[Note: In previous posts [here and here], we have looked at the origins of the Blues in the Mississippi Delta and seen that life for Delta blacks involved hard physical labor, rigid segregation, and shocking violence. Among the few places African Americans could find some consolation were the church, where gospel music held sway, and the juke joint, home of the Blues.
There has been a debate, both at the time and since, about whether or not the Blues was the “Devil’s music,” or whether at least some of the songs had theological meaning, when understood in the context of the performer’s life and career. This will be the theme of this post and the next.]
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According to historian Ted Gioia, Delta Blues singers had a tendency to treat secular topics
with a fervor more typical of religious music. Sometimes the songs explicitly talked about fall and redemption, about the devil in hot pursuit, or anticipated some coming apocalypse in language more resonant of the Book of Revelation than the Book of Love. But even when the time-honored topics of romance or wanderlust figure in this music, they are regularly filtered through an anguished soul-searching. . . . . (Gioia, 6)
Paul Oliver, in Blues Fell This Morning, adds that
In its bare realism the blues is somewhat bereft of spiritual values. Lower-class Blacks often had to decide whether to accept with meekness the cross they had to bear in this world and to join the church with the promise of “Eternal Peace in the Promised Land” or whether to attempt to meet the present world on its own terms, come what may. The blues singer chose the latter course. (Oliver, 118)
Historian James Cobb remarks that Blues lyrics seemed “to offer a disturbing contradiction to the reassurances provided by the teachings of the church.” Blues performances “possessed a certain spiritual quality of their own and therefore threatened to usurp the communal, cathartic role that was otherwise the function of organized religious activity.” (Cobb, 285) “Little Son” Jackson, a Blues man turned gospel singer,
identified the “sinfulness” of the Blues in terms of the sense of autonomy and individual responsibility for one’s own fate that they projected: “If a man feel hurt within side and he sing a church song then he’s askin’ God for help. . . .If a man sing the blues it’s more or less out of himself. . . .He’s not askin’ no one for help. And he’s not really clingin’ to no-one. But he’s expressin’ how he feel. . . .You’re tryin’ to get your feelin’s over to the next person through the blues, and that’s what makes it a sin.” (Cobb, 286)
James Cobb also notes certain parallels between Blues man and preacher: “Like his clerical counterpart, the blues man was a key figure, symbolic of a communal culture. Moreover, like the preacher, the blues man entertained his audiences by expressing deeply felt, shared emotions in a manner that made him more than an entertainer.” Both Blues men and preachers enjoyed the “privileges of their office: more money, greater social prestige, finer clothes and an attractiveness to women not shared by the common man.” Thus, both preacher and Blues man might have felt pressured “to conform to widely held stereotypes. For the preacher this meant flamboyance, conviviality, and possibly an eye for women; for the bluesman it certainly meant an eye for women, but it demanded as well a reckless, rambling, hard-drinking lifestyle that made his music and his persona one and the same. . . .” (Cobb, 288)
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This brings us to one of the central puzzles of the Blues, the pressure placed on performers to abandon the Blues and return to the sacred music of their childhoods, or vice versa, sometimes more than once. Muddy Waters‘ mother criticized him for playing the Blues, while Howlin’ Wolf’s mother rejected him forever for the same “sin.” (Beaumont, 91) Big Bill Broonzy‘s parents believed that “the instruments and the music Bill and his friends played on them were sinful,” and Bill claimed that he “never brought his guitar into his parents’ home, out of respect for [his mother’s] wish that there be” no “sinful things done around the house.” (Riesman, 28, 120) “Jazz” Gillum’s uncle threatened to punish him if Jazz used his uncle’s organ to play Blues instead of church music. (Riesman, 79)
Charley Patton, who sang about the boll weevil, a local sheriff, and the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, among other secular topics, also preached successfully on a few occasions, and, although his conversions to ministry never lasted, “he recorded a favorite sermon drawn largely from the book of Revelation and allegedly repeated it in a frenzy on his deathbed.” Famed Blues harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson, born into a deeply religious, “sanctified” Pentecostal family, claimed to have been a minister at one time, but he soon abandoned the pulpit for a career in the Blues, and Vicksburg, Mississippi-born Blues man Willie Dixon claimed that he “was raised on blues and spirituals, but after you wake up to a lot of facts about life, you know, the spiritual thing starts to look kind of phony in places.” (Cobb, 286-288)
Blues man Robert Wilkins decided, following a homicide at a “house frolic” in Hernando, Mississippi, where he was performing, that “playing the blues was too dangerous,” so he joined the Church of God in Christ and turned from singing Blues to spirituals. (Beaumont, p.12) Ishmon Bracey and Rube Lacy actually became ministers; Skip James left the Blues to join his father’s ministry in Texas; and various Delta singers (e.g., Charley Patton, Bukka White, and B.B. King) “felt compelled at various junctures in their careers to record or perform sacred music.” Moreover, Robert Johnson’s “life seemed to be lived in purely secular terms, yet [his] music constantly returned to the most intense, soul-haunted themes, songs that have irrevocably shaped our image of him as a man at the crossroads between darkness and light.” (Gioia, 31)
