Thursday, January 21, 2021

Blues Experts Forensic Reviews of recent Robert Johnson Books

In January 2021, I posted a promotional article about the book Brother Robert on Facebook, and I received some interesting responses. First, Bruce Conforth tells us what' he thinks about Lauterbach's instant classic, and then ethnomusicologist David Evans details his thoughts about Up Jumped the Devil. It should be a fun ride!

Bruce Conforth Reviews Brother Robert, January 18, 2021

Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson by Annye Anderson and Preston Lauterbach has gotten considerable media attention since it is the recollections of Johnson’s “step-sister” (she was actually no blood relation) about the blues musician and provides a legitimate third photo of Johnson. Greil Marcus wrote a review of it in the December 3, 2020 issue of the New York Times Review of Books. Based on his and other reviews many in the general public will be purchasing and reading this book not as a memoir, but for biographical information about Johnson. And indeed Anderson does provide some details about Johnson’s favorite foods and entertainers, brands of tobacco, and pomade. Beyond that, however, there is scant new information about Johnson and more about Anderson’s life and her resentment for not being able to take advantage of Johnson’s considerable estate. 

Most reviewers of the book rightfully consider it a memoir and not a biography and seem to have little or no knowledge of Johnson’s life or blues scholarship. They therefore tacitly accept the stories she tells without question: stories that quite frequently are completely factually wrong. They also give her credit for busting myths about Johnson that any Johnson scholar knew were busted years, or even decades ago. 

For instance, most reviews state that the book does away with the crossroads and other myths about Johnson, but that was already accomplished by numerous authors over the years. It is no revelation to hear that Johnson didn’t sell his soul to the devil. But since this book is about a relatively recent historical figure, a giant figure in blues history, it needs to be treated as more than a memoir, and the stories Anderson tells need to be fact-checked by someone who does know Johnson’s life and blues scholarship. 

It is time that someone more familiar with the life of Robert Johnson review Mrs. Anderson’s book and points out some of the glaring errors and omissions that are in it. Errors that are proven to be so because of facts, not opinion. This article will do just that and will discover just how much is factually wrong within its pages.

1) Mrs. Anderson is wrong about the house she claims Robert was born in. 

On page 17 of her book, she says Robert was born in the house Charles Dodds/Spencer built. On pages 145-147, she repeats the claim that she went to Hazlehurst to visit the house Robert was born in. She may have visited the house that Hazlehurst was going to claim was Robert's birthplace and use as the center for a tourist attraction, but they quickly gave up on that idea as local historians proved that it could not be Robert's birthplace. In our biography, Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, we discuss how it is a matter of record, as found in the Copiah County Chancery Office, that in 1906, five years before Robert’s birth and twenty years before Mrs. Anderson’s birth, Charles Dodds defaulted on indebtedness and the house was lost (p. 28). Julia was evicted from that house for non-payment of taxes before Robert was even conceived, let alone born, and the house was turned over to one L. E. Matthews (p. 30). There is no conceivable way that Robert Johnson was born in the house identified by Mrs. Anderson.

And that's not even counting Rosa Redman's recollection of Noah Johnson's shack on the Mangold Plantation, where she lived as a child, as Robert’s actual birthplace.

2) Mrs. Anderson is wrong about when Robert left the Spencer family in Memphis to live with his mother and stepfather Dusty Willis.

On pages 25-26 of her book Mrs. Anderson says that “Brother Robert was becoming… mannish… In his teens, Brother Robert learned that my father wasn’t his real father. This is how I interpret them sending him back to his mother. My father sent him there.” And on page 157 she states: “He (Robert) was a teenager when he left my father.” “He was fourteen when he left my father. Then he went to his mother’s house.”

This is completely wrong and again was something that took place almost 10 years before Mrs. Anderson was born.

