The Devil in Blues, Ragtime and Jazz
by Garin G. Webb
|Bibliography and References|
Part 2: The Blues
The popular appeal of the blues took hold in the 1910’s and 1920’s and was propelled largely by singers and technological innovations. Blacks and whites not only began to flock to performances of artists such as Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, and Bessie Smith, they also started to purchase their recordings.
W. C. Handy and other artists had been canonized with the invention of the phonograph cylinder in 1878. By the early years of the 1900’s, phonograph machines and their wax cylinders had dropped in price. No longer were they a luxury only for the affluent; middle-class Americans began installing these machines in their homes.
Aside from concert attendance, the popularity of blues also reveals itself through record sales. In 1920, Mamie Smith sold more than 100,000 copies of what is regarded as the first vocal blues recording. These sales were dwarfed three years later by Bessie Smith’s 1923 release of “Downhearted Blues,” which sold an estimated 800,000 copies. In spite of the success of these record sales, Smith would die penniless; the evils of white appropriation and exploitation of her music hastened her demise.
Blues and sacred music are joined at the hip. Most blues musicians grow up in the church where as children they learn to sing hymns and spirituals. One blues musician told me that if a singer wants to cross over from sacred music to the blues, he simply replaces “my God” with “my baby” and continues singing the same song.6
And yet the devil lurks in the heart of the blues genre. Tales of his presence fill stanzas of blues verse. Most popular among these tales is that of Robert Johnson going to the crossroads to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for unequaled abilities as a bluesman.
This legend was a potent tale told long before Johnson ever slung a guitar across his back. The “crossroads” myth can also be found in African, Cuban, and Brazilian lore. In African stories, a cross or crossroads is where the real world and the spirit world meet. This intersection is where “everything most important happens.”7 For the African this is where the “metaphysical goal is to experience this meeting of both worlds... touch the divine, and re-emerge whole.”8
Robert Johnson never sang of selling his soul to the devil, contrary to popular belief. His now famous “Crossroads Blues” sings of going to the crossroads, but for a very different reason: to ask for mercy. In the first verse he sings:
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above “Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please.”
In the second verse he continues:
Yeoo, standin’ at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride
Ooo eeee, I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by.9
Trying to “flag a ride” could represent the slang for “lover” or the “metaphor for divine possession.”10 As DeSalvo explains it: “in the voodoo ceremonies in which the spirit gods descend to ‘ride’ members of the congregation.”11 In the fifth verse we finally find out he is, indeed, lamenting the fact that he has no woman.
And I went to the crossroad, mama, I looked east and west
I went to the crossroad, baby, I looked east and west
Lord, I didn’t have no sweet woman, ooh well, babe, in my distress
Johnson was, like most blues musicians, a Christian by upbringing. He begs for mercy from the Lord while on bended knee. However, the blending of the sinister legends of the crossroads with that of the profane — looking for a love — was at the core of the disdain some in the church had for the blues. Further dislike of the genre was due to the ties with this African legend.
Play “Crossroads Blues”
Prior to the commercial success of the 1920’s and a later popular revival in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the purveyors of the blues were mostly itinerant musicians who accompanied themselves on the guitar. The legend of the blues traveler walking from town to town with the guitar slung over his back is altogether not too far-fetched. Many blues musicians lived a nomadic life, selling their musical tales to night clubs, saloons, and private parties.
Robert Johnson’s mother lamented her son’s nomadic lifestyle: “Pretty soon he begun to leave home for a week at a time, but he always brought me some present back. Then he took to goin’ off for a month at a time. Then he just stayed gone.”12
Because the blues musician played alone, he often traveled alone, which played into the free-spirit mystique of the solitary Afro-American troubadour. Like a stray rabid dog marauding through town, the blues musician was watched with the same wary eye of the pious. Blues musicians, after all, brought a repertoire of songs that included tales of heartbreak, sex, retribution, and songs about the devil.
Opposition to the blues stemmed from the growing authority of the black church that grew out of the ashes of Reconstruction and the oppression of Jim Crow laws in its aftermath.
In African-American society, blues musicians were seen as outsiders to the church. They sang not of things holy and devotional but of hard times, the seeking of redemption, vice, and, at times, raunchy topics. Folklorist John Szwed describes the dual state of the church and that of the secular blues musician where “blues performers don’t sing with their audience. They sing solo, which implies authority” and “although the audience or the guitar may comment supportively, there is no song space for group participation.”13
Blues musicians were seen as challenging the communal setting of the church, which, for most communities, was the center of moral authority. Because “church music is directed collectively to God; blues are directed individually to the collective.”14 For the preacher, the nature of the blues performance was too much like another minister preaching to his congregation.
Blues directed its energies to an audience that was seeking relief, in part, from the pressure from church stricture. Like the absolution churchgoers may get from attending church, the blues performance could be viewed as the secular version of the church service or camp revival meeting. Listening, singing, playing, or even dancing to the blues was a way of emancipating oneself from the blues. As Branford Marsalis put it:
The blues are about freedom. There’s liberation in reality. When they talk about these songs; about being sad, the fact that you recognize that which pains you is a very freeing and liberating experience... When I hear the blues, the blues makes me smile.15
For many, it was similar to the priest’s confessional or the psychiatrist’s couch.
Robert Johnson was preceded by his reputation as a wife-stealer and love broker. He was well known for his amorous exploits, and it is speculated that his success with women was what did him in. One of Johnson’s contemporaries, blues musician Son House, recollects Johnson’s sexual proclivities: “Bob was a terrible man with the women, like all us guitar players. And I reckon he got him one too many down there in Lou’siana. So this last one, she gin him poison in his coffee. And he died. Wasn’t but twenty-one.”
It is easy to fathom the discomfort of the sweat building under the collar of the preacher as, undoubtedly, some of his flock would seek out the cathartic songs or even the physical comfort of the bluesman. To the preacher, the bluesman represented a Mephistophelean character that seduces the revenge-seeking spouse or the naive young woman. He directly challenges the minister’s office by easing the burden of the down-and-out with comfort from a seedy secular counselor.
Blues musicians were rebuked not just by ministers of the church but by their own families as well. Cincinnati’s H. Bomb Ferguson claims that “whenever he would catch me playin’ the piano, playin’ the boogie-woogie, he hit me across my hand with a stick. Told me, ‘That’s bad,’ you know, ‘that’s the devil’.”
Harmonica player Snooky Prior, the son of a minister, goes one up on Ferguson by describing the possibility of his father killing him for playing blues. In this instance he is talking about sneaking out of the house to attend a party ten miles away:
“[A]t that time I wasn’t allowed to go out there, and that’s when James Scott used to steal me out of the house, and then had to get back in there before everybody woke up and got up. If I didn’t I’d be on the killin’ floor!... [Y]ou couldn’t miss getting’ back in. No. If one of us had got caught, you wouldn’t he able to be interviewin’ me today. No, there wouldn’t have been no Snooky. ‘Cause my old man would have killed me. I know he would have. ‘Cause he hated that kind of music anyway, you know what I mean... . He told me that was devil music.” 16
Copyright © 2013 by Garin G. Webb