Ike Zimmerman: The X in Robert Johnson’s Crossroads by Bruce Michael Conforth

http://www.academia.edu/2408177/_Ike_Zimmerman_The_X_in_Robert_Johnson_s_Crossroads_Living_Blues_2008 Ike Zimmerman: The X in Robert Johnson’s Crossroads Bruce Michael Conforth, Ph.D.Program in American Culture University of Michigan This legend has at least some of its genesis in both the folk beliefs of early twentieth-century African-Americans, and the rapidity with which Johnson seemed to have become a guitar master. This idea, Johnson’s rapid acquisition of superior,and some have even used the term “unearthly,” musical skills has been mentioned by many blues researchers and musicians. 4 Johnson’s desire not just to play the blues, but to excel at them, made him perfect fodder for the creation of such a myth within his community and even today. His story in this regard begins at an early age. As told by the late blues great Eddie ‘Son’ House Jr., (who also claimed to have been Johnson’s musical mentor) as a teenager Johnson seemed desperate to find aspot in the blues world:“He (Johnson) used to play harmonica when he was ‘round fifteen, sixteen years old. He could blow harmonica pretty good. Everybody liked it. But he just got the idea that he wanted to play guitar… He used to sit down between me and Willie (Brown). See, Willie was my commenter, you know, he’d second all the time, he’d never lead, I’d do the lead. And we’d be sitting about this distance apart, and (Robert) would come and sit right on the floor,with his legs up like that, between us.“So when we’d get to a rest period or something, we’d set the guitars up and go out – it would be hot in the summertime, so we’d go out and get in the cool, cool off some. While we’re out, Robert, he’d get the guitar and go bamming with it, you know? Just keeping noise, and the people didn’t like that.”
6 They’d come out and they’d tell us, ‘Why don’t you or Willie or one goin' there and stop that boy? He’s driving everybody nuts’ … I’d say, ‘Just leave the guitars alone… (but) we couldn’t break him from it, and his father would get at him, dogged him so much that he run away.” 5 Herein lies the beginning of his mythic, almost supernatural reputation, for where Johnson went during his absence from the Delta was unknown to its community.His return, 18-24 months later, however, proved to be one of the most dramatic,and retold, moments in blues history. It was the ultimate fodder for the development of his Devil pact legend; the final piece of “evidence” that many within the southern African-American community would take as proof positive of his evil deep, and of the nature of the blues as “the Devil’s music.” As Son House recalled this momentous event:“Me and Willie, we was playing out at a little place called Banks, Mississippi. I looked and I saw somebody squeezing in the front door, and I seed it was Robert. I said ‘Bill, Bill.’He said, ‘Huh.’I said, ‘Look who’s coming in the door, got a guitar on his back.’He said, ‘Yeah, no kidding.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s little Robert.’I said, ‘Yeah, that’s him.’ I said, ‘Don’t say nothing.’2 And he wiggled his way through the crowd, until he got over to where we was. I said, ‘Boy, now where you going with that thing? T’annoy somebody else to death again? ’He say, ‘I’ll tell you what, too. ‘ He say, ‘This your rest time?’ I say, ‘Well, we can make it our rest time. What you want to do, annoy the folks? ’He say, ‘No, just let me – give me a try.’So I said, ‘All right, and you better do something with it, too,’ and I winked my eye at Willie. So he sat down there and finally got started. And man! He was so good! When he finished all our mouths were standing open. I said,‘Well, ain’t that fast! He’s gone now!’ This amazing transformation of an individual who was known as, at best, a mediocre musician into one who could make people’s mouths drop open easily allowed Southern superstition to take possession of the Johnson legend, much as they accused the Devil of taking possession of Johnson’s soul. It’s important here to note that such a belief was not without precedent. Some years earlier another blues guitarist, also named Johnson, no relation, claimed to have sold his soul to the Devil for musical prowess: Tommy Johnson. This Johnson’s brother LeDell not only believed this story, but could recite the exact procedure one had to undertake in order to make such a deal. 7 Both African and European folklore contain stories of pacts being made at a crossroad, the crossroad as a supernatural place with unique powers, and the selling of one’s soul to the Devil. Similarly, this Faustian them was very familiar in the blues tradition for many years before either Tommy or Robert claimed it. In fact, it predated even the blues. African-American scholar Julio Finn adds his contention that:“The tradition of making a pact at the crossroads in order to attain supernatural prowess is nether a creation of neither the Afro-American nor an invention of blues lore, but originated in Africa and is a ritual of Voodoo worship.” 8 Once the belief made its way into the African-American community, however, the idea of selling one’s soul to the Devil became a common theme in folk narrative sand music. And, it was not an exclusively male concept, thereby demonstrating its wide belief within the African-American community. As early as 1924 blues singer Clara Smith sang “Done Sold My Soul Tithe Devil”:“I done sold my soul, sold it to the Devil, and my heart done turned to stone,I’ve got a lot of gold, got it from the Devil, but he won’t let me alone.He trails me like a bloodhound, he’s slicker than a snake,He follows right behind me, every crook and turn I make.I done sold my soul, sold it to the Devil, and my heart done turned to stone. 