So you can’t possibly be a musical innovator without someone labeling your music the “devil’s music.” That’s just the law. There’s just an element of all society that assumes that change of all sorts is brought on by the Great Satan.
Of course with blues (and later jazz and rock ‘n’ roll and soul and hip-hop) there’s cause to be afraid. All of these forms of music lead to perhaps the most frightening thing a conservative churchgoer/parent can imagine: dancing! These are musics that encourage the rhythmic moving of bodies! And we all know what dancing leads to: PREMARITAL HAND HOLDING! Even worse than that, multi-racial pre-marital hand holding!
This relationship gets even more complicated when it comes to the blues in the Deep South. In the post-Reconstruction black community, no institution was more important, more central to social life, than the church. The church was the only institution that provided education and social welfare in the community. It was often the only book in southern households. And arguably the most religious people a slave might have come across were the abolitionists who ran through the south and helped the Underground Railroad. (While many planters were themselves religious, they were particularly interested in religion as a way to justify their own “peculiar institution of slavery.”)
That relationship between the minister and the congregation has produced so much of our greatest music. The south may not have produced great theologians, great thinkers about religion, but it has produced great religion. The minister preaches, but he also sings, he sometimes dances, and he engages the crowd. While the preacher and his congregation do not exist on an equal level- credit to the Quakers for giving us that innovation- they certainly interact more than the solemn services of the Catholic Church or most synagogues.
Here’s one example of a singing pastor, Reverend A.W. Nix, warning you to get off the Black Diamond Express Train to Hell.
You see, now if the express train to heaven is that much fun, I just might buy a ticket!
The bottom line is, the church and music were central parts of daily life! This would be impactful later, as the church and sacred songs became essential pieces of the Civil Rights Movement. “This Little Light of Mine” became Fannie Lou Hamer’s theme song for the movement. Yet ministers were late to the game, and cautious about signing onto such a change. For ministers gained their power by being, in the minds of whites, regulating forces in the black community. They kept the black community from rebelling, and often urged them to not worry themselves with social change but instead individual salvation. In the process they preserved peace, though as Dr. King noted, it was certainly not a just one. In the process, ministers themselves earned respect in both the black and white communities, and a very comfortable living. Religion in the south in the early 20th century was everything Nietzsche and Karl Marx warned about!
So with that in mind, many a blues singer grew up in the church. And many came to resent it and the power they represented. While few bluemen made political statements (remember this was still the day of the lynch mob), they could throw barbs at their own community. Check out Son House’s Preaching Blues and follow the lyrics here. That first verse should make some sense now.
As musicians like Charley Patton and Son House gained popularity, their very existence flouted the traditions of the south. They spoke about secular topics and dark topics, too, including sex, death, and depression. It was raw music. And their livelihood meant a way out of the brutal sharecropping existence. Successful blues musicians made more in one night what a sharecropper made in a week, and they had fun. They had sex, they partied all night, and hung out with the dregs of society. And they were popular with the very same crowds that would go to church that Sunday!
No one symbolized the darkness more than Robert Johnson, the man whose light eventually outshone all who came before him. While Son House and Charley Patton definitely made more money than Johnson while they were all alive, it was Johnson’s records that inspired Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and dozens of rock musicians who found this music in the 1960s. Yet these days, he’s more myth than man. So the story goes, Johnson was a terrible guitar player, one who mostly gained notoriety by following better players around and trying to impress them. Then he disappeared for a year, and when he came back, he was incredible!
We now know that he went back to his home in the Hill Country, located in central Mississippi. (I’m going to do a geography post soon to clarify these terms.) There, he learned from a guitar player who was never recorded name Ike Zinnerman. At the time, though, it seemed improbable, and so bluesmen like Willie Brown liked to say he sold his soul to the devil at the Crossroads.
This myth goes back to old hoodoo stories that trace their roots back to pre-slavery African religions. Some blues historians suspect the devil may not have even been the Christian devil.
Johnson never made the claim himself, but his music fit the times. More than any other musician, his music talked about Satan and hell, and suggested a doomed existence. For his own part, he was a notorious loner. When traveling with other musicians, he would often disappear without telling anyone where he was going. He kept no close friends, no private diary. And that voice, that lonely howl that was so tortured. And of course he drank and womanized with the best of them. For God’s sake, he had a song called “Me and the Devil Blues!”
Dude was twisted. And to top it all off, while Son House and Skip James lived to be rediscovered in the 1960s, we never found Robert Johnson. We didn’t even have a picture of him until the 1980s. He died at the age of 27, same age as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. So the story goes, he took an open drink at a bar after a show. Sonny Boy Williamson II, sitting next to him, took the bottle and smashed it, exclaiming, “Never drink from an open bottle!” Johnson allegedly responded, “Never take an open bottle out of my hand.” I imagine he then added… “Besides what could possibly go wrong?!”
Turns out the bottle had been poisoned by whom we don’t know. Could have been the owner of the bar, pissed that the singer was sleeping with his wife. Could have been a lover, pissed that Johnson was sleeping with other women. Either way, Johnson died three days later in a barn, because no hospital in the south would take him. He sweated out the poison, but contracted pneumonia, because death has a cruel sense of humor. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
These guys here, though, represent the raw beginnings of all modern music. They made the guitar the most possible instrument of the 20th century, and pulled the whole world away from the world of Mozart to the world of Elvis.
I’ll have more thoughts on the blues later, and some more photographs from my trip. But to close, I didn’t want you to think that the blues was just the “Devil’s Music.” This singer is not from the Delta but from Texas, and may be my favorite slide guitar player ever. Blind Willie Johnson was a street guitar player, and insisted on playing nothing but gospel music all his life. There were many blues gospel players in the south, and while they didn’t always live the good life, they certainly preached it. This song, “If I Had My Way”- a retelling of Samson and Delilah-later worked its way into the sets of the Grateful Dead and Robert Randolph and the Family Band.