Robert was not sent away for being an unruly teenager. He wasn't a teenager and he was "collected" by his mother Julia to come work on her new husband's farm BEFORE he was a teenager. The 1920 census record shows Robert living with Julia and Dusty in Arkansas. He would have been 9. How does Mrs. Anderson account for that? The 1920 census DOES NOT show Robert living in Memphis with the Spencers. How does Mrs. Anderson account for R. L. Windum, Wink Clark and other childhood friends of Robert recalling playing with him and going to school in Commerce as a child? Or the Indian Creek school records in Commerce, Mississippi that show Robert attending school there when he was 12 and 14?

3) Mrs. Anderson is wrong that Charles (the father) taught Robert the rudiments of music and guitar.

Robert’s half-sister Carrie was on record as saying it was the son (who Mrs. Anderson calls "Son") Charles who taught Robert some music. That's a simple mistake I think. Mrs. Anderson mistook one Charles for another since she wasn't alive to actually see it, only hear stories. She even admits (p. 24) that “When he was teaching Brother Robert, I hadn’t been born. I got that from Sister Carrie. Evidently, my father quit music when he married my mother.” Carrie, on the other hand, described the son Charles as teaching Robert some music, and that she helped Robert make his first cigar box guitar, and then, in 1927 she helped him buy a cheap guitar with only 4 strings. Wink Clark recalled that Robert’s earliest musical endeavors were on a diddley bow he built on the side of the Willis shack.

4) Mrs. Anderson is wrong about Robert's height.

Robert may have looked tall to a child but he wasn't. On page 66 of her book, Mrs. Anderson says that Robert "was tall." Every adult who knew him, including his girlfriends, said he was little. All accounts make it clear that Robert was "at most" 5'8" and weighed 140 pounds.

5) Mrs. Anderson is wrong that both Julia and Dusty used to visit them in Memphis.

Carrie said that Julia after taking Robert was not welcome in the home.

6) Mrs. Anderson supports the idea that Robert actually wrote a deathbed confession.

Yet she offers no real evidence other than it was supposed to be part of Robert's belongings. According to who? Not very convincing.

7) Mrs. Anderson makes no mention of Callie Craft, Robert's second wife.

Mrs. Anderson would have been 7 years old when Callie died, certainly old enough to remember her. If she knew Robert so well why is there absolutely no mention of her?

8) Mrs. Anderson makes no mention of Robert having any illness that caused Carrie to force him into going to see the doctor before he went to Greenwood.

Carrie told many people (including Mack McCormick and Steven LaVere) that Robert was sick prior to leaving for Greenwood and that she forced him to go to the John Gaston Hospital to see a doctor where he was diagnosed with severe ulcers being ultimately responsible for his death. Mrs. Anderson would have been 11 at the time and this would have been a big event: Robert was ill. Why is there no mention of that?

9) Mrs. Anderson makes no mention of Carrie and the family having Robert exhumed and reburied in a proper coffin.

The undertaker who was hired to exhume and rebury Robert was interviewed and his records found. Why is there no mention of this?

10) Mrs. Anderson supports the idea that Robert actually wrote a deathbed confession.

Neither Anderson nor anyone else has ever offered any real evidence to support this claim other than the belief that it was supposed to be part of Robert's belongings. Other stories state that it was found in a Bible in the house of a sharecropper where Robert died. Any claim that the note is legitimate is highly questionable.

11) Mrs. Anderson is wrong when she claims that Johnson’s death certificate says that Johnson died of syphilis.

This is another attempt to discredit Claud Johnson from being Robert’s son, for she claims that if he had syphilis he would have been infertile and unable to father a child. In fact the death certificate list No Doctor as the cause of death. A note on the back of the certificate states that “The plantation owner said it was his opinion that the negro died of syphilis.” This statement was made to avoid a murder inquest. Luther Wade, the white representative of the plantation who made the statement, in all probability never even met Johnson.

12) Mrs. Anderson makes no mention of Carrie and the family having Robert exhumed and reburied in a proper coffin.

The undertaker who was hired by Carrie to exhume and rebury Robert was interviewed and his records found. 

12) Mrs. Anderson claims she never knew Robert to be a drinker or blasphemer.

