Today, UNC Press Publicity Director Gina Mahalek talks with Adam Gussow, author of Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition, about Sterling Magee, the blues tradition and folklore in the American South, and more.
You can also read Adam’s Book Notes post over at the Largehearted Boy blog, where he also shares a cool Spotify playlist of classic blues tunes.
Gina Mahalek: The devil and the blues! Do you write about how Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads at midnight—like in the movie Crossroads?
Adam Gussow: Well, I explore all those topics in depth. But I wrote Beyond the Crossroads, as the title suggests, to dig down through the familiar southern Gothic mythology and figure out why the devil is such an important part of the blues tradition. This meant following the trail back beyond the “birth of the blues” years into the slavery era, when white masters and patrollers were doing evil things and black southerners had a whole lot to say about the devil in their spirituals. In our own time, of course, the “dark” romance is part of the story; I explore Robert Johnson and Crossroads at length in the book’s fifth and final chapter. (No, Johnson did not sell his soul to the devil. And, yes, I’ll give you the true history of “the crossroads” in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which will spoil the party for local tourism boosters.) But most of the book is about other aspects of the devil and the blues—things that show up, for example, in the more than 125 devil-blues songs I tracked down and transcribed.
GM: I’ve heard people talk about “the devil’s music.” Is that what your book is about?
AG: Yes, in part. I was fascinated by the ubiquity of that phrase, which shows up in the recollections of pretty much every black southerner who comes of age in the first half of the twentieth century. When I dug back into the antebellum past, I found: the fiddle! The fiddle was the devil’s instrument in both Europe and Africa—condemned by Christians in the former, Islamic clerics in the latter—and both cultural streams came together in colonial America, thanks to the slave trade. When the Great Revivals blew through in the mid-1700s and early 1800s, a fair number of black southerners were evangelized and fiddle-driven dancing suddenly became “sinful” and “wicked,” although the term “the devil’s music” didn’t yet exist. That phrase comes into currency with the blues—and specifically with an older generation that disliked the blues, which was young people’s dance music.
GM: It was all about the party, in other words: the ministers and parents didn’t want the kids to have fun.
AG: Exactly! A bunch of things happen in the late nineteenth century that suddenly create a moral and existential crisis in African American families, especially in the Bible Belt. Cheap steel-string guitars become widely available. Juke joints—free black expressive spaces designed for drinking, dancing, gambling, and hanging out—are created. At the same time, independent black church denominations are coming into their own; the ministry becomes one of the few ways that ambitious black men can rise high in public esteem. But blues music, too, is suddenly making its presence felt in juke joints, tent shows, and then, in 1920, in spectacularly popular “race record” recordings. How can ministers increase their Sunday morning collection-plate revenues when half the folks in town are spending what little they’ve got on Saturday night? So the ministers start demonizing the competition—and chastising their kids, who love the sexy new music. The guitar displaces the fiddle; it’s the devil’s instrument 2.0. And blues? It’s the devil’s music. Or at least that’s what God’s people called it. But other black southerners, and especially the blues musicians themselves, many of whom were the children of ministers and church members, angrily disputed the charge. “It ain’t no devil music”: that’s what harmonica player Snooky Pryor insisted. Most of his peers agreed with him.
GM: I see from your biography that you’ve got a lot of shady, devilish stuff going on yourself. Satan and Adam? Mister Satan’s Apprentice? What kind of a blues scholar are you, Dr. Gussow?
AG: I was a street musician in Harlem between 1986 and 1991, working with a Mississippi-born guitarist named Sterling “Mister Satan” Magee. He was the son of a church deacon, and his parents used to whip him when he’d play boogie-woogie rather than gospel music on the piano at home. Mister Satan—as he made everybody call him—certainly exposed me to the blues musician’s side of the dispute! He was convinced that God’s people, especially ministers, were greedy hypocrites trying to make a dollar by any means necessary. Sterling and I recorded and toured as Satan and Adam, and we still play gigs now and then, more than thirty years later. In 1998 I published a memoir about our early years entitled Mister Satan’s Apprentice. But no, I’m not an evil man. I don’t worship the dark prince, drink blood, or torture puppies. Neither does Sterling.
GM: Tell me about some of the people who show up in your book.
AG: I explore the lives and recordings of many blues singers known for invoking the devil and hell, including Lonnie Johnson, Bessie Smith, Skip James, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee Hooker, and Peetie Wheatstraw, who called himself “the devil’s son-in-law” and “the high sheriff from hell.” Wheatstraw is an interesting case. He was born in Arkansas, but his home base during the late 1920s and 1930s was East St. Louis—the Ferguson, Missouri of its day, a place that had been scarred by a race riot (marauding white folks killing black folks) in 1917. His primary audience was black male migrants from the Deep South who’d fled lynching and disrespect at home only to find themselves preyed upon by white cops up in their new urban home. Here comes Peetie: he’s got a white woman sharing his bed—a dangerous thing indeed—and every afternoon he promenades through town with a little white dog on a chain. When he calls himself the devil’s son-in-law, as he does on virtually all of his recordings, he’s not just saying “I’m a bad man.” He’s playing a much more dangerous game than that. He’s signifying on the white devil—the white man, the powers-that-be who are keeping black folks down. The devil’s son-in-law is the man who has (ahem) married the (white) devil’s daughter. That’s what Peetie Wheatstraw was claiming, through his moniker and his pimp-walk. Why do you think he was so popular?
GM: You can’t be serious.
AG: Yes indeed. Blues songs (and performers) signifying on the white devil are only a small subset of the devil-blues tradition, but they’re an important and unexplored subset. Broonzy’s “Hell Ain’t But a Mile-and-a-Quarter” is another song in this vein, as is Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “The Devil Jumped the Black Man.” The Jim Crow South was a highly pressured environment—a kind of hell, many claimed—in which black men couldn’t speak their minds without being beaten or killed. In order to tell certain truths, you needed plausible deniability: the ability to say, in effect, “Hey boss, I wasn’t singing about you. I was singing about that dirty, nasty, evil old devil that we both hate.” The environment placed a premium on skillful signifying: the ability to say several things at the same time, with subversive meanings hidden from the powers-that-be but audible to those in the know. The devil is the world’s greatest shape-shifter; he’s cunning, crafty, omnipresent. The black southern blues tradition sees him everywhere and puts him to work in a surprisingly wide range of ways.
GM: Such as?
AG: Well, other than the man or woman who has mistreated the blues singer, he’s arguably the most important figure in black romantic relationships as imaged in the blues. Blues song, according to Angela Y. Davis, is preoccupied with travel and sexuality because those were ways in which African Americans lived their freedom on a post-Emancipation landscape that differed radically from the world in which their enslaved parents and grandparents lived and labored. Freedom meant that no matter how poor you were, no matter how stigmatized and oppressed, you were still free, more or less, to get together with anybody on your side of the tracks who showed an interest in you—or head out of town to try your luck elsewhere, or both. But how does that freedom play out? It plays out as the thrill of the chase and heartbreak; erotic delight and sickening jealousy. And the devil is right there, in song after song, to take the blame when fallible human beings do things that cut each other to the quick—and, when required, to enact revenge on those who misbehave. “[N]othing but the devil,” according to Skip James, changed his baby’s mind. “I’d rather be the devil,” he added, than to be that woman’s man. “The devil’s gonna get you,” fumed Bessie Smith at her own errant lover, “man, just as sure as you born.” “She got ways like the devil,” sang bluesmen whose feelings had been bruised by love, even as others consoled themselves, or bragged, by singing “I am the devil.” The devil is the blues’ go-to guy: an all-purpose explanatory mechanism and icon for African American blues singers and audiences trying to make sense of their confusing modern lives.
GM: So the devil of the blues tradition is usually a bad guy, but sometimes he’s your bad guy?
AG: Yes! Now you’re starting to understand. One thing that makes the devil of the blues so fascinating is that he shows up in so many guises. Sometimes he’s two different things at the same time, a quality that one commentator, Jon Michael Spencer, has termed his “synchronous duplicity.” He’s a trickster, in other words: a figure of constructive disorder, somebody who carries the disruptive but liberating energies associated with Esu, the Yoruban deity also known as Legba. Of course sometimes the blues-devil is just evil. And that, too, shouldn’t surprise us: the great majority of blues artists who sang of the devil were brought up in churched households. They knew the Bible, its epic language, its warnings about the devil’s snares. Blues is the devil’s music, in some cases, not because it celebrates fast living, but because it bemoans the wages of sin. In “Hell Bound Man,” Big Wheeler begins by saying “I’m a hellbound man and I don’t even care,” but then he starts talking like a preacher. “You hard headed mens and women, hear what I’m telling you…. “Don’t let Satan get you, or you will be hellbound too.” This side of the devil-blues tradition—the preacherly-warning side—gets ignored when people recycle clichés about the devil’s music.
GM: It sounds as though you’re trying to undercut, complicate, and revise a lot of what we think we know about the devil and the blues. So what else in your study will surprise me?
AG: Well, I was surprised when I discovered that the first blues recording about selling your soul to the devil wasn’t by Robert Johnson, wasn’t set at a Mississippi crossroads, and wasn’t even by a man. It’s Clara Smith’s “Done Sold My Soul to the Devil” (1924). It was recorded in New York City during a period when there was a lot of public anxiety about the way in which some black female migrants from the South were becoming prostitutes, breaking bad when the big city and its pimps sank its claws into them. By the same token, a broad cohort of young blacks and whites in the so-called Lost Generation were flouting Prohibition, drinking hard and making merry to the sounds of jazz, and the devil was a kind of bad-boy icon to them. Playfully celebrating the devil was a way of manifesting your “fast” urban modernity and thumbing your nose at stuffy, uptight, moralistic parents and ministers in the southern and Midwestern hinterlands that many had migrated from. I read the song in light of both contexts: it bemoans the singer’s thralldom to her pimp-devil, but it also celebrates her as a kind of shameless badwoman, a sort of Mae West figure who kicks ass.
