DEALING WITH THE DEVIL
By Norman Warwick
It is perhaps surprising that a phrase that so succinctly captures the emotions of the blues should have been coined not by some old bluesman but instead by an under-rated young folk singer-writer.
Arguably one of the least-remembered of the names who contributed to the so called folk revival of the nineteen sixties Jackson C. Frank nevertheless released a masterpiece of folk music. He was a young American songwriter, who was a contemporary of Paul Simon as they, played on the UK folk scene of the mid nineteen sixties, enjoying friendships with British movers and shakers on the scene. These included Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Al Stewart, Roy Harper, Sandy Denny and many others.
All of them were influenced by this enigmatic and tormented character who ´disappeared´ shortly after the release of his unique album. Wrecked by a series of tragedies in his life, he sought to to cut himself off from the world and became trapped by his demons.
However, Blues Run the Game is a song that endures and has been included in the repertoire of many young musicians such as Laura Marling as they emerged from the folk scene. Whatever the title phrase was intended to mean it seems to suggest that the blues have us in their grasp and somehow determine the course of our lives.
A documentary film was made that followed Jackson C. Frank’s footsteps in an attempt ´to unknot the threads of a tragic
destiny´. However, facts often become myths and music and mystery that refuse to reveal their truth. Songs do not express everything about a man or his personality a personality. Even today, people still ask who was Jackson C. Frank or who remembers him? They ask where to find meaning, or even light, in a life as dark as his,
David Fricke in Rolling Stone called him ´the greatest singer-songwriter you never heard of´ and for those of you might think that is an exaggerated claim the trailer to the documentary includes talking heads of the folk scene of the time who speak of Frank´s ´íntimidating intelligence,´ others mention an aura about him. He was coming up with chord structures and arrangements that nobody else was then doing, they say, and when some refer back to how much Paul Simon respected him their claim is evidenced by the fact that the young Paul Simon produced Frank´s only album in 1965. The title track includes a very Simon-esque guitar riff, but perhaps I have become conditioned to recognising it as such, whereas it might rather reflect some influence Frank had on Paul´s own playing.
Shortly after the release of the album, though, Frank disappeared.
By then friends had started to notice scarring on his hands and face and realised too that he seemed to be hearing voices. One friend, in particular, remembers how he would sometimes find Frank sitting in an arm chair rocking back in forth and silently weeping.
The friend felt certain that Frank was very scared of something and journalist Bob Stanley wrote in The Guardian that ´of all the damaged singer songwriters, (Frank´s tale) is the most tragic and the least known´.
The lyrics of Blues Run The Game are (if not necessarily autobiographical) of a drink dependency of a man who let his girl get away and although there are a million of those ´my woman done me wrong and/or I done my woman wrong´ songs that permeate folk and blues music, this certainly sounds heartfelt.
Bob Dylan has recently introduced a new audience, via his song Murder Most Foul, to the story of the late Robert Johnson, the blues musician who according to legend sold his soul to the devil in exchange for some music. So, it may well be true that Blues Run The Game, for the blues are surely the truth that lies in the heart and as such can be utterly destructive.
However my old mate, Wikki Peadia, argues that I am being disrespectful in saying that.
´Blues,´ he insists, ´is a music genre and musical form which originated in the Deep South of the United States around the 1870s by African-Americans from roots in African musical traditions, African-American work songs, and spirituals. Blues incorporated spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads. The blues form, ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, is characterized by the call-and-response pattern, the blues scale and specific chord progressions, of which the twelve-bar blues is the most common. Blue notes, usually thirds, fifths or sevenths flattened in pitch are also an essential part of the sound. Blues shuffles or walking bass reinforce the trance-like rhythm and form a repetitive effect known as the groove.´
Wikki is nearly always factually correct, as he is in that explanation of the music form, but it ignores the myths that these apparent truths create.
In this music the devil not only seems as omni-present as God but is often seen as having all the best tunes and offering a better deal. These are the kind of truths that become myths and myths in turn make for cinematic and literary ´hints and allegations´ of double dealing and violent demands for payments due.
One such film, the 1986 production of Crossroads, was an alchemy of truth and myth that might, or might not, have reflected Robert Johnson´s simple desire to make music.
Starring Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca and Jami Gertz, the film was announced in the press as having been inspired by the legend of blues musician Robert Johnson´.
The film was written by John Fusco and directed by Walter Hill and featured an original score featuring Ry Cooder, Arlen Roth and Steve Vai on the soundtrack’s guitar, and harmonica by Sonny Terry. Vai also appears in the film as the devil’s guitar player in the climactic guitar duel.
However, as we were later reminded by writer Doug MacGowan, himself a slide guitar virtuoso and singer, Johnson´s life consisted of fine music and three enduring mysteries.
During his brief life (1911 – 1938) Robert Johnson, somehow created a legacy of music that would outlive him and would subsequently have the likes of Eric Clapton and Keith Richards proclaiming him to have been one of the finest Blues musicians that ever lived.
