Beyond the Crossroads

The Devils and the Blues Tradition

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Adam Gussow
New Directions in Southern Studies
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , October
     2017.
     416 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781469633664.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

If, according to the apocryphal saying, writing about music is analogous to dancing about architecture, an immense challenge faces Adam Gussow in his exploration of American blues music. Luckily for Gussow, Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition is not, strictly speaking, about the blues (perhaps to the disappointment of musicologists). It is also not about the devil (perhaps to the disappointment of religious scholars). Rather, the blues and the devil serve in this study as helpful and fascinating lenses through which to examine the cultural complexities of race, religion, and economics in America.

To be fair, blues performers do take center stage at numerous points throughout the book, especially in the first half. Aficionados of the blues will be richly rewarded, although it should be noted that one would do well to read this text while listening to the recordings that Gussow so ably discusses. As an engaging storyteller, Gussow brings to life the lives and music of Clara Smith, Fats Waller, Peetie Wheatstraw, John Lee Hooker, and many more. For those who are not fans of the blues tradition, Gussow explores other musical genres, from spirituals to jazz to rock to rap. And for those who do not care for music at all, Gussow moves easily into the areas of dance, minstrelsy, folk tales, essays, and sermons.

The figure that pops up repeatedly in these various texts is, of course, the devil, the “shapeshifter extraordinaire” (10). Through an exploration of the role of the devil in the blues, Gussow highlights the multiple iterations of the devil, including the blending of various European and African versions of the devil figure. The focus is less on an understanding of the devil as a syncretic construct but on the ways in which the devil is utilized by both proponents and critics of the “devil’s music.” The devil, in Gussow’s analysis, serves as “an extraordinary useful icon” (8). He is conjured up by blues musicians as a highly versatile signifier but one that is difficult to pin down, as one who “wears many hats; sometimes…more than one hat within a given song” (179). Critics of the blues, especially those within the black church, also utilized the devil in fascinating ways during the Jim Crow era, resulting in something of a call-and-response performance between blues musician and preacher.

When Gussow finally comes to an in-depth examination of blues singer-songwriter Robert Johnson, he begins almost apologetically. Those who know little about American blues music have at least heard the legend of Johnson meeting the devil at the fictional crossroads where he sold his soul in exchange for superhuman guitar-playing ability. Gussow’s reluctance might seem odd, until one remembers that Gussow’s task is to take us beyond the crossroads, to expand the narrowness of vision that surrounds the blues—a vision that has been almost completely dominated by Johnson. Gussow’s goal is to provide a more nuanced reading of the devil and the blues—something beyond the reductive Faustian deal-with-the-devil experience in the Mississippi Delta. Despite this reluctance, Gussow launches in on a corrective interpretation about Johnson’s “soul selling” that brings us back to the realities of the Mississippi Delta of the 1930s.

Gussow’s recurring task is to combat the myopic vision of the blues, the devil, and the African-American experience. Demystify, fact check, and contextualize—all with the purpose of expanding our understanding of the lives of not only blues performers but also, by extension, African Americans living in post-Emancipation America, the Jim Crow era, and beyond. The heart of this interpretive strategy is Gussow’s contextualized close reading of seminal blues lyrics, which are often ignored or receive a simplistic reading due to our fascination with blues instrumentation.

As an impressive interdisciplinary study, Beyond the Crossroads will certainly be appealing to individuals working in various academic fields. For those in religious studies, the book will be of interest for its exploration of the use of the devil in the blues tradition. More broadly for these scholars, though, the book highlights and problematizes the secular-sacred tension (with special attention to the celebration and condemnation of the blues as the devil’s music) that runs throughout American culture. In literary studies, this text should be required reading for those teaching and writing about twentieth-century African-American literature. Application can be easily made to the works of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, August Wilson, and Toni Morrison.

While Gussow devotes perhaps too much space in the second half of the book to an analysis of the 1986 movie Crossroads and to the efforts of Clarksdale, Mississippi to claim and capitalize on the legend of Robert Johnson, he uses both to highlight recent developments in the story of the blues, namely the mythologizing performed by white, baby boomers in recent decades. On the surface, these two artifacts—a cinematic failure and a kitschy (and historically inaccurate) crossroads tourist campaign—seem unimportant. Gussow, however, is able to imbue them with cultural significance.

The romanticism that surrounds the blues—epitomized by the obsession with the Robert Johnson-devil pact—often obscures the significant and complicated truth. But Gussow is also quick to criticize those who simply dismiss the legends. Beyond the Crossroads thus serves as a helpful corrective as Gussow calls to task not only the romantic who conceals the truth but also the cynic who fails to take the work of mythmaking seriously. The story of the devil and the blues highlights essential components of the American experience, but only if, according to Gussow, we move beyond the misleading and simplistic mythology to discover the richer reality underneath.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Dick is Professor of English at Tabor College.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Adam Gussow is associate professor of English and southern studies at the University of Mississippi and author of Mister Satan's Apprentice: A Blues Memoir.

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