[NOTE: Thus far, we’ve looked at the birth of the Blues in the Mississippi Delta and reviewed in rather broad terms the charge that, for many African Americans, the Blues was the “Devil’s Music.” In this post, we’ll look at several Blues men and examine the degree to which, in the contexts of their lives, certain of their songs reflect satanic or Christian themes.]
* * * * *
Let’s begin by looking again at Blues man Tommy Johnson’s explanation for how he (or anyone) could learn to play 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 to go by yourself and be sitting there playing a piece. 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)
Guitarist Ike Zinnerman of Hazelhurst, Mississippi, had a similar story of being taught how to play guitar in a cemetery at midnight. (Wardlow, 197) While these accounts might strike us as incredible, it’s important to remember that Delta Blacks were generally very poorly educated and prone to superstition. As The Rev. Booker Miller from Greenwood, Mississippi, who had played Blues with Charley Patton in the 1920s and then become a Baptist minister, put it:
“Them old folks did believe the devil would get you for playin’ the blues and livin’ like that,” meaning the sins of adultery, fornication, gambling, lying, and drinking. He confirmed that the idea of “selling yourself to the devil” came from “those old slavery times.” (Wardlow, 197)
In his song, “Devil Got My Woman,” another Blues man, Lonnie Johnson, lamented,
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. (Cobb, 298)
Then there was William Bundy (AKA “Peetie Wheatstraw”), who “carried the association with the Devil to its most obviously orchestrated extreme,” advertising himself as “The Devil’s Son-in-Law” and “The High Sheriff from Hell.” (Cobb, 289) Yet, as Ted Gioia remarks in Delta Blues,
Just as satanic rockers would find their niche market a half century later, a group of early blues singers embraced the harshest attacks their critics leveled at them–deviltry, blasphemy, apostasy, call it what you will–and tried to turn them into marks, if not of distinction, at least of notoriety. (Gioia, 116)
Gioia’s description suggests that Blues performers like “Peetie Wheatstraw,” who flaunted their alleged associations with the Devil, were simply indulging in what we would today call “hype.”
* * * * *
Although neither Tommy Johnson nor Lonnie Johnson ever actually sang about his encounter with the Devil at the crossroads, Robert Johnson supposedly did, in his most famous song, “Cross Road Blues”, but the verdict on what exactly he meant in his purportedly satanic verses is decidedly mixed. For a time, the consensus was that Johnson himself had never actually spread the story that he had bartered his soul to Satan in exchange for unmatched guitar-playing skills. In recent years, however, as we have learned a bit more about Robert Johnson’s life and career, the view has shifted to the notion that, although the idea of the “devil’s bargain” is rooted in African religious beliefs, Johnson’s “Devil at the Crossroads” story was widely known in his brief lifetime and so was probably spread by Johnson himself.
The traits Robert Johnson demonstrated when he played included some that might have been considered demonic by Delta residents: he had a cataract in one eye, often played with his back turned to other musicians, and favored unusual guitar tunings. Perhaps such a story would protect Johnson (or other performers similarly inclined) from rough customers in juke joints. It is also possible that, as Robert Palmer contends, while Johnson might have been “fascinated with and probably obsessed by supernatural imagery, . . . some of his satanic references were simply macho posturing.” (Palmer, 127) Finally, it’s important to remember that, in the words of Francis Davis, “Johnson’s lyrics can’t be completely explained away, because the intensity with which he delivers them can give you an existential migraine.” (Davis, 130)
Listen to “Cross Road Blues,” and decide for yourself. While “Cross Road Blues” is Robert Johnson’s signature tune, it certainly was not the only one in which he played with satanic imagery–listen to “Hellhound on my Trail”, for example, or “Me and the Devil.”
* * * * *
Another Blues man known for songs referring to the Devil was Nehemiah “Skip” James, who without a doubt had one of the most distinctive voices in the Blues. Like a number of other Blues men, James went back and forth between the Blues and sacred music, but, unlike Son House, James had no sudden conversion experience. Rather, according to Ted Gioia,
The various life changes of Skip James all followed a consistent pattern, each new vocation drawing inspiration from his unwavering desire for a sense of independence and superiority, a craving for intensity of experience, and a commitment to self-expression . . . . (Gioia, 138)
James’ eventual religious conversion was evidently more a way to become “dry again” (i.e., stop drinking) than to be “born again,” yet he never really “found a means of self-expression in religious music that would approach the pathos and intensity of his blues.” (Ibid., 145-147)
Skip James dropped out of the Blues limelight in the early 1930s and rejoined his minister father for a number of years. Rediscovered during the Blues revival of the early 1960s, James had misgivings about playing the Blues again. In coming to terms with inoperable cancer near the end of his life, Skip James “sometimes wondered whether his affliction were somehow due to his blues playing,” and he promised that, “if the Lord favored him with a return to health, he would restrict his performances to religious songs.” And, despite the allegedly more enlightened, secular atmosphere of the 1960s, James was not alone among the old Blues players to be gripped with such anxiety–“similar concerns . . . prevented Ishmon Bracey, Robert Wilkins, and others from taking advantage of opportunities to resume their careers as blues singers during the decade.” (Gioia, 370) In order to get a sense of the sheer power of his Blues, listen to Skip James in two recordings from 1930, “Devil Got My Woman” and “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues.”