There are, though, only a handful of recordings that show him to display a guitar-playing talent, albeit a talent that MacGowan suggested had rarely, if ever, been matched.
Despite a plethora of books about him, real documents about Johnson´s life seem as scarce as his recordings. It seems that because nobody predicted that he would become so revered, nobody paid any real attention to his comings and goings and doings.
We know he was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in May of 1911. He was the tenth child born to his parents, and soon after he was born there began a pattern of moving to different towns throughout the South which would last his whole life.
He appears to have been interested in music from an early age, and it is known that he had skill playing the harmonica as a child. What he didn’t have, despite his best efforts, was any talent for playing the guitar. At one point during his young adult years, he left his temporary home in Robinsonville, Mississippi, and wandered around the local area for several months.
Legend has it that when he returned, he possessed, it was believed, guitar-playing skills far beyond those he could have learned in the short amount of time he had been gone.
So, thus began the first mystery to surround Johnson. Rumours spread that he and the Devil made a pact so he could obtain guitar-playing talent. One version said that Johnson met the Devil at a crossroads outside of town where the Devil tuned a guitar and gave it to Johnson to play. And play he did. Listeners were stunned by Johnson’s sudden talents. Johnson further fuelled those rumours by writing a song titled Me And The Devil
His talent, natural or otherwise, did not lead to fame and fortune. Although Johnson would record a number of songs, Macgowan tells us, he made little money from the venture and spent most of his time as a traveling Blues guitarist, playing his own compositions on street corners and outside restaurants.
Playing ´real good for free´ as Joni Mitchell might have described it.
In August of 1938, Johnson found himself playing near Greenwood, Mississippi. A gig at a dance on the 13th (a neat myth-supporting date, of course) leads to the second mystery attached to Johnson’s life. During the evening Johnson was given a bottle of whiskey from which he eagerly drank. The liquor turned out to have been poisoned, but it is a mystery as to the poisoner’s identity. Some thought the poisoner must have been the jealous husband of a woman Johnson was involved with, or perhaps even had been the woman herself. Others suggested he had been poisoned by one of many different women who were infuriated at Johnson’s giving attention to other women.
Johnson reportedly suffered for three days from the poisoned alcohol before dying on the 16th but his death certificate states that no examination was carried out, which, as Macgowan points out, only serves to deepen the mystery, as there was no expert to state if Johnson had, indeed, been poisoned.
Other theories said Johnson wasn’t poisoned at all, and would propose other causes, such as syphilis.
Regardless of the cause of death, Johnson was laid to rest.
His resting place is suggested by MacGowan as being the third mystery of Johnson’s tale.
It is not known exactly where Johnson was buried. There was no tombstone erected. After his death he slipped into anonymity until an anthology of his records was issued in 1961. Multiple candidates now claim to hold Johnson’s remains, this in itself prefacing how a list of usual suspetcs were drawn up in the nineteen sixties about the burial of country music great, Gram Parsons.
Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City, Mississippi, believes Johnson was buried in an unmarked grave in their cemetery.
Not knowing the exact location of Johnson’s burial site, the church erected a monument in Johnson’s honour in a prominent location in 1990. Also in 1990, Payne Chapel near Quito, Mississippi, established a tombstone proclaiming themselves to be the true location of Johnson’s remains. And finally, a marker at the cemetery of Little Zion Church near Greenwood, Mississippi, states it is the authentic resting place for this musical genius.
Did Johnson sell his soul in order to become an unrivalled Blues musician? How exactly did he die and by whose hand? Where was he laid to rest?
How all those questions echo those we heard being asked about Jackson C Frank earlier in this article.
These questions will persist to intrigue researchers, but nothing can take away the strong legacy this man made to the realm of 20th century music.
That the legacy prevails and the myth becomes more encrypted is evidence perhaps by two or three references, sharp and oblique, to Johnson contained in the lyrics of more than fifteen minutes long resume of twentieth century music and social history that Bob Dylan mythologises in Murder Most Foul. That track comprises a complete disc in Dylan´s double album, Rough And Rowdy Ways that recently took him back to the top of the music charts.
Those mentions, and the publication of a new biography of Johnson, that is perhaps seeking to place him in an entirely new context, are bound to yet again awaken interest in Robert Johnson.
Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson is written by the singer´s sister, Annye C. Anderson, with Preston Lauterbach.
