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Reviewed by:
  • Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition by Adam Gussow
  • Logan D. Browning
Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition. By Adam Gussow. New Directions in Southern Studies. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Pp. [xii], 404. Paper, $29.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-3366-4; cloth, $90.00, ISBN 978-1-4696-3365-7.)

Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition is a model work of scholarship: years of meticulous and extensive archival work are the foundation for this multidisciplinary study that carefully and respectfully applies research in cultural history, anthropology, psychology, popular culture, film studies, and more to the use of the devil figure and related imagery within the blues tradition. Adam Gussow moves adeptly from his primary data—hundreds of blues lyrics and many hours of interviews with their composers and performers—to quotations from religious studies scholars such as Anthony Pinn and popular music historians and critics such as Greil Marcus. Gussow is always respectful of those who have also taken up his subject, garnering a plethora of useful insights from their approaches, but he assails questionable logic and careless errors wherever he finds them. [End Page 486] Gussow unpacks the remarkably rich variety of devil allusions and representations in the blues with an extraordinary sensitivity to the subtle differences among his multitude of examples. He wants his readers to be clear about this complex, even complicated, tradition, as it relates to male and female, black and white, and he uses crystalline prose to describe what he has learned from his research. Yes, the devil was often the blues performer, sometimes presented as "signifying" the devil as an admirable figure and sometimes as willfully guilty of every imaginable sort of transgressive behavior (p. 4). But the devil was also the white plantation owner or businessman who deserved condemnation for his treatment of black women, and who deserved the devilish behavior of black people of both sexes resisting the power of the white devil. Gussow finds the roots of this complex representation in many places, ranging from African trickster gods to the Judeo-Christian scriptures and African American inflections of Christianity. The book achieves its greatest intensity and focus, however, in its fifth chapter, where Gussow tracks the development of the myth of Robert Johnson's pact with the devil at a crossroads in the vicinity of Clarksdale, Mississippi, and its relation to the commercial interests of those in that community, especially white people, who stood to profit from the successful marketing of versions of the myth. Gussow describes in great detail the making of the 1986 film Crossroads, "acknowledging its aesthetic weaknesses" while insisting on its importance "as a prophetic register of the way blues culture has developed in our time" (p. 231). In this chapter, Gussow most effectively shows how often patent untruths and misrepresentations made up important parts of the blues traditions connected to Johnson's story.

I have two minor complaints about this wonderful book about music. First, I would like some easy way to get performances of the music being discussed. A letter sent out by Gussow to potential reviewers of his book explains that a Spotify playlist is available so that readers can hear versions of some of the lyrics. But that is not the same as having a handy website linked to the book. Doubtless, securing the rights to reproduce many of these recordings would be difficult and probably prohibitively expensive, but it is still disappointing to spend so much time with words on the page without handy access to performances of the songs under discussion. I also wish there was much more commentary on the musical elements of the songs and tunes discussed. Gussow too seldom includes observations such as this remark about Bessie Smith's performance of "Black Mountain Blues" (1930): "Bessie reaches for a high D flat on the word 'devil,' the highest note she sings on the recording. That one word sums up her bluesy, vengeful, heart-sore condition" (p. 189). The addition of more such passages would have been welcome, coming as they would from someone who is himself a fine blues musician, especially when...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2325-6893
Print ISSN
0022-4642
Pages
pp. 486-487
Launched on MUSE
2019-05-17
Open Access
No
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