Friday, February 17, 2006
Show 13 - Dealing with the Devil
The legend of selling a soul to the devil in exchange for musical prowess has been associated with many genres of music for centuries. But it’s stuck more firmly to the blues than to any other music. However, the truth is that when blues singers talked about the devil they were more likely referring to a mistreating woman or boss than to the Price of Darkness Skip James recorded “Devil Got My Woman” in 1931. He had an amazing voice where he certainly sounds haunted by something from hell. But he was more troubled by his woman than anything supernatural.
Washboard Sam recorded another song associating his woman with the devil in 1941, “She Belongs to the Devil.”
Most non-religious types of music (and many activities) were dubbed the work of the devil church folk, the blues may earned the lasting sobriquet the Devil’s Music because some blues musicians embraced the image. One major blues star of the 1930s took it so far as to use it as a successful marketing tool. He called himself the High Sheriff from Hell or the Devil’s Son-In-Law and became one of the most popular and imitated musicians of his time. Peetie Wheatstraw probably gained many fans looking for a form of slight rebellion, because he presented a somewhat subversive alternative to the activities deemed acceptable by the church without being truly threatening.
Peetie Wheatstraw worked hard to establish that link to the devil and it would have been understood as all in fun by his audience. It’s a different story with Tommy Johnson who is also closely linked with the devil. In his case, the story that he sold his soul to the devil came years after his life had ended. His brother LeDell, a minister, told the classic tale of Tommy going to the crossroads to meet the devil and coming away with the ability to play any song he wanted. Though references to the devil are absent from Tommy Johnson’s music, this story has become an important part of the mythology of the blues. It must be remembered that it came from a man devoted to the church who considered a life outside of the church, a devil’s life. Big Road Blues was one of his popular songs that many of his followers would play later.
The lyrics in Lonnie Johnson’s “Devil’s Got the Blues” may get at the place of the devil in the blues more accurately than anyone else. Lonnie Johnson sings “the blues is like the devil it comes on you like a spell, it will leave your heart full of trouble and your poor mind full of hell.” The blues and the devil are both represent what’s wrong in the world, so it’s not surprising that the two would intersect quite often. The devil is most often used to represent the trouble, rather than a promise to sacrifice a soul as often referenced in the Robert Johnson legend (that also applied to Tommy Johnson and others). But Robert Johnson was just another man in this same tradition who was heavily influenced by some of the musicians I’ve played. He should be remembered for his music and the tradition he came, not as an exception that got his music through supernatural means.
See the David Evans biography of Tommy Johnson for Ledell Johnson’s tale of how Tommy went to the crossroads. Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta concludes with a discussion about the devil legend. Wald is dismissive of associations of the supernatural with the blues.
Devil Got My Woman - Skip James
She Belongs to the Devil - Washboard Sam
Devil's Son-In-Law - Peetie Wheatstraw
Peetie Wheatstraw Stomp - Peetie Wheatstraw
Big Road Blues - Tommy Johnson
Dealing with the Devil - Brownie McGhee
Devil's Got the Blues - Lonnie Johnson