9 In Smith’s version of the legend she is rewarded with gold riches, but as always the deal turns out in the Devil’s favor: in Smith’s regard by having her “heart done3 turned to stone” and being trailed by the Devil “like a bloodhound.” This latter reference of the Devil trailing her “like a bloodhound” is really not so far removed from Robert Johnson’s wail “I got hellhounds on my trail.” Each felt like they were being pursued by the Devil due to their transgressions. Johnson’s seemingly miraculous transformation, therefore, could, and was, easily attributed by the more superstitious members of the blues, and African-American communities, to the crossroads legend. Adding to this element of the supernatural was the fact that Johnson was never known to have done anything to deny the idea (if he was truly aware of the cultural magnitude of his “alleged” claim), probably relishing the exotic nature it gave his music and persona. Various acquaintances, such as one-time traveling partners David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Johnny Shines, have told varying accounts of whether Johnson actually made the claim, but no one has ever said that he disputed it. 10 Son House stated on several occasions that Robert had told him that he had sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads. 11 Even the most recent African-American blues scholars, like Finn, have in some ways supported a more supernatural explanation to Johnson’s musical transformation. In his book, The Bluesman, he posits not that Johnson sold his soul at the crossroads, but rather that he encountered a Southern hoodoo/voodoo (Finn seemingly uses the terms interchangeably) Root Doctor who initiated him into the Hoodoo cult. This, Finn asserts, would have at least allowed Johnson to believe that he had acquired some sort of relationship with the supernatural, without which he could not have written such lyrics as those he included in his songs. 12 The questions that all of this conjecture must raise, therefore, therefore, are where did Johnson go when he left the Delta, was there a crossroads, and how did he become such a masterful musician?Most scholars, and those local residents old enough to remember, agree that Johnson went south, specifically to Hazlehurst, Mississippi where he was born. 13 Perhaps, they posit, he was in search of his real father. And many scholars have also decided that during this period Johnson studied guitar under the tutelage of a local blues guitarist named Ike Zimmerman. 14 Although a few texts have called Zimmerman an excellent guitarist, and one photo of his has previously been published (obtained some years ago in a manner the family now considers rather unscrupulous), there has been nothing else known about him. As of this writing this author knows of only 14 sentences that have been written about Zimmerman in the many books concerning Johnson and his legend. Even his name has been presented in different manners: Zinneman, Zinnerman, Zinman, Zinemon. 15 Fortunately, a recent chance encounter between the grandsons of both Johnson and Zimmerman made possible an interview with one of the latter’s daughters and grandson. This opportunity opened the door to a 70+ year old mystery and provides important new data about the life, and “missing” years of Robert Johnson. Equally, if not more important, however, is the fact that it finally provides the introduction of Ike Zimmerman to blues aficionados and music scholars alike 4. The only previously known photo of Ike Zimmerman Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman was born April 27, 1907 in the small village of Grady,Alabama. Like many of the southern towns that once had sharecropper populations, Grady, is now virtually non-existent, being more a name than a place.As stated above, the surname Zimmerman and its spelling has been reported as existing in several variants. This may have contributed to some of the difficulty in tracking down more information about Johnson’s mentor and tutor. According to Zimmerman’s daughter Ike spelled it with two “m”s. This article will, therefore,accept and use this as the correct spelling. Zimmerman’s wife, Ruth Sellers Zimmerman, came from Montgomery, Alabama, just north of Grady. There is no hard information as to when, or where they were married, but it was most likely in the mid to late 1920s. Given Ike’s 1907 birth date it was also quite probable that both Ike and Ruth’s grandparents were slaves. Most contemporary reports, in their incredibly brief statements about Ike, claim that he was “mysterious,” and“unknown,” and a “farmer or sharecropper.” 16 Unlike these reports, however, Ike was neither a sharecropper nor farmer, and certainly not unknown or mysterious. This will become clearer as this article continues.5 Ike and Ruth had seven children, one boy and six girls, that they raised in the shotgun house pictured above. Today the three surviving daughters are spread across the country from Mississippi to Michigan. According to the daughter interviewed, Ike was short of stature, shorter than Robert Johnson, and “a strongman… a good man… who wanted everything to go smoothly.” He provided well for his family. 