Bruce Conforth on the legend of Robert Johnson.
Kris is honored to welcome her guest, Ethnomusicologist, University Professor, Blues Scholar and former curator at the RocknRoll Hall of Fame, Dr. Bruce Conforth, whose painstakingly researched biography "Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson" seeks to separate the man from the myth.
Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson us available of Chicago Review Press
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Special thanks to Bruce, Sam Ofman at CRP, Marcus Osborne, and Will Roth.
About the Podcast:
‘TEXT PROSE AND ROCK N ROLL’- is the only podcast dedicated to the written account of musicians. From artist memoirs to band bios, and anything in between. You'll hear first accounts from those who lived the lifestyle; a Book Club that rocks - literally.
It was Created, Hosted & Executive Produced by Kris Kosach.
It was Produced & Edited by Charlene Goto of Go-To Productions.
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[00:00:00] Narrator Marcus Osborne: Lonely highway midnight on the Mississippi Delta, a young man stands alone at the crossroads. It's come to seal. His fate is one of the greatest blues men of all time. You know, all he has to do with some of the devil to tune his guitar. And once the deed is done, the young man's dreams of fame and fortune will follow all in exchange for the man's mortal soul.
This is the legend of Robert Johnson.
Kris Kosach: for decades. The legend of Robert Johnson has been at the core of music, culture, the and tale of a man. So desiring of success, he's willing to sell his soul for a taste. The story is centuries old. And yet the story of Robert Johnson [00:01:00] is decidedly modern and uniquely American it's spawned movies and television shows.
And Robert's musical inspiration is vast. Eric Clapton, Keith Richards. Jimmy page and many more. And chronologically speaking, Robert Johnson is celebrity member number one of the post-mortem cultural phenomenon known as the 27 club. But where does the legend come from and how does it take hold? On today's show.
We'll explore that with my guest, dr. Bruce Kahn forth. Ethnomusicologist former professor of American folklore and blues at the university of Michigan and an original curator at the rock and roll hall of fame. His new book of jump, the devil, the real life of Robert Johnson, along with coauthor Gayle Dean Wardlow traces Robert's life from his humble beginnings.
To trailblazing guitarist to his tragic last days. My name is Chris Cosecha. I created this program to [00:02:00] highlight the written account of music from band biographies, to memoirs and the occasional rock doc. We're the only podcast of its kind. This is text pros and rock and roll check five Robert Johnson.
What is it about this particular legend, a man selling his soul with the crossroads in exchange for a supernatural talent that you think galvanizes us so much? Oh gosh. You know, there's really so many things. Um, I like to say that, you know, the music is what initially draws us in, but the myth is what keeps us there.
Bruce Conforth: Um, there's so many things about Robert that fit perfect ways. One of the things, the American. Well, don't seem to realize this, I think is, is the idea of untapped potential when you think about so many American icons, Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy [00:03:00] Hendrix, James Dean. Um, so many people who we'd like to be able to reshape into our, into an, a new image, as you know, can you only imagine if they had not died so young?
What would they have done? And of course, Roberts, you know, untimely death feeds into that whole thing. We'd love to reclaim Robert and that's what's happened a great deal since America discovered him in, in the early 1960s. Mmm. Scholars, fans. Mmm. All sorts of people have gone about recreating Robert and recreating the myth into something that was supernaturally.
Something missed it, you know, just 20 draw. He drew people there, but then once they were able to recreate him based on the information they had. It was like full blown, full blown American dream revisited. I want to [00:04:00] get to the legend and the tragic way in which Robert Johnson really died in just a moment.
But I also think it's important to dig deep into who he was and point did you dig deep? Tell us a little bit more about Robert Johnson. The man. Well, Robert, um, really was. Quite different than a lot of his contemporary musicians at the time, you know, okay. We have a tendency to want to lump, you know, the blues musicians, Delta blues, musicians, country, blues musicians, into, into this like nice, nice, neat package of who they are and what they were supposed to do be doing.
And, and, and all of this, you know, compact. Product. Um, and Robert kind of he's outside of that. Um, he, from the beginning, his life is full of, of, of tragedy is in hardships. He's, you know, he's, he's born out of wedlock. Um, he's an [00:05:00] illegitimate child of, of Julia majors and Noah Johnson. Mmm. Noah abandons, uh, her before Robert is even two years old, Julia has no way of supporting herself.