GM: So how do the crossroads fit into all this? You’ve been living in Mississippi for the past 15 years; I’m sure you’ve visited a few. You gigged with the devil! Did you bargain away your soul?
AG: No, I never made that sort of deal. And no, Sterling Magee isn’t the devil, just a bluesman with a complaint against organized religion who used his moniker as a dramatic way of making that point. But about the crossroads: yes, there is certainly a body of African American folklore, with roots in both Europe and Africa, that references various sorts of pacts with the devil. I write not just about bluesman Tommy Johnson (no relation to Robert), who told his brother a vivid tale about selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, but about Cousin Leroy Rozier, a little-known blues singer whose recording “Crossroads” (1960) was released the year before folk and rock audiences were first exposed to Robert Johnson’s music on King of the Delta Blues Singers. Johnson, of course, never sang about selling his soul to the devil—although he did tell a couple of people that he’d done that. But they thought he was joking.
GM: You just said “Robert Johnson never sang about selling his soul to the devil.” That can’t be right. Didn’t he record “Me and the Devil Blues,” “Cross Road Blues,” and “Hell Hound on my Trail”?
AG: Yes, he recorded those songs. But they are all put-ons: complicated, ironic performances designed to tweak the humorless religiosity of Mississippi’s church-folk, accrue cool-points with his young modern audience, and—especially in the case of the latter two songs—draw in and seduce young women he hoped to bed. “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Hell Hound on My Trail,” for example, contain humorous spoken asides that make the put-on quite clear. In “Hell Hound,” he devotes the second verse to a reverie about making love with his “sweet little rider” for 48 straight hours on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Talk about sacrilege! He’s hardly quivering in his boots. But the irreverent Johnson I’m describing is completely of a piece with his young black peers in the Delta. Sociologists who indexed the attitudes of that generation, including John Dollard, Hortense Powdermaker, and Charles S. Johnson, all remarked on the same thing: young black southerners in the 1930s, and especially in the Mississippi Delta, looked on ministers as money-grubbing charlatans who should not be taken seriously, and they were incapable of being scared by the same old hellfire-and-brimstone preaching that kept their parents in line. Johnson was at the cutting edge of this widespread attitudinal shift. Johnson got his attitude, of course, from his teacher, Ike Zimmerman.
AG: Ike Zimmerman was an African American guitar player who lived in Beauregard, Mississippi, a town ten miles south of Johnson’s hometown, Hazlehurst. When Johnson fled from the Robinsonville, MS, juke joint where Son House mocked him for his incompetence in the fall of 1930, he didn’t sell his soul at the crossroads—or any crossroads. He traveled south and moved in with Ike, where he stayed for roughly a year, studying guitar with his new master. Ike was fond of practicing late at night in the cemetery across the road from his family’s house. According to his daughter, Ike was also fond of joking about how he’d been “playing for the ‘haints”—the evil spirits—when he was over there, at which point everybody would have a big laugh. I argue that the most important thing Johnson absorbed from Zimmerman, along with his guitar teachings, was this spooky-jokey attitude towards the supernatural—something entirely in line with his generation’s skepticism towards ministers, the devil, and the prospect of eternal damnation. He knew how to work the folklore, but he didn’t buy into it. Understand this point and you’ve got the skeleton key to Johnson’s life and art. The last thing in the world that Robert Johnson was is “devil-haunted.” But that’s how many have wrongly depicted him over the years, and it’s time for an update.
GM: So let me guess: “the crossroads” in Clarksdale, Mississippi—that big monument with the guitars on top—isn’t actually the crossroads where Johnson sold his soul to the devil?
AG: Um, no. Not even close. There is no “the” crossroads, of course—all reputable blues scholars agree on that—but it turns out that Clarksdale’s relationship with Johnson’s devil-mythology is particularly factitious. In an attempt to ferret out the truth, I interviewed a number of Clarksdalians, including Vic Barbieri, the retired public school shop teacher who actually designed and built the crossroads monument. A fascinating story was buried underneath all the boosterism. It turns out that the City of Clarksdale and the Mississippi State Department of Transportation came into conflict twice at that particular location: once in the early 1930s, when the new paved highways were put in, and again in the late 1990s when Clarksdale wanted to erect the monument. By burying myself in microfilmed newspaper accounts I was able to ascertain a key fact: there literally was no crossroads there during the two-year window (1930-1932) when Johnson was in the process of getting supernaturally good on guitar. It was just a muddy, half-finished mess of a T-junction that wasn’t actually completed and hooked up to Highways 61 and 49 until the summer of 1935. Later, in 1999, the second city/state conflict was resolved when Clarksdale’s city attorney drafted a law that invoked the devil’s connection with the city—twice, and favorably!—and managed to get it passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor. This may be the only time in American history when the devil has been explicitly summoned to help out a city in need. But the devil came through. Clarksdale is now the home of “the” crossroads, and they’ve cornered that important sector of the blues tourism market as a result.
Adam Gussow is associate professor of English and southern studies at the University of Mississippi and author of Mister Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues Memoir.