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October 2, 2017

Book Notes - Adam Gussow "Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition"

Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Adam Gussow's Beyond the Crossroadsis a fascinating exploration of the devil in American blues music.

William Ferris wrote of the book:

"At once affable and frightening, the devil is forever partnered with the blues. Beyond the Crossroads is a beautifully written exploration of what Adam Gussow calls 'the blues' most malleable, dynamic, and important personage.' This is a work of exquisite detail."


In his own words, here is Adam Gussow's Book Notes music playlist for his book Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition:



My recently published study, Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition, began with my surprised discovery, back in 2006, that no such book existed. Most people were familiar, of course, with the phrase "the devil's music" and the mythology surrounding Robert Johnson's deal at the crossroads. A few online discographers had pulled together Top-10 lists of devil-blues songs. But nobody had assembled a complete discography, addressed the religious, cultural, and sociohistorical contexts, then drawn some broader conclusions about the way in which the tradition had evolved over the decades. So that's what I set out to do.

I brought to the task not just my background as a blues scholar, but my experience as a blues musician: since the mid-1980s I've been the harmonica-playing half of a duo called Satan and Adam, partnered with a Mississippi-born guitarist/vocalist/percussionist named Sterling "Mr. Satan" Magee. Back in 1998 I published a memoir about our Harlem streetside relationship entitled Mister Satan's Apprentice; although I mentioned Magee only briefly in Beyond the Crossroads, my understandings of the dispute between preachers and bluesmen was informed by his coruscating cynicism about ministerial greed and hypocrisy.

I began this project by tracking down more than 125 different blues recordings that invoke the devil and/or his hellish home. (Hell is sometimes a way in which black southern blues singers signify on the evils of Jim Crow—or so I argue.) I added a sprinkling of sermons, jazz, and gospel recordings that treat the same theme. One surprise: although the 1920s and 1930s were peak years for devil-blues songs, there's been a notable surge in the new millennium—a result, I speculate, of several different dynamics, including increased interest in crossroads mythology thanks to Robert Johnson's renewed popularity and, in the aftermath of 9/11, a sense among some that we've entered a new Dark Ages in which Good and Evil are struggling for dominance.

Here are fourteen essential devil blues songs, in chronological order:

Clara Smith, "Done Sold My Soul to the Devil" (1924)
The very first devil-blues recording is set not at a Mississippi crossroads, but in an urban locale during the Jazz Age. It's a prostitute's lament but also a modern woman's brash, prideful declaration that she has broken all the way bad.

Sippie Wallace, "Devil Dance Blues" (1925)
The 1920s in New York City were marked by a moral crusade against so-called "devil dance dens," bustling dance halls where lonely men paid "taxi girls" ten cents per dance. Here the Texas-born Wallace offers a dream vision—now fearful, now wistful--where a sweet, tempting devil in a "robe…made of gold" puts on a "great big show."

Bessie Smith, "Devil's Gonna Get You (1928)
Smith, the daughter of a Baptist preacher in Chattanooga, was both a brilliant blues singer and a sexual dynamo who, according to scholar Jana Evans Braziel, was "philandering, infidelitous, unreliable, unfaithful, and perverse" in a way that enraged her jealous husband, Jack Gee. In this recording she condemns a faithless lover by summoning the devil with a preacher's stern judgmentalism. "I don't want no two-time stuff…from my regular man," she sings. "The devil's gonna get you…just as sure as you are born." Change "man" to "woman" and she's singing Jack's song, not hers.

Lonnie Johnson, "She's Making Whoopee in Hell Tonight" (1930)
Johnson—no relation to Robert—recorded half a dozen devil-blues, all of them informed by a rage that seemed grounded in his own failed marriage. His wife, blues singer Mary Johnson, gave him one child a year for six straight years, then abandoned him. (It's hard to blame her; while she'd been producing and nurturing children, he'd been touring with—and sleeping with—Bessie Smith.) "You'll be making whoopee in hell with the devil tomorrow night," Johnson sang, bitterly. Whew.