Um, She travels around with, with baby Robert, you know, until, uh, until eventually she, she just really can't take care of him anymore. She brings him to Memphis and drops him off at her ex husband's house, you know? And what happens to Robert he's abandoned by his mother and given to these people that he has no idea who they are.
And she just, she just says, bye. You know, um, But Robert gradually begins to accept these new people as his family in Memphis. And this is one of the really important things that shapes Robert into such a different musician in such a different person. As I said than many [00:06:00] of his contemporaries, because he grows up in an urban environment.
You know, most people, when they think about Robert Johnson, they think of an itinerant, Delta, blues, musician, traveling down dirt roads. Robert grew up in Memphis. No. He grew up in an urban environment. He grew up listening to jazz bands. He grew up listening to records. He grew up watching Ringling brothers circus, you know, whether he actually was able to go to the circus or not.
You know, we have documentation that Ringling brothers came several times and of course they would always have the big circus parade, you know, down the street. And I'm sure as a kid, he must've seen that. And, and so many, so many other Mmm. Trappings. Of modernity that really shaped Robert as a very different person.
Um, and he begins to develop a very different idea about what music should be, uh, from listening to records in the radio. And he goes to school. Again, unlike many of his contemporaries, [00:07:00] he was literate. He wrote letters to highly literate. He carried a notebook around with him in which he kept his ideas and his song lyrics and different things.
He always had a notebook with him and he was an, uh, an incredible reader. He would read anything, he could get his hands on. So he, you know, he, he had a different shape of the world. Robert's worldview is his Zeit Geist. His Veltin shouting, you know, his, his whole perception of the world was totally different than someone who just grew up on a plantation.
But then at about nine years old, his mother whom he didn't even recognize anymore, he had completely forgotten her. Good because who remembers. What somebody looks like when you're two years old, she shows, she shows up in Memphis and says, guess what? I'm taking you with me, say goodbye to your family. So Robert is ripped away from that.
The [00:08:00] only family that he knew, and she brings him to live with her new husband, um, a much younger, illiterate sharecropper, um, a godforsaken plantation. In Arkansas and I've been down there and I'm telling you it's really in the middle of nowhere. And I can just, I can just imagine Robert, you know, as, as he's being taken out of Memphis, you know, whether they took a, a truck or a bus or whatever, you know, but as he's leaving Memphis and he's watching all the trappings of urbanity disappear, the buildings are disappearing.
The streetcars are disappearing. The people are disappearing. The landscape is getting more and more desolate. It's becoming nothing until he suddenly plopped into the middle of farm farm land. No school, nothing. And he's made to work on his farm. He's he's not a laborer. No, he's not. I mean, he was, the [00:09:00] reason he was sent to school was because the man, he considered his stepfather Julia's his mother's ex-husband, um, who really actually was of course, no relation to him, no blood relation.
Anyway, um, you know, he was, he was a tradesman. And so, you know, he was, he was grooming Robert to be some sort of tradesman, which is why he, you sent him to school and to be taken out of that and to be forced to work picking cotton, which is just the most egregious form of work. I mean, it was really backbreaking work as, as they used to say from Kim to kin from when you can see the sun until you can't see the sun anymore.
Um, just. Really a miserable job. And this is a kid we're talking about too. Yeah. 10. Yeah. Nine, 10, 11.
[00:10:00] you write in the book that Robert. I learned some of his refinement of his skill from icon Zimmerman. And this is where some of the first seeds of the legend started to take hold. Tell us about, well, I, according to Ike's, um, daughter and grandson. Um, I always said that if you wanted to learn to play the blues, the only way to learn the play, the blues was to sit on a gravestone at midnight so that the haints could come out and teach you.
And hate, of course, is a Southern expression for spirits or ghosts or whatever. And so there was, there was a graveyard it's still there. Um, really. Quite close to where the Zimmerman Shaq was. And [00:11:00] Robert and I would go to that graveyard at night and there was a specific grave. We have a picture of it in the book.
Um, there's two gravestones, um, and they would sit on those gravestones facing each other at night and they would, they would practice a guitar at night. That is just a haunting and beautiful image. But what I ex daughter said later, it is my favorite part of the book. She said there wasn't no crossroads.
You had to go cross the road to get to the cemetery. I love that. Did she tell you that? Yes, she did that. If those were exact words to me, he said, she said, yeah, yeah, yeah. I said there was no crossroads. You just had to cross the road to get to the gravy.
[00:12:00] I'd like to talk a little bit about. Who it is further. And how, who do root work, conjure how those practices crept into Robert's work. Do you think that was intentional or was it part of his culture? I think it was cultural first and, and then perhaps it may have become more intentional as, as it went on, but I think primarily it was cultural.
And the thing that seems to me to be unique about, about Robert. Is the extent to which he used his references because he used them so often. And so specifically, um, that it's almost impossible to imagine that he didn't have some real knowledge of the workings of Hutu. Um, for instance, in, in stones, in my past way, you put stones in my past way, all, you know, you've taken my appetite.
My friends will have dessert me, uh, uh, the way he talks about, about stones, which is in your [00:13:00] past way, that's called foot traffic magic, where someone would literally lay blessed or cursed stones across a path that they knew their victim was going to cross. And then when the victim stepped over, it. They would, they would get the full brunt of, of whatever the curse was.
And, and, you know, for Robert to talk about that in such specific ways, they put stones in my passway, uh, you don't do that unless you've got some real knowledge, knowledge of it. Um, he talks about Mojo's. He talks about, about all sorts of things. Uh, dusting, my broom dusting, my broom, um, is often Mmm.
Consider just, uh, I I'm, I'm going to leave. I'm going to get up and leave. I'm going to dust my broom. Um, but in both native American and African American tradition, the broom plays a plays, a prominent place in, in their folklore. And one of the things in African American tradition is if you wanted to rid yourself of unwelcome guests, [00:14:00] guests, or make sure that somebody didn't come in your house, what you'd do is you'd get your broom and you'd sprinkle like goofy or dust or something else in, in, in the broom.
And then you'd sweep. If you want it to get rid of somebody you'd sweep in all the corners of your, of your, of your house. And that way they'd have to leave. If you didn't want somebody to come in, you'd sweep across the doorstep. But thus my groom. Could have had it could be kind of a double entendre meaning.
Yeah. Okay. Maybe I'm going to get up and leave, but also maybe, you know, I'm putting this, her son, cause he says black, that black man you've been loving. You can't get my room. Yeah. So, you know, he's, Robert had a very specific cultural knowledge of who do that. That is, it goes beyond just merely saying, Oh yeah, my baby's got emojis.
Kris Kosach: Or maybe he was trying to get a rise out of people when he mentioned the devil, because we are talking about the Baptist South.
Bruce Conforth: Oh, sure. And, and also, also think about it. You know, how much agency did a young black man having the sound at that time? Not [00:15:00] much. How do you gain agency? Well, one way you can gain agency is to say that you've got powers that other people don't have.
I've got, I've got supernatural powers. You know, I made a deal. I I've, I've got this. I've got it. I've got old man leg on my shoulder over here. So don't go messing with me.
The crossroads, you know, was that magic place where we're all worlds intersected in the leg, but was the guardian of that classroom.
Kris Kosach: We're talking about a black man in Mississippi. 30. So we have to talk about the Jim Crow South. What sort of obstacles would have been in Robert's way? What would he have been up against when he went into Memphis [00:16:00] to make his records? Would he have had some, um, rejection or would they have been happy to take his money?
Bruce Conforth: Racism was. The norm, uh, it was beyond being the norm and, and particularly in the Delta, you know, it's, it's called the most Southern place on earth. The, you know, the, the lynchings, there were more lynchings in the Delta region of Mississippi. Then there were in the entire state of Mississippi, you know, it was just, it was just a really horrific place.
So, uh, what Robert was up against was, was really pretty bad. I mean, Johnny shines his traveling companion hated to go into Mississippi. As a matter of fact, he said he wouldn't, he wouldn't go into Mississippi because he said it was always open season on black kids in Mississippi. And at the end. Uh, I'll give you a little teaser for when we get to Robert Johnson's demise.