* * * * *
Last, but certainly not least, there is John Lee Hooker (c.1917-2001), who created a masterful expression of “Blues Theology,” in one of his earliest recorded songs, “Burning Hell” (1949). The lyrics are simple–deceptively so, as we’ll see when we place Hooker’s song in the context of his biography.
Hooker’s father, The Rev. William Hooker, was a loving parent, but, while allowing his son to keep a guitar, he would not let him bring it into the house. Hooker’s stepfather, Will Moore, on the other hand, was a musician himself and encouraged the young man’s musical aspirations. “Burning Hell” can be seen as the product of Hooker’s struggle between his love of the Blues, nurtured by his stepfather, Will Moore, and the tenets of religion he’d been taught by his father, The Rev. William Hooker. Or, as his biographer, Charles Murray, writes, “having visualized God in Rev. Hooker’s image, John remade him in Will Moore’s.” (Murray, 39) And it was this God, in the image of his stepfather Will Moore, that Hooker continued to believe in until the day he died. John Lee Hooker told his biographer half a century later, in a surprisingly complex probing of the theological concept of theodicy (i.e., if God is good, why is there evil in the world?), that
I’m a religious person, but I don’t believe in going to church. The way I look at it, your heaven is here, and your hell is here. . . . For a long time, my parents had me believin’ that there was a burnin’ hell and there was a heaven, but it has come to me . . ., as I grew older. . . that if there was a God, then he was an unjust God for burnin’ you forever an’ ever, stickin’ fire to you. If the God was a heavenly father, a good God, then he wouldn’t torture you and burn you. . . . But he tortures you, in a way, if you got nothin’ to eat and [are] hungry, don’t know where you gonna get your next meal, don’t know where you gonna sleep at, half sick, can’t work, driftin’ from door to door . . . that’s your hell. But you’re not bein’ tortured with fire. . . . No. So you not gonna fly outta there with wings in the sky like an angel, milk and honey, as I was taught, if you go to heaven. You not gonna do that. There’s nothin’ up there but sky. . . .
. . . . I believe in a Supreme Being, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t believe that there’s a hell that you’re gonna be tortured in. I believed in all of that, then I grew up and realized, and I wrote the song: ‘Ain’t no heaven, ain’t no burnin’ hell/where you go when you die, nobody can tell.’ Nobody knows. . . . I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’m wrong.” (Murray, pp. 37-38)
. . . . “As years go by, I learned more and more about the world. The world growed, and I growed with the world. . . . When I was in Mississippi, I was strictly in a spiritual world. . . . I was restricted to a lot of things I couldn’t do there, but when I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty, I filled up with all these things. I could do what I wanted.” (Ibid., 39. N.B.: Hooker fled the Delta for points North in 1933, when he was about sixteen.)
* * * * *
Any study of the theological dimensions of the blues can only scratch the surface. And, one needs to keep in mind that many of the folks in the Saturday night audiences at various Blues joints were also in the congregations on Sunday morning, singing gospel tunes at the top of their lungs! But, from my own experience listening to and studying the Blues over the last quarter of a century, I can testify that there is literally no end to the subject. This two-part post, in other words, is not an end, it’s a beginning. . . , or at least I hope it is.
Calt, Stephen. I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1994.
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.
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.
Gussow, Adam. Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
Murray, Charles Shaar. Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.
Wardlow, Gayle Dean. Chasin’ That Devil Music: Searching for the Blues. San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books, 1998.
Hooker, John Lee. Burning Hell. Riverside Records, OBCCD-555-2 (RLP-008) (1992).
James, Skip. The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James. Yazoo 2009 (1994).
Johnson, Robert. The Complete Recordings. Columbia C2K46222 (1990).
* * * * * *
For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: