Fifty years in the making, a comprehensive biography of the legendary Delta blues singer.
Conforth (African American Folksong and American Cultural Politics: The Lawrence Gellert Story, 2013, etc.), the founding curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and blues historian Wardlow (Chasin’ that Devil Music: Searching for the Blues, 1998) waste little time taking on the myths and rumors previous books have promulgated about Robert Johnson (1911-1938). The authors seek to “return him to his human particulars” and reveal the “real story.” In order to do so, they have unearthed a massive amount of primary source materials, much of it reproduced here, and numerous “first-person accounts of who he really was.” They do a fine job of thoughtfully weaving the biographical essentials with portraits of the harsh and impoverished sharecropper’s world of the South in the 1920s and ’30s. Johnson was born in a tiny, ramshackle house near Hazlehurst, Mississippi, “the illegitimate son of two unmarried parents.” He hated farming, preferring to play harmonica and guitar. He grew up hearing cotton-field blues and embraced the music “like a boll weevil did a growing cotton ball.” He lived an itinerant existence, playing in jukes, roadhouses, family homes, and on the streets. He could read and write and drink—a lot—and womanize along the way, all the while perfecting his musical skills and learning from other musicians, like Willie Moore and Son House. Guitar fans will enjoy the detail the authors provide about Johnson’s unique style of playing and their in-depth discussions of his songs as well as their fascinating account of his historic 1936 recording sessions in Texas. The authors also refute the famous myths—e.g., that Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads and that he was poisoned. He had an ulcer and suffered from “esophageal varices,” which hemorrhaged.
Although the prose is occasionally dry, this in-depth portrait of Johnson’s life and times will be mighty hard to improve upon.