Uh, this is something that really [00:17:00] pained Johnny shines, um, because Robert wanted Johnny to go with him when he w when Robert was heading down to Greenwood, Mississippi, where he ultimately met his demise, but Johnny wouldn't go with him because. Of what I just said with that, it was always open season on blacks.
And so he just wouldn't go into Mississippi. And after Robert met his end, even, even, you know, as, as a, as a, uh, uh, an older man, Mmm. Johnny really regretted not having gone with him because he thought, you know, if I had gone with him, maybe I could have stopped Robert. From meeting his, his end. Um, so yeah, I mean, there was, there was just horrific racism, but by the same token, yeah.
White record company, they're going to make any money. They can off black people. Uh, you know, what, since what else is new? You [00:18:00] know,
Kris Kosach: I found it really fascinating that. Even a hundred years ago, the record labels were screwing the artists and anybody who brought them music. And again, it is not funny at all.
So that practice has been going on for ever,
Bruce Conforth: for ever. Yes, indeed. I mean, you know, people got, the artists got paid, um, by the recording. There were no contracts. There were no royalties. Um, you know, so, so Robert would get like maybe 15 or 20 bucks for every song that he recorded, uh, which was a good pay day.
Cause if he recorded 10 songs, you know, walks out of there with $200, $200, not a bad pay day, you know? Uh, but that's it, that, that was it. No, the record company then went on to make all the rest of the money.
Kris Kosach: Right. Other than the blues. Do we have any recordings of Robert [00:19:00] speaking, being interviewed, anything like that?
Bruce Conforth: Unfortunately, not that I'm aware of, you know, and it's, it's too bad because, um, when, when they played for, um, Reverend cl Morton's radio show in Windsor, Ontario, there was almost unquestionably a, uh, A radio recording made so that they could use it for yeah. You know, other broadcasts. So there's almost certainly there was a recording made of them performing, you know, singing gospel songs.
God, can you imagine what it would be like to have a recording of Robert Johnson doing gospel, but those, those, you know, those recordings were long ago destroyed.
Kris Kosach: Let's talk a little bit [00:20:00] about New York because John Henry Hammond to the millionaire had something to do with the Genesis of the legend. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Bruce Conforth: Well, Hammond. Um, was, um, part of the Vanderbilt family, you know, he was related to the Vanderbilt. So he was, he was an incredibly wealthy, wealthy, uh, individual, um, who had been sent to Yale, uh, dropped out of school, uh, because he wanted to get an apartment in the village and devote himself to.
Promoting and reviewing black music, you know, you had this great, this great affinity for, for black music. And he did. I mean, he produced some of Bessie Smith's last recordings, things like that. And of course, in 1938, he does this from spirituals to swing concert at Carnegie hall, which is an important part of the Roger Robert story.
Um, so in 1937, he's [00:21:00] writing. For a communist magazine, an American communist magazine called new masses. Yes. New masses. And, um, in 1937, he, he produces the very first review of Robert, of a Robert Johnson recording in new masses in which he says that Robert Johnson is like the greatest thing ever. And, um, think about it.
I mean, at the time Leadbelly had just been. If you could see me, I'm doing with quotes with my hands rediscovered, um, or, or, or discovered. And so Leadbelly was like the darling of the particularly New York left-wing intelligentsia. They saw Leadbelly as being the true voice of the primitive Negro, you know, the, the, the real voice of the American proletariat.
And in, in that 1937 review, Hammond says that Johnson is so great that he [00:22:00] makes Leadbelly sound like a poser. Whoa, that's all that's heretical at the time. That's absolutely heretical. Um, but it launches like it begins to launch the myth of Robert Johnson. Who is this guy who is this great guy that's being promoted here.
And so in, in 1938, Hammond wanted to put on a concert at Carnegie hall called spirituals to swing in which he traced, traces the entire history of African American music and, you know, and its influence on pop music. And so he was going to have jazz and spirituals and gospel and every everything that you could imagine, and the biggest names were taking part in it.
And he was so sure. Of himself that, and that he wanted Robert Johnson, you know, to be the blues singer, you know, the, the country blues singer that he [00:23:00] actually had Robert's name printed on, on the, the original advertisement before he even, I tried to get in touch with Robert . When he did send a scout down to try and find Robert, uh, to let him know that he wanted him for that concert.
