Bluesy outsider chaotic spider trip

This morning on my walk I was pondering the question of why, when I was going through my first heartbreak back in my early 20s, I burrowed so deep into blues music to the almost complete exclusion of country western. Unlike most of my contemporaries I didn’t grow up listening to rock; my parents were into classical and a bit of folk (The Weavers, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives), and my older brother played old-time banjo. So the first time I heard Delta blues guitar, I didn’t think “Wow, that sounds just like the Rolling Stones!” but “Wow, that sounds just like a clawhammer tune in a modal key!” Which, as I discovered years later when a friend lent me a Smithsonian Folkways compilation of very early recordings of Black string bands, is pretty much how that music evolved.

So that’s why I was prepared to like the country blues, but doesn’t explain why I ignored country western. Too schmaltzy, I always said, but that wasn’t fair to many country singers who avoid the schmaltz. Really, I think it was just that I preferred the more stoic and tough-minded approach to the expression of emotion in blues lyrics compared to the typical display of emotional vulnerability in country music.

And that too reflects how I was raised: in a loving but somewhat emotionally repressed family where it was exceedingly uncommon for anyone to ever talk about their feelings.

Also, virtually every traditional bluesman or woman I’ve ever read an interview with, when asked to define the blues, included in their answer the contention that blues is medicine. I can personally vouch for that. For a young person, at any rate, it was a mighty salve. In part I’m sure that was because so much of how we relate to each other, sexually and otherwise, has been fundamentally shaped by Black culture, with blues and rock lyrics as a major conduit. Blues and jazz changed the entire tenor of our civilization, made us freer and I believe also happier. Or at least a lot less sad.

These days though I don’t listen to much blues, and I’m not sure why. Music isn’t the all-powerful drug it was in my 20s and 30s. I’ve spent too many years listening to “the music of what happens.” John Cage was on to something. There’s music pretty much everywhere if you choose to hear it that way. I doubt it has the healing power of the blues in and of itself, but the physical effort required to go outside and explore such music will keep you on your feet long after most other concert-goers have checked out.


I love the fact that one of the most important American poets for actually understanding America was half Japanese: Ai. Another had an English father and a Puerto Rican mother: William Carlos Williams. Maybe you have to be half outside, half inside to see a thing for what it is.


I’m watching a small, black wasp flying from leaf to leaf and walking in circles with her antennae down, a female ninja seeking her target: a caterpillar of just the right species to act as unwilling nursery and food source for her progeny.

There’s not much to say about this that hasn’t already been said, by Darwin among others appalled by this apparent refutation of any notion of a just or benign cosmic order: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars,” Darwin wrote in a letter to Asa Gray.

For me it’s horrifying—but also mentally liberating, because I find the idea of a benign cosmic order deeply oppressive. We are not all inside anything, or at least nothing we’ll ever be able to fully comprehend. Order is just another name for chaos. And chaos, as the example of ichneumon wasps shows, can be a real bitch.

But I’m charmed to see there’s a serious attempt underway to get people to refer to the Ichneumonidae as Darwin wasps.


Walking through a Pennsylvania forest in August is a great incentive to cultivate mindfulness: one moment of inattention and you’re wiping another spiderweb off your face. I bow to the spiders; they are my true teachers. The deer flies circling my head will do for an offering.


The thing I admire about birding is the regular reminder to look up. The waking at 5 am and squinting at things through binoculars, not so much. But treetops are just kind of inherently trippy to stare into. I think it has something to do with the shortage of oxygen associated with craning one’s neck.

Live blues on YouTube: 50 more videos

Browse on YouTube

Late last night I finished compiling this second (and probably last) series of videos. If you haven’t watched the first one yet, I’d recommend doing that first, since it includes a higher proportion of big-name acts — though I have plenty of those in this one, too. Gems like the opening and closing videos are kind of hidden in plain sight on YouTube, since it’s often impossible to tell what’s a real film and what isn’t until you play it. (I think music fans tend to assume the music can speak for itself. At least I imagine that’s why they’re not too good about annotating their uploads.)

This one’s longer. The first playlist was a mere 3 1/2 hours long; this one clocks in at 4:17:47. That’s because I’ve included more multi-song videos, such as the first part of a concert by Mance Lipscomb, as well as a wonderful short documentary by blues scholar David Evans on the fife-and-drum tradition of Gravel Springs, Mississippi, complete with footage of Otha Turner cutting cane and making a cane flute. There are also more long guitar jams — though not nearly as many as I could’ve included if I were a more typical blues fan. (More about that below.)

I’ve included more younger performers, more Texas blues and more jazz-blues than in the first playlist. I’m obviously far from a blues purist, but remain conservative about including performers from outside the African-American community, favoring those who, like Doc Watson, made the music their own, rather than slavish imitators like Eric Clapton… but see Buddy Guy’s passionate speech about the importance of the “British invasion” (and the band Cream specifically) in #21. As collectors, promoters, appreciators, and (since the 1970s) audiences, white people on both sides of the Atlantic have been essential to the survival of the blues. It’s great to see a younger coterie of players, black and white, taking the blues in new directions. The next to last video, for example, is from a young Serbian guitarist, Ana Popovic, who clearly isn’t afraid to use the blues to address the intense ethnic tensions in her own country.

