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. Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow use new primary sources from over 50 years to write this new biography.
Up Jumped the Devil is at once welcome and unnerving. A clear-eyed assessment of Johnson’s life and career—starting with the fact that it was a career, not some demonic compact—it aims to strip away, like old varnish, the many layers of inaccuracy and romanticizing that have accreted over the decades ... One of the biggest surprises of Up Jumped the Devil, in fact, is that there are so few surprises. But that’s no reason to ignore it, for what Conforth and Wardlow do provide, for the first time, is the connective tissue that had been lacking between the established episodes, giving them greater depth and context. Having mined census records, school records, period maps, and birth and marriage certificates, in addition to reading widely, conducting numerous interviews, and drawing on their predecessors’ unpublished insights, they offer much to satisfy the cognoscenti. Among the book’s virtues are the most complete picture to date of Johnson’s childhood and early years, including many new details about his time in Memphis; a nuanced account of his interpersonal relationships—with family, with fellow musicians, with women; and a resonant portrait of the life of an itinerant musician, its freedoms and its fug.
... bristles with photos, maps, deeds, census reports and graphics of every kind to back up their authoritative account of Johnson’s birth, training, travels, tragedies, triumphs and contributions to roots music. To all popular music, really ... [Johnson] succeeded not by signing a contract offered to him by a sooty stranger but, as Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow show down to the last detail, by starting from an early age to listen, steal from others and play without ceasing.