“I want to tell you all about the way they treated me.”
From: “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” by Robert Johnson
I’ve written about Robert Johnson before.
I’ve written about the Mississippi Blues musician’s first recording session twice.
That’s the session that took place on November 23, 1936, in Rm.414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, for Vocalion/ARC records. (My first post was in November, 2010 and Take 2 was in November, 2019.)
Well, what about the day before that first recording session?
Robert Johnson arrived in San Antonio, Texas, on Sunday, November 22, 1936, ready to make his dreams come true.
However, according to the liner notes on the 1961 Columbia Records LP Robert Johnson/King Of The Delta Blues Singers, the 25-year-old “country boy… found trouble within hours after he arrived.”
Those liner notes were written by Frank Driggs, the album’s producer.
Frank tells how Don Law – the British ARC record producer and “roving A&R man” in charge of the company’s satellite recording studio set up in the Gunter Hotel – had “considered himself responsible for Johnson, found him a room in a boarding house and told him to get some sleep so he would be ready to record at ten the following morning.”
Frank relates how Don Law then settled down with his wife and a few friends for dinner in the Gunter Hotel’s dining room.
“(Law) had scarcely begun dinner,” Driggs continued, “when he was summoned to the phone. A policeman was calling from the city jail. Johnson had been picked up on a vagrancy charge. Law rushed down to the jail, found Johnson beaten up, his guitar smashed; the cops had not only picked him up but had worked him over.”
I remember reading that: “…beaten up, his guitar smashed.” “The cops… worked him over.”
Frank just moves right on to share another anecdote and quote some of Robert’s lyrics.
Over the many years since I first read that story on the record jacket of my vinyl copy of King Of The Delta Blues Singers, I’ve turned to several other authors hoping to find a deeper explanation of the troublesome events of November 22.
Robert Palmer made no mention of them in Deep Blues (1981).
Neither did Peter Guralnick in his book Searching For Robert Johnson (1989) or in his essay that accompanied the Columbia Legacy CD reissue of King Of The Delta Blues Singers in 1998.
Ted Gioia did in Delta Blues (2008) but seemed to be convinced that the “tale was embellished in the telling.”
This past Fall, I had some better luck.
A late-night Google search led me to an article by Robert Wilonsky that appeared in the January 22, 2009, edition of the Dallas Observer newspaper.
The article was about a letter. (It even contained a link to a copy of the letter!)
This letter – initially dated April 10, 1961 – had gone from Frank Driggs to Don Law and from Law back to Driggs.
(At the time, Frank Driggs was working on putting together the King Of The Delta Blues Singers LP for Columbia.)
The subject line of the initial letter read “ROBERT JOHNSON – Liner notes.” Driggs starts off explaining to Law that he “needs some amplification on the story you gave me just before you left for England last month.”
The document shows that Law returned the typewritten letter with a number of handwritten notes correcting, confirming and expanding upon Driggs’ recounting of his story of the events of November 22, 1936 in San Antonio.
Don Law made no changes to the following statements in Driggs’ letter:
“The first night he was picked up by the police, beaten up and thrown in jail on a false vagrancy charge, which you were able to beat.”
“You borrowed another guitar and recorded him the following morning.”
In the letter, Frank Driggs also asked Don Law a question: “Were you going to record him again after the final session in Dallas in 1937?”
Law wrote: “Yes.”
For me, I finally had the answer to my long-standing question of where did Robert Johnson get the guitar that he used in the San Antonio sessions!
(BTW: The Driggs/Law letter was among a sizable acquisition made by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in December, 2005, from the collection of Blues enthusiast Tom Jacobson.)
That Google search proved to be even more fortuitous!
It informed me of a brand new book: Up Jumped The Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow.
The first sentence of the Acknowledgements that mark the beginning of Up Jumped The Devil stated: “This book is the result of over fifty years of work, interest, research, interviews, writing and rewriting, discussing, listening, traveling and every other type of human endeavor.”
As I continued reading, I was hopeful I would finally find the details I’d been looking for.
Chapter 11 – “I’m Booked And Bound To Go” – covered the events leading up to the San Antonio sessions.
(All of the quoted material that follows is from Up Jumped The Devil.)
Robert had come to the attention of Vocalion/ARC through the efforts of H.C. Speir, a talent scout based in Jackson, Mississippi. When H.C. was informed by the company that they wanted to record Robert, he contacted Ernie Oertle, a local salesman for Vocalion, and made the arrangements for Ernie to bring Robert to San Antonio.
On or about Friday, November 20, Ernie, accompanied by his wife, Marie, picked up Robert at his family’s home in Memphis, Tennessee. Given the prevailing racial attitudes of the states and communities they would be driving through on their 700+ mile road trip, the only acceptable arrangement in which this trio could be traveling together was if Robert was the one behind the wheel.
Ernie, Marie and Robert met Don Law at the Gunter Hotel on Sunday, November 22. Don informed Robert that since the Gunter was a “whites only” establishment, he had found a room for him “in a boarding house on East Commerce Street in the city’s black section” about ten blocks away.
Robert soon discovered that San Antonio was “a jumping town” on that November Sunday afternoon. San Antonians were actively “celebrating the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and the end of the Texas Centennial Year celebration.” Robert was not, however, aware that San Antonio mayor C.K. Quinn had recently “declared ‘war’ on street crime, especially vagrancy” and that police chief Owen Kilday “had his officers out in force.”
So, when Robert, the seasoned street performer, “tried to take advantage of the holiday throngs by playing his music on the street,” he quickly attracted the attention of the police.
Conforth & Wardlow write that: “Robert was arrested, had his guitar broken beyond repair, and was thrown in jail on false vagrancy charges.”
After being booked, “Robert was given his one phone call, and he made it to Don Law at the Gunter Hotel.” Law went to the police station and “with some effort, extracted Robert from the police and brought him back to the boarding house.”
The beating that Robert Johnson had suffered “was severe enough to be noticeable several days later.”
Robert Johnson had arrived in San Antonio, Texas, on Sunday, November 22, 1936, ready to make his dreams come true.
And somehow, on Monday, November 23, he did.
What I find most stunningly remarkable about this story and its very disturbing details is that while sitting in front of a microphone in a recording studio for the first time, playing an unfamiliar guitar, certainly still feeling the pain and anger from the assault and humiliation he’d most recently been the victim of, the first song Robert Johnson recorded sounded like this:
Robert Johnson recorded eight songs that day. He was paid “about $25.00 per song.”
At the time, the payment of royalties for records sold was not part of the deal between black musicians and white-owned record companies.
Robert’s songs would be released by Vocalion Records in their “Race Series.”
Race records, as Frank Driggs explained in a footnote to his King Of The Delta Blues Singers liner notes, were “sold exclusively to a Negro audience chiefly in the rural South.” This was as opposed to Popular records that were “distributed throughout the country to a primarily white audience.”
Vocalion also sold Robert’s recordings on the low-cost Perfect, Oriole and Romeo labels.
Record companies began marketing race records in 1920 and continued to call them that until 1949. That was when Jerry Wexler, a staff writer for Billboard Magazine decided to change the name of the publication’s “Juke Box Race Records” chart to “Rhythm & Blues.”
The primary sources of information used in the writing of this post were:
Frank Driggs’ liner notes on Robert Johnson/King Of The Delta Blues Singers, Columbia Records LP, CL-1654. Released September 11, 1961.
Up Jumped The Devil: The Real Life Of Robert Johnson by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow. Published by Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 2019.