17 Ms Zimmerman: “…he was really kind and I can’t ever remember him raising his voice at me… ‘cept for one time when I got married. He didn’t want me to do that. But when I was a kid growing up I had long hair and he combed it,would plait it, and all that stuff. ‘Cause my mother would tell him he put too many pigtails, they be just flopping on my face. She told him, she’d have a hard time taking it back down. But they got along good. I never, never did hear him misuse us any way… We didn’t never lack for nothing! “ 18 Apparently one of the things that was never lacking in their home was music, for as long as Ike’s daughter could remember he always played music, although his own musical origins are uncertain.Ms Zimmerman: “I really… he didn’t really tell me (how he learned how to play guitar)… when I came to this world looking at my daddy he was playing a guitar so… (laughs)Grandson: His brother had a guitar, now he couldn’t play it… One of Ike’s brothers had a guitar and could not play it. He could not play but he could hit a chord or two. She (Ms Zimmerman) said he played something saying“Chicken chicken you can’t fly too high for me.”Ms Zimmerman: Yeah.Grandson: But that’s all he could do… do that, do that. And Ike just started on those two chords and he just went on. Just learned his self.Ms Zimmerman: I always believed he learned himself. When I came into this world he was carrying a guitar with him. I tried to find somebody who could beat my daddy, you know, since I been grown I would listen, I used to listen6 to B.B. King… he couldn’t touch my daddy. I don’t know, my daddy he acted like he had electric fingers.” 19 Unlike many of his contemporaries who could only afford cheaper mail-order guitars(Stellas, Regals, etc.), Ike, due to this work on the highway, was able to afford a good guitar, usually, as his daughter remembered, a Gibson (model unknown). And although Ike almost certainly knew a variety of songs and had a repertoire ranging from blues to pop tunes (as any musician from that period would), his daughter only remembered him playing the blues while at home. Quite insistent that he was almost exclusively a blues player, she recalled: Ms Zimmerman: “He was playing blues, ‘cause I remember him playing a song about “going” he was going on the road you know… it concerned, it had the road in it. Like I said he, there was one traveling, going away, going away somewhere he was going and it was, that was one of the songs and another one… you can call me and I can give it to you. (laughs)Since I been grown he was a spiritual (person), but when I was growing up it was the same music like he taught Robert… that’s what he was playing (the blues).(He made up a) lot of them. I think that daddy made that one up. Going,going away and baby don’t you wanna go. But going, going away and baby don’t you want to go, daddy made that up.” 20 Also like many of his contemporaries, in later life Zimmerman turned his back on the blues and devoted himself to spirituals and gospel. Perhaps, as some blues musicians have stated, this was to atone for their days of playing the Devil’s music.Son House, for example, took a turn as a preacher, and in later life was not allowed to play the blues in his house. 21 His wife insisted that he only play holy music inside,and to play the blues he would have to go outside and sit on his stoop:Ms Zimmerman: “He played blues then, but he ended up playing church songs later. When I heard him play church songs it was after Robert. “ 22 The style of Zimmerman’s playing varied, as did many blues musicians, and he alternated between finger picking and slide guitar, his slide being homemade out of a bone. He also was a skilled harp (harmonica) player. Ike was not only a masterful musician, however, but also a true showman in the tradition of a Charley Patton.Ms Zimmerman: “…he could (play guitar behind his head)! I saw him! Sure I did! Daddy did all of that. 23 And, in the spirit of many musicians, Johnson included, Ike used his musical and showmanship skills for more than monetary gain: Zimmerman was always a guitarist, and it is interesting to conjecture whether in later life he remained true solely to religious music, or if there were times, even in private, when he might have returned to his blues roots (much like the way Son House did as previously described). Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman died from a heart attack on August 3, 1967 at the untimely age of 60.Ms Zimmerman: “He had a heat attack. He as in hospital and he was supposed to be released but he ended up having… he had a heart attack and was fixing to go home, and he had a heart attack…. that was in Compton,California… that’s where he’s buried.” 42 14 Photo of Zimmerman as a preacher, taken from his funeral program. Note that his hat is still jauntily tipped to one side, not unlike the previously only known photograph at the beginning of this article. It appears that even though he turned to religion his self-image as something of a lady’s man probably stayed intact. The story of Ike Zimmerman is still not complete, there is more research and interviews to be done, but finally his contributions to music, and the missing 18 to24 months in Robert Johnson’s life can be accounted for. Zimmerman remained active in music, albeit within the religious context, and probably never realized what happened to Johnson. Johnson’s 78 recordings of the late ‘30s had limited sales (his most successful, “Terraplane Blues” is estimated to have sold 5,000 copies) so it’s only a conjecture at best to assume that Zimmerman heard any of them. Likewise,the first reissue of Johnson’s recording in 1961 (six years before Zimmerman’s death) wasn’t a record with large sales, and similarly Zimmerman would probably not have been aware of its existence. This is indeed a shame because it is highly likely that he never knew, or understood, the influence that he had on Johnson, and by extension, on the history of blues music, and ultimately rock and roll. Virtually every blues guitarist following Johnson owes something to his style: Muddy Waters,Elmore James, Robert Lockwood, Honeyboy Edwards, Johnny Shines, and countless others. And these artists helped give birth to rhythm and blues and rock and roll and artists like Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and every rock/blues band that ever played. Whether Zimmerman was ground zero for all of this will not even be speculated by this author, but clearly, Ike Zimmerman’s guitar expertise and influence far exceeded his own life and work. He is the X in Robert Johnson’s crossroads.15

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