from a white family, the Mangolds, for the sum of $181 — more than $5,000 today. The Mangolds had owned the large plantation that bore their name and were now dividing it up into sharecropper lots.


Excerpted from "Up Jumped the Devil"
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Copyright © 2019 Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments v

Introduction 1

1 Robert Johnson Is in Town 9

2 Before the Beginning 19

3 Memphis Days 35

4 Back to the Delta 47

5 Musical Roots and Identity 59

6 Marriage, Death, and the Blues 75

7 The Music Begins 87

8 Here Comes That Guitar Man 95

9 Ramblin at the Crossroads 115

10 Traveling Riverside Blues 129

11 I'm Booked and Bound to Go 139

12 Kind Hearted Women 161

13 I Left with My Head Cut 185

14 Gotta Keep Movin', Blues Fallin Down Like Hail 197

15 When I Leave This Town I'm Gon Bid You Fare, Farewell 223

16 You May Bury My Body Down by the Highway Side 247

Epilogue: Last Fair Deal Goin' Down 263

Appendix I Recording Sessions 271

Appendix II A Robert Johnson Geneaology 273

Bibliography 277

Notes 291

Index 309

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