2. Sold it to the Devil: The Great Migration, Lost Generations, and the Perils of the Urban Dance Hall
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74 2 Sold It to the Devil The Great Migration, Lost Generations, and the Perils of the Urban Dance Hall The road to hell is too often paved with jazz steps. —John R. McMahon, “Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!” (1921) Feeling Devilish This study is premised on the claim that the devil’s presence in the blues has, in our own day, become overidentified with crossroads mythology and a fictive Deep South soul-­selling location as a result of specific imaginative and financial investments in the figure of Robert Johnson. It may come as a surprise, then, when I suggest that the nation’s metropolitan center, New York City, played a key role in thrusting both the blues-­ devil and the trope of soul-­ selling into the national imagination, and more than a decade before Johnson cut his first sides. Migrant southerners, black and white, helped drive this process, with black female blues singers taking the lead. The morals of newly urbanized youth were at stake—irreverent young moderns who paved the way for their peers in Mississippi, including Johnson. In 1923, an Indiana-­ born, Texas-­ and-­ Virginia-­ schooled preacher named John Roach Straton set up a radio station in the basement of Calvary Baptist Church in midtown Manhattan with the express purpose of fighting the devil that had been loosed by a Prohibition-­ flouting, jazz-­ dancing, flapper-­ driven Lost Generation. “I hope that our radio system will prove so efficient,” he thundered, “that when I twist the Devil’s tail in New York, his squawk will be heard across the continent. . . . The people will not get any doubts or negations or question marks from the Calvary pulpit. . . . I shall try to continue to do my part, as the Bible expresses it, in tearing down the strongholds of Satan.”1 The following year, a migrant blues singer from Spartanburg, South Carolina, named Clara Smith entered the studios of Columbia Records, only a mile from Straton’s pulpit, and threw down the gauntlet in symbolic terms, recording the very first devil-­ themed blues, “Done Sold My Soul to the Devil” (1924).2 The song spoke to the condition of migrant black women in the urban environment—some of whom had The Great Migration and the Urban Dance Hall 75 “fallen” and become prostitutes, others of whom were merely rejoicing in the freedom of after-­ work dance hall life, still others of whom (especially in Holiness and Pentecostal congregations) had become more religious when confronted with urban disarray and might well have heard the song as a scandalous but instructive example of the wages of sin. But the song resonated more broadly, enabled a wider range of identifications, than this invocation of a black female public suggests. And dance, not just song, was a pivotal issue. Kathy Ogren has argued that jazz in the 1920s became “the specific symbol of rebellion” for a disillusioned younger generation, and the devil—as a trickster, a good-­ timer, an instigator of nighttime revels—haunts that generation ’s soundtrack, especially at the moment when white feet (and black and white feet intertwined in a black-­ and-­ tan bohemia) find themselves propelled by “hot” black rhythm and the urgings of black voices.3 Smith’s inaugural devil-­blues becomes legible when framed within this larger tradition , a “discourse of disbelief,” in Ann Douglas’s words, that “became the only thoroughly accredited modern mode” for a Lost Generation striving to throw off Victorian repression.4 The devil, along with his temptations and his unholy congregants, waltzes through “Devil Dance Blues” (1925), “Hellish Rag” (1927), “I’m Feelin’ Devilish” (1930), “There’s Going to Be the Devil to Pay” (1935), and “The Devil with the Devil” (1939), and . Blues and jazz were deeply intertwined during the 1920s—not just with each other, but as emergent forms subsumed within then-­ dominant pop styles. Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Lizzie Miles, and other soon-­ to-­be-­recorded blues stars toured the Mississippi Delta during the 1910s with black minstrel troupes and tent shows; billed as “Southern coon shouters” and “up-­ to-­ date coon shouters,” they were far more likely to be backed by minstrel bands or jazz combos than barrelhouse pianists or rough-­ edged blues guitarists such as Charley Patton.5 It is impossible to disentangle North and South, urban and rural, male and female, black and white, when constructing an accurate genealogy of the devil figure in the blues. He—or she—is an overdetermined presence haunting both the blues lyric tradition...


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