Every other single person who knew Robert as an adult (Johnny Shines, Robert Lockwood, Honey boy Edwards, Calvin Frazier, Henry Townsend, Memphis Slim, etc) all said that Robert drank more than he was sober. When asked as to whether Robert drank Shines laughed and said "Don't ask IF he drank, ask what he drank! " Likewise no one who knew him as an adult ever knew him to go to church and many said that he blasphemed so badly that when he would start cursing God everyone would leave for fear of being struck down. Her stories are the recollections of a little girl who only saw Robert when he visited family and was probably on his best behavior.

13) Mrs. Anderson claims she never knew Robert to be a drinker or blasphemer.

Every other single person who knew Robert as an adult (Johnny Shines, Robert Lockwood, Honey boy Edwards, Calvin Frazier, Henry Townsend, Memphis Slim, etc) all said that Robert drank more than he was sober. When asked as to whether Robert drank Shines laughed and said "Don't ask IF he drank, ask what he drank! " Likewise no one who knew him as an adult ever knew him to go to church and many said that he blasphemed so badly that when he would start cursing God everyone would leave for fear of being struck down. Her stories are recollections of a little girl who only saw Robert when he visited family and was probably on his best behavior.

14) Anderson is wrong when she invokes her anger at Johnson contemporaries Johnny Shines, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Robert Jr. Lockwood as men who sold often spurious information to an eager and careless press.

Anderson’s claims here are simply vitriolic and unfounded. Shines and Lockwood, in particular, knew Johnson far better than Anderson ever could have and their information about Johnson has been verified and cross-checked against other information. They told the truth about him and frequently did so for no financial remuneration.

15) Why did no one fact check any of Mrs. Anderson’s stories?

Neither her co-author, Preston Lauterbach, their editor, nor anyone else chose to fact check information that could have easily been disproven.

There are numerous other errors and omissions, but I think Mrs. Anderson was absolutely correct when she said "I don't know, I didn't have him in my pocket" as a way of explaining that she really didn't have many facts about what Robert did or didn't do apart from the few times she saw him when he visited the family in Memphis.

Anderson saves her greatest animosity for Johnson’s acknowledged son Claud Johnson. She spends six and a half pages attacking Claud and his family as the rightful heirs to the Johnson estate and in the process makes numerous erroneous claims. In general Brother Robert is filled with some legitimate recollections, but primarily with Anderson’s factual errors and anger at anyone who dealt with Johnson before her. Her frustration and anger over what Steve LaVere did to Carrie and how he basically defrauded her of a fortune are warranted, but her attacks on the Johnson family are simply crude and uncalled for. She also basically refutes and/or tries to denigrate the work of anyone who ever did any research about Robert Johnson.

[Editor's Note: The story of how Crystal Springs attorney Jim Kitchens, who also represented Klan assassin Byron de la Beckwith,  managed to convince a Mississippi Judge to award his client (60% and therefore his law firm receives 40% of) the royalties for the music of Robert Johnson is very curious (click HERE to read all about it), and even the descendants of Claud Johnson have now turned on the Kitchens firm (click HERE to read all about that), an interesting development that may, in the end, prove to attract curious attention to the case.]

Many of the champions of this book have been quick to mention that Mrs. Anderson is a sweet 94-year-old. That may be the case, but it does not excuse her for the many errors and attacks she makes in her memoir. Brother Robert is a reminiscence that tells us what this woman thought about Robert but the keyword is "thought." Let the buyer beware: most of Anderson’s stories are about what she “thought,” what she believes she was told or heard, and as such there are just too many factual errors (not my opinion, but provable, empirical facts) to make Brother Robert of any definitive value.

By Bruce Conforth

Okay, Bruce. Thank you for giving your ten cents about Brother Robert.

