One of the first things you notice about Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow’s biography of Robert Johnson is that there’s a photo on every other page – and that’s not a bad thing at all. The maps, vital records, and pictures of people and buildings illustrate the man and his time. The authors use many tools to recreate Johnson’s short life, from census records and marriage licenses to interviews with Johnson’s contemporaries.
Johnson had a chaotic childhood. He was abandoned by his mother as a toddler, left with his step-father and his new wife in Memphis. Later on, Johnson’s mother reclaimed him and brought him back to a rural area where he was expected to farm for her new, much younger husband. Johnson’s life in Memphis with a loving family and solid school system sounds idyllic in comparison to working in the fields with a strict stepfather. He knew early on that he did not want to be a farmer and turned quickly to music.
This book is an easy, enjoyable read. I found the beginning with information about Johnson’s life more interesting than the (brief) dissection of individual songs later on. Learning just a little about the history of itinerant musicians and juke joints from Johnson’s story makes me want to read more about the musicians from this era who traveled and played music.