In conversation with Lauterbach, the journalistic in the partnership, Anderson offers vivid, personal glimpses of her stepbrother, providing a colourful picture of the bluesman while attempting to debunk the myths surrounding him. In her earliest memory, an 18-year-old Johnson scoops up the three-year-old Anderson and carries her up the stairs to their new house in Memphis. She writes that her father taught the seven-year-old Johnson to play the guitar and recalls how much Johnson loved movies, especially Westerns, and that he wore a Stetson hat like his hero, actor Tom Mix. Anderson addresses the legend of Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads to become the world’s greatest blues guitarist, arguing that the mythical event could never have taken place because her brother was a devout Baptist. Anderson also relays sordid stories of how two musicologists—Steve LaVere and Mack McCormick—swindled Anderson and her family out of Johnson’s royalties, as well as family photos. She shares Johnson’s deathbed prophecy (“I know that my Redeemer liveth and that He Will call me from the Grave”), and believes it “came true,” since his reputation became bigger after his death.
Anderson’s ´earnest and enlightening memoir´ that one reviewer says ´will please Johnson’s listeners´ seems, however, to contradict much of what has previously been written about Robert Johnson.
There remain, however, plenty of other biographies in print, such as Up Jumped The Devil, by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, to serve anyone exploring the myth of Johnson´s so called ´deal with the devil´.
Annie Kapur said last year, in one of her excellent on-line book reviews, that ´whether you are just on your route to discovering the blues king who sold his soul to the devil—or whether you’ve been listening to him for a few years now and have come to see many different aspects of his life, Up Jumped The Devil is probably the ultimate book on everything Robert Johnson and every bit of possible research that you could want.´
The book opens slowly with quite a lengthy introduction to give context to the world Johnson was born into. This speaks of a marriage between two people in the mid-1800s, and Johnson enters the story when he is born to a woman looking for her place in the world after a number of failed and sometimes abusive relationships.
By the time Robert Johnson is born, she has suffered three failed marriages, a few more children, two or three different homes that aren’t stable because of how small they are and the obvious racism that coated the American South lifestyle back then.
The book explains how Robert Johnson moved whilst growing up between the Mississippi Delta and Memphis, Tennessee. He grew up between his mother and a man she had married before. He lived with people he didn’t know and he actually went to school—though it was rare for a child of colour to attend any school at all. There was a school (though small) especially for children of colour.
Throughout his childhood. Even though it was called “the devil’s Robert Johnson wanted to play the blues though whether that was despite of or because he already knew it to be known as the ´devil´s music´ or whether it on the basis of the Blues being influential and brilliant for storytelling, is not really explored in this book.
The book does, though, explain the beginnings of Robert Johnson’s career, and how he became an audience member for Charley Patton and in doing so began meeting other fans and even some blues artists. The book also re-tells the myth and legend that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for his guitar skills.
Up Jumped The Devil does not ignore the somewhat sad and squalid drinking problem. His frequent his abandonment of various women he would pick up id offered as a reflection of the fact his mother kept abandoning him as a child. He died after he was possibly´poisoned with whisky and eventually, coughed up blood and died at the age of 27´.
Many of the facts about his death are unknown, as we have already pointed out, and to be fair, this book makes it very clear that these are all speculations and none of them are entirely confirmed.
This book goes through various details that have been collated, or ´made up´ might be a more appropriate phrase, from interviews between people who knew Robert Johnson and those that had researched him for a time. The book includes interviews and quotations on Robert Johnson from people who knew him personally to colour the narrative with factual and yet a storytelling atmosphere.
Any Robert Johnson biography is complicated by the fact that he has become myth through the Faustian Pact legend surrounding him.
However, reviewer Annie Kapur suggested that ´if you want to read a book that tries to clear up the majority of that without overloading you with research methods—then Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson is for you.´
The one thing she enjoyed the most about this book though is the writing style. ´It’s so well written´, Annie says, ´that it doesn’t overload you with information to begin with and then break it down. Indeed, every chapter is dedicated to a different aspect of Robert Johnson’s life and each chapter expands and tells the entire story of research that has been accumulated´.
There is no wonder that Annie summarises the book in the glowing terms below.
´One of the best books on Robert Johnson I have ever read and also one of the greatest biographies I’ve ever read. This book gives a great overview of Robert Johnson’s life, explores every aspect we know about—gives you theories that other people had of what was happening even if we don’t know it factually and offers a lot of story of those who knew him personally. There is a lot of research that has gone into this book and you can really tell that there has been a lot of concentration on writing style and getting across the factual and legendary stories of Robert Johnson´.
For another addition to the myth and legend listen out for a track by the name of Robert Johnson written and performed by the late singer writer Bill s on his 1992 album, Inside.
Sadly, Bill Morrisey passed away in 2011. He was one of many of his generation anointed, and then disappointed, by critics as the ´new Dylan´ but he was always his own man. Like Dylan he could make the old sound new, such as he did with maybe the definitive version of Handsome Molly and he could make the new sound old, as with his She´s That Kind Of Mystery.
His song, Robert Johnson, knowingly plays with myth of the blues man, but is no less heartfelt or generous in so doing, so look out for a feature on these pages over the next few weeks on Bill Morrissey, and all his books and songs
“Fact-checking the Life and Death of Bluesman Robert Johnson” motherjones.com,