Peetie Wheatstraw, "Devil's Son-in-Law" (1931)
Although most black southern bluesmen insisted that blues was not the devil's music and that the term was slander leveled by ministers and parents, Wheatstraw defiantly embraced the charge. But there's a catch: since the devil was sometimes a way of gesturing at the evil southern white man, the black bluesman who called himself the devil's son-in-law was slyly claiming that he was sleeping with the devil's (white) daughter: an incendiary brag indeed. Wheatstraw lived what he sang: he had a white woman on his arm and a little white dog on a chain that he promenaded daily through East St. Louis, to the amusement of his fans, black male migrants from the South who knew what a dangerous game he was playing.

Skip James, "Devil Got My Woman" (1931)
James's haunting song invokes the devil, as some devil-blues do, in contradictory ways. He'd "rather be the devil," he insists, "than to be that woman's man," but "nothing but the devil" he also argues, "changed my baby's mind." The devil is both an aspirational ideal and a malicious antagonist. Black southern blues people trying to make sense of their complicated romantic lives on the post-Emancipation landscape turned to the devil as an all-purpose totem.

Robert Johnson, "Hell Hound on My Trail" (1937)
Forget everything you think you know about this "tortured" and "haunted" Delta artist. A playful, irreverent, and lusty young modernist, he sings in the second verse of this song about how "If today was Christmas Eve and tomorrow was Christmas day," all he'd need was his "little rider"—his lover—"just to pass the time away." "Aw, wouldn't we have a time, baby" he chuckles as a spoken aside. This is flagrant sacrilege—and pretty good game.

Big Bill Broonzy, "Hell Ain't But a Mile and a Quarter" (1938)
This relatively unknown song by the well-known Broonzy signifies pointedly on the idea of a Jim Crowed southern town just a short walk across the tracks, harshly unfriendly to black men, where you "will have to obey the devil's orders" and accept "brimstone for water." In the final verse, the singer insists he's going to marry the devil's daughter, then boot the devil and "rule this hell myself."

Cousin Leroy Rozier, "Crossroads" (1957)
Although Rozier is far less well known than Robert Johnson, his "Crossroads" does what none of Johnson's celebrated recordings actually do: sketch a scenario in which the bluesman goes to the crossroads, meets the devil, and is instructed in how to play the guitar. Johnson arguably gestures at such mythology; Rozier serves it up hot.

Jerry McCain, "My Deal at the Crossroads" (2000)
Once Robert Johnson's Collected Recordings (1990) had thrust the Delta legend back into the public eye with a vengeance, other blues artists began not just to cover his songs, but to update the mythology associated with him. Alabama bluesman McCain revisits the crossroads after making "a deal with the devil for the woman I love" and finds "nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine black cat bones all stacked up in one pile." Scary!

Popa Chubby, "Somebody Let the Devil Out" (2002)
Ted Horowitz, a.k.a. Popa Chubby, is a New York City blues-rock guitar shredder; I knew him as a fellow busker who worked the World Trade Center area back in the mid-1980s. He wrote "Somebody Let the Devil Out" to convey the shock we all felt when the towers went down on that fateful day.

Denise LaSalle, "Hell Sent Me You" (2007)
LaSalle, native of Belzoni, Mississippi, the Delta's catfish capital, has long been a brassy, truthtelling elder on the soul-blues scene. This track, with its cheerful disco beat, shows hope shredding into despair, then hardening into the sort of burning revenge that energizes blues people. "I was looking for a good man, someone honest and true," she sings angrily, as though pronouncing final judgment. "I prayed to heaven…oh, but hell sent me you."

Jason Ricci and New Blood, "Done With the Devil" (2008)
The devil of the new millennium services white blues singers, too—including my friend Jason Ricci, the best blues harmonica player of his generation. He had a substance abuse problem for a while, one that led him briefly to wander the streets of New Orleans half-naked, selling his ass for crack and abandoning his soul into the bargain. He's much better now, it would seem. But the devil is always there, ready to jump. This song speaks to that.

Anthony Gomes, "The Blues Ain't the Blues No More" (2015)
Gomes, a blues-rocker from the Robert Plant school of hyper-emotive vocal stylings, isn't to everybody's taste. He knows that and relishes his role as a late modernist, here to yank the rug out from underneath your tired clichés about, for example, the devil and the crossroads.


Adam Gussow and Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition links:

the author's Wikipedia entry

Ole Miss News interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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