Uh, they found out that Robert had been killed he died, but he's not going to be without Robert Johnson. And so there's this great seeing where at one point, you know, the house lights go down a spotlight on in Carnegie hall, shines on a Victrola. Sitting in the middle of, of the stage and out walks Hammond and Hammond gives this speech about how, you know, if, if only things have been different, Robert Johnson would have been here tonight and he would have been really been the great star of the evening.
Um, but. Horror of horrors. Robert Johnson died at the exact moment [00:24:00] when Scouts got to him and told him that he was going to pure at Carnegie hall. Again, creating more myths. Him and his recreating Johnson yet again is recreating Johnson yet again,
Kris Kosach: you mentioned Barnum and Bailey earlier. That's a little bit of PT Barnum going on here.
Bruce Conforth: Absolutely, absolutely. But anyway, him and plays, plays these two songs for the crowd and the crowd went absolutely wild. They went crazy and it's really kind of at that time, but the Johnson myth really kind of begins to take off, you know, again in a Britain niche market. Again, you know, New York intellectuals, largely people like Alan Lomax and people like that.
Um, But it really starts at that point.
Kris Kosach: Okay. So let's head back down to Mississippi. It's August, 1938, Robert heads to Greenwood he's alone. [00:25:00] And all of his real demons, like his love of alcohol and women married or not, they all start to factor into his final days. Right?
Bruce Conforth: Absolutely. Absolutely. And they never, they never left him. I mean, you know, what happened to Robert in Greenwood could have happened at any time before, because this was, this was just par for Roberts, you know?
Mo modus operandi. I mean, this is what he did, you know, uh, wherever he went, he would fixate upon a particular woman that he, you know, he had a liking for or whom he thought could take care of him. And he'd go after her married, single did old young, good-looking not, good-looking, didn't matter. It didn't matter to Robert at all.
You know? I mean, uh, and, and so in, in Greenwood, Robert had been playing at a, at a place called three forks, which was, uh, a [00:26:00] general store for the star of the West, um, plantation in Greenwood and Mmm. One of the people who worked, uh, at, at the store, uh, his wife, Robert took a liking to his wife and Robert was, had, had a little, uh, Room at, in, in the section of Greenwood called Baptist town, it was the African American section of Greenwood.
I'm still there. Um, and her sister, this woman's sister, um, also lived in Baptist town. And so she used to tell her husband, well, you know, I'm going in to see my sister. I'm going to see my sister. I'm going to see my sister. And she was actually going in to spend time with Robert. And, uh, the husband found out about it.
And apparently in those days it was not uncommon to [00:27:00] slip naphthalene. Mostly ground up moth balls. It's the active, it was the active ingredients in moth balls in somebody's drink, particularly if they were like an unruly drunk or something. And you want it to get rid of them at, at, at your, at your juke or your bar, because what it would do is it would make you really ill.
It would, it would make you nauseous and vomit just make you feel really lousy. Wouldn't kill it. Wasn't enough to kill you, but it would just make you feel really, really, really bad. So that's what he wanted to do to Robert. He wanted to just like disrupt, you know, one of his performances and just like teach him a lesson.
What he didn't know was that before going to Greenwood, Robert had been in Memphis in Robert's half sister, Carrie heard him complaining about stomach pains and said, you need to go see somebody. You need to go see somebody. So he went to see a doctor and the doctor, uh, diagnosed him as was having an ulcer.
[00:28:00] Mmm, probably a severe ulcer and, and, um, swollen viruses in his esophagus, uh, which often comes from years of alcoholism. And Robert was. A major drinker. Everybody who knew him, um, from the road always said Robert was, was drunk more often than not. Uh, he was drunk more than not. Uh, you know, when I, when I asked Johnny, you know, did he drink, um, John Johnny laughed and said it don't ask me, why did he drink?
Just ask me what he drank. Um, and so when he was given this drink, It did make him violently ill. As I said, it wasn't enough to kill him, but it, it, it made him begin to vomit. It made his. Also rupture in the vomiting, made his esophagus, the viruses in his esophagus, rupture, [00:29:00] which even today you only have, if that happens, you only have something like a 50% chance of recovery, even on even receiving doctor's treatment.