Up Jumped the Blues: A Review
by David Evans

Bruce Conforth is correct in most, if not all, of his criticisms of Annye C. Anderson’s recently published book, Brother Robert. The book does indeed contain factual errors that Conforth points out, and Ms. Anderson, although she was a member of Robert Johnson’s family, because of her youth at the time, was not in a good position to know a lot of factual detail about Johnson. Nevertheless, I think Conforth is too quick to reduce the value of Ms. Anderson’s book to a new photograph of Johnson and “some details about Johnson’s favorite foods and entertainers, brands of tobacco and pomade.” For one thing, the book also contains a reproduction of a postcard that reveals Johnson’s signature and handwriting. The latter could be compared with that of Johnson’s alleged “deathbed confession” to see if it matches. But beyond the factual biographical details, there is a wealth of information about Johnson’s family (one branch of it at least) and his physical and social environment in Memphis where he partly grew up. The book definitely serves to humanize Robert Johnson and make him more than just a musician who recorded twenty-nine songs and died tragically at an early age. Conforth also criticizes Ms. Anderson for downplaying Johnson’s time spent living with his mother and stepfather in and near Robinsonville, Mississippi, and instead exaggerating his time spent in Memphis with his other stepfather’s (and Ms. Anderson’s) family. I don’t think we can ever accurately determine how much time Johnson spent with each branch of his family, but by the time he was in his mid or late teens, he was very likely in a position to go wherever he wanted to. He was also beginning to play music in public by this time. Memphis and Robinsonville are only about twenty-five miles apart, and one could easily travel between them by bus, train, bicycle, hitchhiking, or even walking. Although Robinsonville may have been his “official” home most of this time, he could easily have gone into Memphis on weekends and on summer and holiday breaks from school. It’s not at all uncommon for black children not raised in a strict nuclear family (and even some who are) to experience a lot of visiting and “passing around” among relatives. Similarly, Conforth’s assertion that Ms. Anderson had no basis for claiming a share of Johnson’s considerable financial estate is based solely on laws of inheritance established by the western European legal tradition and disregards customary understandings of family, kinship, property, and inheritance in African American culture.

Reviews of both Ms. Anderson’s book and Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow’s recently published Johnson biography, Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, have mostly been highly favorable. Conforth criticizes the reviewers of Ms. Anderson’s book for not being “Johnson scholars with an eye to fact-checking the work.” That may be the case, but I wonder how many reviewers of the Conforth/Wardlow book are “Johnson scholars.” The fact is that most reviewers, except sometimes those who write in academic and specialist journals, are not very expert in the subjects of the books they review. I don’t know that I can claim to be a “Johnson scholar,” but I have devoted a lot of research to his type of music and blues from his general environment in Memphis and Mississippi, and I got to know pretty well at least two of Johnson’s fellow musicians, Son House and Johnny Shines and knew through interviews two other associates, Houston Stackhouse and Peck Curtis. My only substantial writings on Johnson have been some encyclopedia and handbook entries, most notably the one in Samuel Floyd, ed., International Dictionary of Black Composers, and my three-part exploration and interpretation of the supernatural references in Johnson’s songs in Blues Revue 21-23 (1996). With that background, I’d like to offer a discussion of the Conforth/Wardlow book, which might be considered as a review of sorts. 

First let me state that, in my opinion, Up Jumped the Devil is the best and fullest biography of Robert Johnson to date, and for this, the authors are to be congratulated. I don’t think it’s the last word on Johnson’s life, however, and it does have some flaws. The operative word here is “biography.” In this respect, there is a wealth of new information on Johnson’s early life (i. e., before his recording career that occurred only in his last three years of life), and the authors have made extensive use of official documents and published and unpublished interviews of people who knew Johnson. There is, however, rather little discussion or interpretation of Johnson’s recorded songs. This is somewhat surprising, given the fact that his recordings are the main reason why anyone is interested in Johnson. The authors also largely avoid any detailed discussion and analysis of the other main reason why many people are interested in Johnson. That is Johnson’s relationship or attitude toward the supernatural, including the theme of an encounter with the devil at a crossroads. They simply try to rationalize the evidence or dismiss it as superstition. Whatever role superstition and the supernatural played in Johnson’s real life, it is an overwhelmingly pervasive theme in his songs, unmatched in its percentage of occurrence in the repertoire of any other blues singer, with the possible exception of J. T. “Funny Paper” Smith, where it occurs frequently but in a far more comic and less intense manner than in Johnson’s songs. Along with Johnson’s extraordinary musical talent, it’s one of the main things that makes him so distinctive a personality. It’s especially surprising that the authors downplay this theme while at the same time using it for the title of their book! They also ignore a number of statements made in interviews by others about Johnson’s life that could not be corroborated or verified but yet are plausible or worth considering. Conforth has claimed that he and Wardlow were forced or pressured by their publisher to cut a number of pages from their manuscript that examined some of these biographical byways and other non-biographical and interpretive themes, but I’m sure most readers would have willingly paid the few extra dollars to see this discussion in their book.

