Introduction
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1  Introduction The blues is like the devil . . . it comes on you like a spell 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 —Lonnie Johnson, “Devil’s Got the Blues” (1938) Broadening the Conversation This book offers a series of explorations into the role played by the devil figure within an evolving blues tradition. It is primarily a thematic study, one that pays particular attention to the lyrics of recorded blues songs; but it is also a cultural study, one that seeks to tell a story about blues-­ invested southern lives, black and white, by mining an extensive array of sources, including government documents, church archives, telephone directories, and personal interviews. Although aspiring to the comprehensiveness of a true survey, I have chosen to emphasize certain themes at the expense of others. The first four chapters of this study investigate, in sequence, the origins and import of the phrase “the devil’s music” within black southern communities; the devil as a toastmaster and pimp who both empowers and haunts migrant black blueswomen in the urban North of the Jazz Age; the devil as a symbol of Jim Crow and an icon for black southern bluesmen entrapped by that system; and the devil as a shape-­ shifting troublemaker within blues songs lamenting failed romantic relationships. The fifth and final chapter is an extended, three-­ part meditation on the myth-­ encrusted figure of Robert Johnson. It offers, in turn, a new interpretation of his life and musical artistry under the sign of his mentor, Ike Zimmerman; a reading of Walter Hill’s Crossroads (1986) that aligns the film with the racial anxieties of modern blues culture; and a narrative history detailing the way the townspeople of Clarksdale, Mississippi, transformed a pair of unimportant side streets into “the crossroads” over a sixty-­ year period, rebranding their town as the devil’s territory and Johnson’s chosen haunt, a mecca for blues tourism in the contemporary Delta. 2 Introduction One of my chief desires, as this list suggests, is to broaden the conversation about the devil and the blues, rescuing it from the pronounced narrowing that has taken place in recent decades. As an Internet search of the words “devil blues” makes clear, crossroads legendry—Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at midnight at an imagined Mississippi Delta intersection —has come to dominate both popular understandings and more substantial studies, the latter of which generally critique the former. This impoverishment of our idea-­set about the devil and the blues has occurred for several reasons, and not just because Johnson’s legend-­propagators and revisionists have run the table. One reason is simply the loss of cultural memory incurred by the passage of time. With the arguable exception of Jon Michael Spencer’s pioneering study Blues and Evil (1993), the full extent of the blues lyric tradition devoted to songs that name, petition, identify with, celebrate, and denigrate the devil and his hellish home is unknown to even the most dedicated aficionados and academics. Although the devil was a figure of considerable interest to African American blues singers, songwriters, and audiences between the 1920s and the 1960s, that period has passed, as have many of the specific social concerns that made the devil such an adaptable and effective lyric instrument for saying what needed to be said. This study, which began with the author’s attempt to compile a comprehensive list of blues recordings invoking the devil and hell, recuperates both the lyric archive—roughly 125 recordings between 1924 and 1999—and the concerns that animated it.1 A second reason for the narrowness of contemporary understandings of the devil-­ blues tradition is the progressive whitening of the blues audience since the folk revival of the early 1960s, so that baby boomers and their desire to establish a workable genealogy for blues-­ rock have come to predominate . The elevation of Johnson and his mythology, mediated through a handful of his recordings and the awed testimony of Eric Clapton and other aging stars, has been vital to this process.2 In 1986, shortly after Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “early influence,” the first known photo of him was published in Rolling Stone magazine; that same year, Johnson’s fictive transaction with the devil, revisited by his surviving black partner, Willie Brown (Joe Seneca), and Brown...


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