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To see how this tension between religion and the Blues played out over a long career, consider Son House, who embodied both spiritual and secular influences. House’s father “experienced the same conflict between religion and secular music that his son would experience,” but, whereas he stopped playing the Blues, quit drinking, and became a deacon in his church, his son’s course was much less direct. Son House was a preacher who denounced the Blues at one point in his life, then a Blues singer who ridiculed ministers in a famous song, “Preachin’ the Blues.” As a young man, House’s life “revolved around the church, Sunday school, and prayer and revival meetings,” and he apparently had a religious conversion experience in an alfalfa field in the early 1920s. On a Saturday night in 1927, however, House had a conversion of another kind, “this time in response to a bottleneck guitar”:
Well, I stopped, because the people were all crowded around. This boy, Willie Wilson, had a thing on his finger like a small medicine bottle, and he was zinging it, you know. I said “Jesus, I like that!” And from there, I got the idea and said, ‘I believe I want to play one of them things. (Gioia, 80)
According to Blues historian Francis Davis,
House’s own songs suggest that he thought of the blues as wicked, and of his talent for them as grim fate. This is what gives his work its drenching intensity: the suspicion that he recognized the blues as both his only means of self-expression and a form of blasphemy. (Davis, 109)
And House’s biographer, Daniel Beaumont, tellingly adds that House’s “ambivalent attitude about religion would become for him a full blown conflict whose tension and violence would fuel his drinking–but also raise his musical performances to the level of powerful art.” (Beaumont, 69)
In November 1964, Son House himself explained to a Blues audience why he left the church:
I was brought up in church and I started preaching before I started [playing and singing the blues]. Well, I got in a little bad company one time and they said, ‘Aw, c’mon, take a little nip with us.’. . . So I took a little nip. . . . And that one little nip called for another big nip. . . . And I began to wonder, now how can I stand up in the pulpit and preach to them, tell them how to live, and quick as I dismiss the congregation and I see ain’t nobody looking and I’m doing the same thing. I says that’s not right. . . . I says, well, I got to do something, ’cause I can’t hold God in one hand and the Devil in the other one. . . . I got to turn one of ’em loose. So I got out of the pulpit. . . . (Charter, Blues Makers, I, 65).
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Some of these early bluesmen were so talented that rumors spread that they had made a deal with the Devil to acquire that ability. For example, Blues man Tommy Johnson commented in detail about the deal he allegedly made with the Devil at the crossroads, to learn how to play a Blues guitar:
If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where . . . the crossroad is. . . .Be sure to get there, just a little ‘fore twelve o’ clock that night. . . . You have your guitar and be playing a piece sitting there by yourself. . . . A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned how to play everything I want. (Quoted in Cobb, 288)
Blues historian Ted Gioia points out that the pull of religion in the Delta meant that, for most people in Tommy Johnson’s hometown of Crystals Springs, Mississippi (and, presumably, throughout the region),
the devil was not an abstraction or a metaphysical construct, and certainly not a myth, but a concrete force, malevolently active, leading people astray. A transaction of the sort described by Johnson would have horrified those who heard it. Perhaps a free thinker–and maybe Tommy Johnson was one–might relate this story glibly, but his audience would hardly take it in such a casual manner. Yet the shock value may have been the very reason why a number of blues musicians reveled in such an infernal connection. (Gioia, 115-116)
According to Blues man turned preacher Ishmon Bracey, the last time he saw Tommy Johnson, Johnson
told me to pray for him, and he want to stop [drinking] but look like he couldn’t. I told him he had to make up his mind and pray too. ‘Thank the Lord’ I told him, and he swear that he would. And he wants to be a preachin’ like I was, he say. . . . And it just hurt me so bad to see him that way. . . . And the next time I heard [about him] he was dead. That hurt me more. (Wardlow, 52. Tommy Johnson died on November 1, 1956.)
Clearly, though Tommy Johnson fought his demons, those demons won: consider two of his songs, “Cool Drink of Water Blues,” which has one of the best first lines I’ve ever come across and contains no hint of redemption for the hapless narrator; and “Canned Heat Blues,” which includes one of the most harrowing descriptions of addiction you’ll ever hear.
[End of Part I]
Beaumont, Daniel. Preachin’ The Blues: The Life & Times of Son House. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. [For more on this biography, go here.]
Charters, Samuel. The Blues Makers. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1991.
Cobb, James C. The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. A wonderful book that helps put the Blues–and those who sang and played them–into the broadest possible context.
Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues: The Roots, The Music, The People, From Charley Patton to Robert Cray. New York: Hyperion, 1995.
Gioia, Ted. Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. [For more on this book, go here.]
Oliver, Paul. Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Riesman, Robert. I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011. [For more on this volume, go here.]
Segrest, James, and Mark Hoffman, Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004. [For more on this biography, go here.]
Wardlow, Gayle Dean. Chasin’ That Devil Music: Searching for the Blues. San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books, 1998.
Son House, “Preachin’ The Blues, Parts I and II,” #7, Blues Masters, Volume 8: Mississippi Delta Blues. Rhino Records, R2 71130 (1993).
Johnson, Tommy. “Cool Drink of Water Blues,” Blues Masters, Volume 8: Mississippi Delta Blues. Rhino Records, R2 71130 (1993).
Johnson, Tommy. “Canned Heat Blues,” When The Sun Goes Down: The First Time I Met the Blues. Bluebird, 09026-63987-2 (2002).
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: