Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition

Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition

Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition

Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition

Synopsis

The devil is the most charismatic and important figure in the blues tradition. He's not just the music's namesake ("the devil's music"), but a shadowy presence who haunts an imagined Mississippi crossroads where, it is claimed, Delta bluesman Robert Johnson traded away his soul in exchange for extraordinary prowess on the guitar. Yet, as scholar and musician Adam Gussow argues, there is much more to the story of the devil and the blues than these cliched understandings.

In this groundbreaking study, Gussow takes the full measure of the devil's presence. Working from original transcriptions of more than 125 recordings released during the past ninety years, Gussow explores the varied uses to which black southern blues people have put this trouble-sowing, love-wrecking, but also empowering figure. The book culminates with a bold reinterpretation of Johnson's music and a provocative investigation of the way in which the citizens of Clarksdale, Mississippi, managed to rebrand a commercial hub as "the crossroads" in 1999, claiming Johnson and the devil as their own.

Excerpt

The blues is like the devil … it comes on you like a spell
The blues is like the devil … it comes on you like a spell
Blues will leave your heart full of trouble … and your
poor mind full of hell

—LONNIE johnson, “Devil’s Got the Blues” (1938)

Broadening the conversation

This book offers a series of explorations into the role played by the devil figure within an evolving blues tradition. It is primarily a thematic study, one that pays particular attention to the lyrics of recorded blues songs; but it is also a cultural study, one that seeks to tell a story about blues-invested southern lives, black and white, by mining an extensive array of sources, including government documents, church archives, telephone directories, and personal interviews. Although aspiring to the comprehensiveness of a true survey, I have chosen to emphasize certain themes at the expense of others. the first four chapters of this study investigate, in sequence, the origins and import of the phrase “the devil’s music” within black southern communities; the devil as a toastmaster and pimp who both empowers and haunts migrant black blueswomen in the urban North of the Jazz Age; the devil as a symbol of Jim Crow and an icon for black southern bluesmen entrapped by that system; and the devil as a shape-shifting troublemaker within blues songs lamenting failed romantic relationships. the fifth and final chapter is an extended, three-part meditation on the myth-encrusted figure of Robert Johnson. It offers, in turn, a new interpretation of his life and musical artistry under the sign of his mentor, Ike Zimmerman; a reading of Walter Hill’s Crossroads (1986) that aligns the film with the racial anxieties of modern blues culture; and a narrative history detailing the way the townspeople of Clarksdale, Mississippi, transformed a pair of unimportant side streets into “the crossroads” over a sixty-year period, rebranding their town as the devil’s territory and Johnson’s chosen haunt, a mecca for blues tourism in the contemporary Delta.

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