Of course I’ve been a fan of Robert Johnson for a long time, and added “The Complete Recordings” to my list of favorite blues records. Details on his life were fuzzy; but rumors, myths and stories abound. This book as meticulously researched by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, who each spent decades on it. I appreciated how the book was very clear about what parts are documented fact, which have strong records to support them, and which parts are more speculation. It doesn’t try to fool you into thinking a rumor is a fact, or vice versa. It’s an engaging, hard-to-put-down read and I can’t recommend it enough for fans of music, blues or simply early 20th century American history.
What I Learned
The great things about this book is that it brings you along as an itinerant musician in the American South during the late 20s and early 30s. It’s one thing to imagine and get focused on the romance and embellished stories; it’s something entirely different – something deeper and more real to read about how many miles they had to walk. Using train routes to get from town to town. The lack of accuracy with birth and death record. Growing up as a sharecropper in the deep south in the early 20th century – especially growing up and not wanting that life!
It was cool to see pictures of census forms and birth and death records. It was a bit revelatory how inaccurate those were. People took their best guesses at not just dates, but names. The book has aerial maps of land so you can see the location of key buildings and plantations in his life.
It was interesting for me to hear about the various musicians Robert Johnson played with on his travels – who he got along with, who he didn’t. He often performed – as was the norm for a lot of that music at the time – as a duo. One guitarist would play rhythm, one would play melody or lead. He would gig around with someone for a while, then take off for another destination. A lot more people played with him that I realized.
Another cool thing about the book was explaining the language used at the time, which helps explain some of the context. For example, when he sings “…with a rider by my side,” rider refers a girl he’s seeing.
On that note, I didn’t know Robert Johnson had married young. Part of the tragedy in his life is having two important women – his wife, and later a woman to whom he may as well have been married – both died. He kept in touch with the families, such that they were, but throughout the book those losses weighed heavily on him.
Finally, had no idea Robert Johnson had travelled so widely – from the delta up to Chicago, to Canada, and New York. While he obviously spent a lot of time in the delta, he was more worldly than I expected. This puts this line in “Sweet Home Chicago” about “California” into new light.. maybe a bit aspirational. The book also covers a lot of his specific routes from town to town, and which highways likely took him there. If I ever get back to that part of Mississippi, I may want to get this again as a map!
Visiting Missippi and Exploring Yourself
On that note, there is actually a really good iOSapp called the “Mississippi Blues Trail.” I can’t recommend it enough. A few years ago I visited the BB King Museum in Indianola, MS and the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. I wish I had the app at the time, I would have made more stops along the way. It was an amazing trip, and I really enjoyed both.
Where To Buy
I got it from my local library system (support your local library – it’s an incredible resource for your community!), but it’s available at your favorite bookseller. Obligatory Amazon link: