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17 1 Heaven & Hell Parties Southern Religion and the Devil’s Music My daddy, he was a preacher . . . my mother, she was sanctified You know my daddy, he was a preacher . . . and my mother, she was sanctified Well now you know I must’ve been born the devil . . . because I didn’t want to be baptized —Little Son Jackson, “Evil Blues” (1949) Primal Scenes, Preachers’ Blues Any researcher seeking to understand the role played by the devil in the history and mythology of the blues stumbles repeatedly upon two primal scenes. Both are set in the harsh pastoral of a premodern Mississippi Delta, and both involve young black men determined to realize their destinies as creative artists. The first primal scene has become, arguably, the most visible contemporary manifestation of Southern Gothic: Robert Johnson at the crossroads, selling his soul to the devil—often figured as a larger, older black man—in exchange for supernatural skill on the guitar. The second primal scene, the obverse of the first, also involves a negotiation with larger, older figures who enact retribution on the mortal body of the bluesman-­ in-­ training. The figures in this second case are parents, grandparents, “old folks,” who threaten and sometimes whip the disobedient son for daring to manifest an interest in “the devil’s music.” If the first primal scene, recapitulated in novels, films, documentaries, the visual arts, touristic literature, and countless reviews of The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson (1990), has become a staple of American pop culture, then the second primal scene has become a staple of the blues interview—“the bluesman’s story,” to invoke the subtitle of Barry Lee Pearson ’s trenchant study “Sounds So Good to Me.” Pearson wisely cautions us that blues performers, evolving their life narratives through repeated contact with credulous journalists and audiences, may heighten the fam- 18 Southern Religion and the Devil’s Music ily conflict in their retellings as a way of subtly aggrandizing themselves, shaping their self-­ representations as determined freethinkers.1 One recurring element of the bluesman’s story, an outgrowth of this second primal scene, is an insistence that the blues is not the devil’s music, regardless of what disapproving parents, ministers, and “church people” may say. Born in 1909 in the Delta town of Shelby, Mississippi, Henry Townsend offers a representative defense of his craft: When you use the term “blues,” [a lot of people] say that’s the devil’s music. Well, it’s just as good as gospel. The only difference is the gospel people singing about biblical days and what they done, but I’m not at biblical times. I’m of this age as of now. They can certainly discard the idea that blues will send you anyplace different from gospel, because as long as it’s the truth, one truth is no greater than the other. So I just stick to the truth, and if you can condemn the truth, then I haven’t got a chance, because that’s all I’m telling. And the “devil’s music”—I don’t think the devil cares much for the truth.2 The “anyplace” referenced by Townsend—the pit into which blues-­playing will surely send you—is of course hell, the final destination of all sinners. Rejecting this charge, Townsend depicts himself as a truthteller who is also, and crucially, a modernist. Although gospel music was itself a new and controversial art form in the 1920s and 1930s, one that provoked considerable dissension when it was introduced into mainline black churches in the urban North, Townsend represents it (and, by implication, the spirituals and other church music) as yesterday’s news, a recapitulation of “biblical days.” The blues, by contrast, locates itself squarely in “this age” and inoculates itself against the devil’s-­ music charge, in Townsend’s eyes, precisely to the extent that it tells the truth about its contemporary moment and milieu. For those who inveighed against the “devil’s music,” however, a chief provocation was the truth, the contemporary social evidence, as they saw it: the worldly, “sinful” behaviors and attitudes exhibited by the young folk who produced and consumed the blues. Blues culture in Townsend’s youth was marked by, if not defined by, violence, promiscuity, profanity, and alcoholism—this during Prohibition, when the presence of alcohol meant that the law was being broken as well.3 Blues culture was a dynamic, disputatious, disreputable subculture. It excited young people, especially those in the restless...


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