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December 05, 2007

Zenga Longmore on Robert Johnson and Broom

Posted by Zenga Longmore

Robert Johnson (1911-1938) is famous among blues fans for having sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in return for becoming a guitarist of genius. Ageing hippies of my acquaintance delight in this story and seem to believe it, despite the fact that, if true, it would mean that the hapless Bob is even now stoking the furnaces of Hell. Tony Blair claims that Robert Johnson is his favourite singer - read into this statement what you will.

Johnson's childhood would cause a modern social worker's brow to furrow with disapproval. Robert's mother Carrie was the mistress of a farm labourer named Noah Johnson. The young Robert lived with his mother, Noah, Noah's lawful wife and all his siblings, half-siblings and step-siblings.

Apparently harmony reigned among the two women, despite the harsh poverty of a sharecropper's existence. Noah was once heard to day,

If I work hard all year, I'll only owe my master $300.
However when Robert was still a young child, Carrie left home to eke out a living elsewhere, leaving the sensitive, artistic Robert to fend for himself.

Johnson recorded several anguished songs in the late thirties before being poisoned by a jealous girlfriend at the age of twenty seven. His best known song Crossroads, makes no mention of a Satanic pact. Robert goes down on his knees all right, but to hippy disappointment he prays to God instead. Other songs make up for this, and Hellhound On My Trail shows Johnson to be a man who believes he is doomed.

I got to keep moving, got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail,
Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail,
I can't keep no money, hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail.
Me and the devil blues, throbs with urgent emotion:
Early this morning when you knocked upon my do'
I said, hello Satan, I believe it's time to go
Me and the devil, both walking side by side
I'm gonna beat my woman, till I get satisfied

You may bury my body, down by the highway side,
Lord, my old evil spirit can catch a greyhound bus and ride

However, let theologians and occultists quibble over Johnson's demonic pact, for the Johnson record I'd like to examine is called, I Believe I'll Dust My Broom. In one of its many versions, it goes,
I'm gonna get up in the morning, I believe I'll dust my broom.
I'll quit the best girl that I'm loving and my best friend can have my room.
What does it mean, "dust my broom?" Can the phrase carry a fiendishly filthy double meaning, or is it an innocent reference to the bachelor habit of only sweeping a bed-sit room just before one moves out?

The following decade, the Broom Song was recorded anew by Arthur "Big Boy" Cruddup, the singer-guitarist who inspired Elvis. Cruddup differed from the usual image of a blues singer as immoral seducer forever looking for a rich woman to look after him. There was Mrs Cruddup and a lot of little Cruddups to support, so the Big Boy did his duty and recorded the same songs again and again with different titles. Elvis's favourite and early theme song, That's Alright Mama, is actually the tail end of Mean Ole Frisco, a one-time hit for Cruddup, who, henceforth worked it to death.

Frisco in this case means a train belonging to the San Francisco Railroad, and the song is one of the "mean train done stole my baby" types, in which a girl leaves Cruddup but the train gets the blame.
That mean ole, mean ole Frisco
And that low down Santa Fe
They took my babe away
And blowed right back at me!
Cruddup's nineteen forties Broom gives way to a stunningly intense electric guitar nineteen fifties version by Elmore James. Perhaps fortunately, James died before being discovered by intellectual blues fans. His hearse was followed by half the South Side, and brought Chicago traffic to a standstill. Elmore (a spelling that seems so much more satisfying than Elmer) recorded Broom several times under different names. One of these was, I Believe My Time Ain't Long, a typical Robert Johnson phrase of doom. Many people believe Elmore James wrote the song, but no, he only carried it on. It meant so much to him that he called his group The Broomdusters.

The final incarnation of Broom was recorded in the nineteen sixties by Elmore's cousin, Homesick. Homesick James took that name to show his Chicago audience that his heart was in Old Mississippi. Blues was now growing old fashioned, a nostalgic old time music. Homesick played before folk and rock audiences, but it seems to have done his style little harm.

Having dusted his broom let his best friend have his room and gone on his way, the person in the song seemingly flies into a panic:

I'm gonna call up China, see if my baby's over there
Yes, I'm gonna call up China, see if my baby's over there.
I've got a feeling that my baby must be in the world somewhere.
As long as he's not using my 'phone. These days 'phone bills are enough to give anyone the blues.

Zenga Longmore writes for The Spectator, The Oldie, and The Daily Telegraph. She is an actress and blues singer and the author of Tap-taps To Trinidad. To read her previous pieces on jazz for the Social Affairs Unit, see Jazz.


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