In the interest of future Johnson biography or the possibility of a revised and expanded edition by the same authors, I offer the following commentary on some incorrect or questionable passages in Up Jumped the Devil.

A frequent trait of their writing that I found annoying was the practice of creatively reconstructing and describing in some detail scenes from Johnson’s life, including his thoughts on various occasions. I noticed this on pages 9-10, 19, 75-76, 88, 95-96, 110, 115-117, 124, 128, 152, 154-155, 156, 162, 210, and 247. This practice may make the book more “readable” and seem less like a dry academic account, but it also pushes it in the direction of historical fiction. In my opinion, the authors should have resisted any impulse or pressure to adopt this style of writing. In fact, I found it rather jarring when it did occur since most of the book attempts to stick to the facts.

Up Jumped the Devil is also
the popular title of other books.
p.3 - It is stated that Gayle Dean Wardlow provided “the first factual information about Johnson’s life.” Wardlow was certainly on the case early in the 1960s and has provided a good deal of information through interviews and the uncovering of official documents, but he was not the first to investigate Johnson’s life. Not overlooking Frank Driggs’s notes to the first Johnson LP (1961) and the more speculative earlier accounts of Rudi Blesh and Samuel Charters, there was actual biographical research conducted by Alan Lomax way back in 1941-42, only a few years after Johnson’s death. This research is found in Lomax’s unpublished field diaries, which Conforth claims to have viewed but has dismissed as fabrications. It’s true that Lomax fabricated or “creatively reconstructed” from memory the findings of his early field research on Johnson in his 1993 book The Land Where the Blues Began, but there was no reason for him to do so in his actual diaries written some fifty years earlier at a time when there was hardly any public interest in Johnson. It was a small first step, but Lomax should be given credit for realizing that there was value in knowing about a blues artist’s life at a time when even jazz biography was in its infancy.

p.6 - The authors claim that the Sony box set of Johnson’s complete recordings has sold more than fifty million copies in the United States alone. That would amount to a copy in about every third household in the country!

p.8 - They state that “no book before this one has included all of the reminiscences of Johnson by the people who knew him personally.” That’s certainly not true, as there are no statements from Houston Stackhouse and James “Peck” Curtis in the book. They also seem to have used only one or two of the many variant statements given by Son House about his encounters with Johnson. Some of the variants contain important details not found in other variants.

Frank Stokes and Dan Sain did not play in a jug band.
p. 30 - The authors seem to mistake the notation “c” after Charles Spencer’s name in the Memphis City Directory as meaning “carpenter,” whereas it simply means “colored.”

p.39 - They call the Beale Street Sheiks a “jug band,” but they were merely a guitar duo.

pp.44-45 - The authors state that “Johnson’s ability to read and write was atypical” and that “most of Robert’s musical contemporaries were largely functionally illiterate because they were black plantation children.” Even Son House, who was a decade older than Johnson, was literate (and claimed to be able to read musical shape notation), as were artists closer to Johnson’s own age, such as Johnny Shines and Robert Lockwood, neither of whom grew up on a plantation.

p. 52 Henry Sloan is identified as possibly the guitarist heard by W. C. Handy playing in the knife style at the Tutwiler train station ca. 1903. Almost nothing is known about Sloan other than that he lived on Dockery Plantation and was an early influence on Charley Patton. Handy’s guitarist could have been anybody.