It's very serious, you know, think about it, the veins in your throat, rupturing and bleeding, you know, that's, that's really serious. Uh, and so Robert spent almost three days. Not unlike the legend, literally crawling around howling and pain and vomiting blood until you eventually died from bleeding to death.
Kris Kosach: And he didn't get any medical attention.
Bruce Conforth: No, no.
Kris Kosach: the legend of Robert Johnson. As we know it. Really began to grow and build around the sixties. What started that?
Bruce Conforth: In the fifties, particularly the later [00:30:00] fifties. And this is one of the things that's responsible for the folk music revival. Um, you had a lot of, I call them the 78 geeks. Um, but you had a lot of college age students, you know, who would I have to play in my victory?
Me too, me too. But it was different in that regard because these, these, these people largely young white guys, you know, who would go, um, often, oftentimes just to, to, you know, uh, Salvation army stores or, or, or, or whatever, and just buy boxes and boxes of old 78, you know, they became fixated with 78. Um, and you know, a lot of it would be like garbage, you know, um, and every once in a while, you know, they they'd get lucky and they'd come across a Charlie Patton record or, or a Willie Brown record or a Robert Johnson record.
Mmm. And then you [00:31:00] had people like my coauthor, Gayle Dean Wardlow, and other people who literally used to go, um, from door to door in the South. Um, they they'd go, you know, to, to black neighborhoods and they would literally go knocking on doors from door to door. Um, and they'd say, hi, you know, do you have any old 78, uh, I'll pay you 25 cents.
You know, a record if you have any. And, and a lot of records surface that way. And so little by little, you know, people began. To hear again, it was a very niche audience, but some, these people began to hear this stuff and it was like, wow, wait a minute. This is, this is not like, how much is your doggy in the window?
This is like some really different stuff. My God listen to how this person is playing. Listen to how they're singing, listen to what they're singing about. And so, you know, the whole folk music revival. Begins to explode at the late, during the late fifties, we have the first, the first, you know, Newport folk [00:32:00] festival at the end, the end of the 1950s.
And a lot of it is because this music was being rediscovered, not just blues, but, but you know, the early country got the Carter family and, you know, all Riley Puckett, uh, you know, and the light crust, doughboys, you know, all of the really quality. You know, full country, blues recordings were being rediscovered.
And so we had a new audience for it. And then in 1961, Columbia decides to launch, you know, this, this, this new series of recordings of reissues and it's Hammons idea that one of the first people he wants to reissue, it was Robert Johnson. And so in 1961, with the, with the Frank Driggs producing and writing the liner notes, the album, Robert Johnson, King of the Delta blues singers comes out.
And it's the first reissue of any blues singer on a major label. First thing, not [00:33:00] any, any blues singer, any country blues singer on a major label. It's on Columbia. Think about it. Yeah. It's it's enormous. Um, and so that's the time, that's the moment when people like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards and John and Jimmy.
Yeah. Everybody, everybody. Yeah. Myself included, you know, that's when we all heard this and it was like, well, Holy cow. You know, first of all, we had never heard anything like it, because the recordings were just like so incredible. The liner notes were so romantically, mystical. And then it's called King of the Delta blues singers.
Well, Jesus, if John Hammond says this guy is the King of the Delta blues singers, he must be the best there ever was. That's where it begins to really take off
Kris Kosach: My guest today has been dr. Bruce Kahn [00:34:00] forth. Coauthor up jumped the devil the real life of Robert Johnson. Along with Gayle Dean Wardlow, you'll find it on Chicago review press. And that wraps up track five of text pros and rock and roll here, come this week's liner notes, text pros and rock and roll was created written and executive produced by yours truly in association with go-to productions, Charlene GoTo producer special.
Thanks this week to Bruce Conforth, Sam Offman and the team at Chicago review press. Our narrator was Marcus Osborne and our music this week comes from will Roth music and Delta blues selections from the Lomax archives at the library of Congress. We are grateful when you subscribe, rate and comment, wherever you found this podcast, our website is text pros, rock and roll.com.
And you can follow us. On Instagram and Facebook to be among the first to see what's coming up on future tracks, you can also write to us there. And yes, we do take requests for text pros and rock and roll. [00:35:00] I'm Kris Kosach, rock on. .