The Devil And The Blues Tradition
387 pages (Uncorrected proof used for review)
Author Adam Gussow is a blues harmonica player who formed Satan & Adam duo with Sterling “Mister Satan” Magee, who played guitar and percussion. They spent years busking on a street corner in Harlem, eventually releasing two albums on the Flying Fish label and taking their music to stages throughout the world. For his first book, Mister Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues Memoir, the writer told the story of the duo’s many adventures.
Currently an associate professor of English and southern studies at the University of Mississippi, Gussow also teaches harmonica and pairs with guitarist Alan Gross in the Blues Doctors duo. For his latest publication, his fifth, the author conducts an in-depth examination of the role of the “devil” in blues music, casting a wide net that moves well beyond the simplistic saint or sinner, good vs. evil impressions one might be left with after a cursory listen to songs like Robert Johnson’s “Hell Hound On My Trail”.
The opening chapter, “Heaven And Hell Parties: Southern Religion and the Devil’s Music,” traces the reactions and responses by clergy and religious leaders over the centuries as they attempt to cope with music’s hold on their flock. Early attempts were made to counteract the fiddle, which could, in the right hands, whip people into a dancing frenzy. The focus then shifted to the guitar players once that instrument began to gain prominence. But the preachers weren’t just motivated to save the souls of their congregation. Money that was spent carousing on Friday and Saturday nights was money that would not find its way into the collection plate on Sunday morning. As the northern migration gained steam in the search for greater economic opportunities and less overtly racist social structures, the African-American churches felt the pinch of funding as membership dwindled. The pastors turned to fire and brimstone, calling out the devil lurking in blues music, hoping to save souls and their financial future. Gussow also reviews the varied responses by the minister fathers towards their son’s musical endeavors, including W.C. Handy, John Lee Hooker, and Big Joe Dushkin. One highlight is a look at a unique “Heaven & Hell” party staged in Clarksdale, MS in 1941 by the local Baptist church as a way to give the youth an opportunity to let their hair down in a controlled environment.
The following section, “The Great Migration And The Urban Dance Hall,” centers on singer Clara Smith’s 1924 recording, “Done Sold My Soul To The Devil”. The song is a dark recitation of a woman’s descent into prostitution, lead on by a sly, grinning man who, too late, is revealed as the devil in human form. Several other versions are recorded, including one by Merline Johnson, “The Yas Yas Girl,” who declares at the finish that she journeyed to hell and shot the devil. Listeners are left to guess which form of the devil she is referring to – or perhaps the devil figure represents an over-riding sense of despair.
The early blues musicians had to be careful with the lyrics and imagery they used in songs so as not to offend any part of the white power structure in the rural South. The author provides guidance for determining meaning beyond the superficial layer songs may present at first hearing. “I’m Going To Marry The Devil’s Daughter: Blues Tricksters Signifying On Jim Crow” is a chapter that presents the white man in a variety of evil guises, as in Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “The Devil Jumped The Black Man”. But the devil image also enabled the musicians to boast of their own power, sexuality, and freedom in a way that escaped notice. Gussow highlights the work of Peetie Wheatstraw, known as “The Devil’s Son-In-Law,” an artist who thoroughly embraced the bold persona laid out in his songs, showing no fear of possible retribution.
The fourth segment, “The Devil’s Gonna Get You: Blues Romance And The Paradoxes Of Black Freedom,” marks the tensions in sexual relationships as African-Americans utilized their freedom to travel and select their partner in the aftermath of slavery. In the early 1920s, female blues singers dominated the marketplace, with Bessie Smith relating a form of sexual servitude on “ You’ve Got To Give Me Some”. Gussow quotes the 1925 Papa Charlie Jackson song, “The Cat Got The Measles,” as an early example of a response of a male musician blaming the devil, Legba, for turning his woman to another man. The Skip James classic, “Devil Got My Woman,” utilizes the devil devil image in several contrasting ways within the same song, as explanation for human failings plus a general excuse for unexplained actions.
The final section will certainly generate plenty of discussion. “Selling It At The Crossroads: The Lives And Legacies Of Robert Johnson,” takes on the celebrated myth of Johnson’s mystical deal with the Devil at the crossroads. The author’s in-depth research gives him the information to poke holes in the timeline from Jonson’s embarrassing performance in front of Son House to his triumphant return to universal acclaim. The author asserts that it was guitarist Ike Zimmerman, not Legba, who mentored his young protege, turning him into a guitar master after many late night sessions conducted in a local graveyard. Next, the author makes a case for the impact the movie Crossroads had in selling the “devil at the crossroads” tale to wider public, and quite possibly starting the onslaught of white blues guitar players trying to emulate the faster, louder style of Steve Vai’s character. Gussow provides some additional information about the movie’s cast and speculates about what might have been had one of the dueling guitarists been a black blues artist. Finally, he looks at the successful branding of the Crossroads theme by the city of Clarksdale in a concerted effort to establish the area as the center of blues tourism in the Mississippi Delta region. It all comes together at the noted intersection of Hwy 49 and Hwy 61, which Gussow’s research shows did not exist during Robert Johnson’s lifetime.
Also included are extensive Notes and Bibliography sections plus eight pages in chronological order listing blues songs with a devil theme.
Gussow certainly gives blues fans plenty to ponder in this challenging book that doesn’t back away from taking on some cherished parts of the blues tradition. Readers will be compelled to revisit some classic tunes to hear the songs with fresh ears, ready to garner new meanings based on the many forms of the devil illuminated in this work. Thanks to Mr. Gussow for attempting to get us out of our blues comfort zones, and for providing readers with well-researched concepts that invite us to do more than just listen to the music.