[Editor's Note: We actually know quite a bit about Sloan's family and early life in Hinds County. His parents are listed in the US Census as Salome, and Henry lived in the same area as the parents of Charley McCoy, the Chatmon family, and the Patton family in 1900. Henry apparently moved to Dockery around the same time as the Pattons, but we have no documents proving this move actually occurred. Despite the serious research efforts of Charles D. Roscopf, who found the death certificate of one Henry Sloan in Arkansas, and my own discovery of another Henry Sloan who was arrested in Helena in the aftermath of the 1919 Elaine pogrom, we have failed to trace this early influence on Patton after 1918.]

p. 88 They have Son House moving to Robinsonville in June 1930, but in fact, it was some time after House’s recording session in August of that year. On pp. 92-93 they also discount House’s claims that Johnson wasn’t a very good musician around this time. The fact is that we don’t know how good Johnson sounded at that time. We do know what House sounded like, and he set a pretty high standard!

p. - 94 The authors print without commentary H. C. Speir’s stereotypical characterization of male blues singers (“low class . . . smelled a little and had to have a drink before he could play . . . he wasn’t going to work”). Playing music for money isn’t work?

pp. 142-143 - They state that H. C. Speir was “responsible for the recordings” of Charley Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Bo Carter, and Blind Joe Reynolds. This is simply untrue or unproven. Speir made a later test session of Patton with House and Brown, but there’s no solid evidence that he was responsible for their first recordings. He might have been involved in a later session by Carter but not his first, and Reynolds was from the St. Louis area, far from Speir’s territory in central Mississippi.

p. 150 - They claim that Speir was involved, with Polk Brockman, in a 1928 Okeh session in San Antonio, yet none of the artists recorded at that session were from Mississippi or Brockman’s Atlanta base. This implausible information is said to come from an unrecorded 1964 interview of Speir.

p. 162 They state that Johnson’s alternate takes of a recorded song were “almost identical.” This was sometimes true, but not always, as in the cases of “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,” “Cross Road Blues,” and “Come On in My Kitchen,” where there are some significant musical or lyrical differences. On pp.162-163 the authors even state that it was a general policy and practice of Johnson to perform his songs the same way every time. Robert Johnson was certainly more consistent than some of the earlier artists for whom we have alternate takes, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tommy Johnson, or Charley Patton, but it’s clear that some of his songs were still in a state of flux when he recorded them.

p. 168 They claim that Mexican laborers in the Delta used the open G guitar tuning that blues musicians came to call “Spanish.” There’s no evidence, however, that this tuning is used in Mexican music, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the name of the tuning is derived from the guitar showpiece “Spanish Fandango” that was composed (not by a Mexican) with instructions to be played in that tuning. Mexicans did bring hot tamales to the Delta, and that’s likely where Johnson got the inspiration for his song “Hot Tamales,” rather than from where he had lunch at the time of his San Antonio recording session (p. 175).

p. 200 It is stated that Blind Lemon Jefferson was “discovered” by J. Mayo Williams. Williams became his recording manager, but the best evidence indicates that R. T. Ashford or someone working for him in Dallas was the first to connect Jefferson with Paramount Records.

p. 215 They claim that the refrain of Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down” was earlier recorded by Luke Jordan and Dick Justice. This is untrue, although a variant of the song was later recorded by John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson.

pp. 271-272 The listings of the other artists at Johnson’s sessions unaccountably omit blues pianist Black Boy Shine, the artist at these sessions whose music was the closest to Johnson’s.

There are a number of other places where my disagreement with the authors is more arguable or where I think their interpretation has little or questionable support, but I won’t try to argue them here. I offer the above as an indication that there is still more to be said, and hopefully more yet to become known, about Robert Johnson.

David Evans

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