I discovered a couple of new-to-me artists in the process of putting this playlist together, for which I’m mainly indebted to John Hayes’ Any Woman’s Blues series of portraits of female blues guitarists at the excellent, multi-author music and poetry blog Robert Frost’s Banjo. I remain personally more interested in blues as a vocal art-form, but as I said on Facebook last night, there’s always something powerful about a woman with a guitar. I think my favorite discovery was Barbara Lynn, whose career exemplifies the familiar woman’s trajectory of taking a couple decades off to raise a family. But it also exemplifies something that I love about the blues: there’s always been a strong place for older performers. Like jazz, and unlike rock, blues is music for grownups.

And that leads to the last point I want to make today. Unlike most white guys in my generation, I didn’t come to blues from a classic rock background. I listened to a lot of folk music growing up, including my brother Steve’s clawhammer banjo, and more than anything I think it was that latter sound that prepared me to love the haunting, droning style of traditional Mississippi blues when a college roommate with a great record collection first exposed me to guys like Robert Johnson, Elmore James and Muddy Waters. I remain fondest of the country blues in general, because I think it’s more musically diverse and much more interesting lyrically than the more commercial stuff.

When I did get into rock music in my early 20s, I found myself gravitating toward genres where the role of the lead guitar solo was minimalized, and the emphasis was on killer riffs — mainly thrash metal and punk. So to balance what I said above about the importance of white fans in keeping blues alive, I think this may have also retarded its development quite a bit, because so many fans are in it for the electric guitar leads, and prefer blues that sounds like classic rock. Where are the great blues pianists and saxophonists these days? Playing jazz for Cassandra Wilson and Dee Dee Bridgewater, apparently.

I will say, however, that much as I share Buddy Guy’s oft-expressed impatience for contemporary blues fans’ adulation of Stevie Ray Vaughan, specifically, making this playlist reminded me that he did have a unique and soulful sound — especially compared to some of his contemporaries. I couldn’t leave him out. Ditto with Albert Collins and some of the other axemen and -women in the playlist. Perhaps it’s time to revisit my indifference to screaming guitar solos. But mostly, I’ve found that compiling these playlists has reminded me why I love the blues so much in the first place: its bittersweetness speaks to me. It makes we want to get up and get down, and the years drop away. Also, I still think I might be able to dance like Cab Calloway if I just concentrate a little harder…

Blues classics on YouTube: 50 live performances

I’ve been working on this off and on since last Friday: a YouTube playlist designed as a comprehensive introduction to the blues, restricted solely to live footage. Music on YouTube is of course dominated by uploads of songs accompanied by still images, so simply sorting through and identifying live videos was time-consuming in itself. Musically speaking, I’ve cast my net widely, including some songs by performers usually associated with other genres (old-time Appalachian music, gospel, R&B, Sahelian guitar, Mississippi fife-and-drum, etc.) and some pieces by performers usually classed as bluesmen which are not, strictly speaking, blues songs. I wanted to suggest something of the broader context from which the music emerged; I even included a snippet of a lecture (illustrated with music) by multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons from the African-American string band Carolina Chocolate Drops.

My focus has been on the “greats,” but I’ve also included some fairly obscure artists and a few younger folks as well. I tried to balance the playlist geographically and by gender, style, featured instrument, etc., but unavoidably there are still more guys with guitars playing in the Clarksdale/Chicago style than anything else. I’ve tried to squeeze in as many performers as possible, so very few singers appear more than once, and I didn’t stop till I got to 50 videos. Rather than trying to watch the above embed in one sitting, it might be a better idea to bookmark the page on YouTube and browse at your leisure.

Don’t wait too long, though, because videos are always being removed from YouTube for one reason or another. Just in the past week that I’ve been working on this, one of the videos I’d originally selected has already gone missing. It was a good one, too! It’s almost enough to give a guy the blues…

Woodrat Podcast 24: Mark Bonta on the geography of the Delta blues and the ivory-billed woodpecker

Mark Bonta with juke joint and swamp
Mark (left) in Po Monkey's, a local juke joint. Right: old-growth cypress swamp.

Part 2 of our conversation (here’s Part 1, if you missed it). Mark and I share an interest in the blues and in ivory-billed woodpeckers, and if I know a little more about the former, he knows way more about the latter. (Long-time readers may remember my Peckerwood Pilgrimage in 2005.)

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I’m spreading the second coat of varnish, moving the paintbrush to the beat of my old boombox and wondering if that might be just the magic needed to ensure a danceable floor. It already possesses a kind of visual music: a metronome in one direction, since all the floorboards are the same width, but at right angles to the grain, the very shallow grooves left by the floor sander every time I paused it, made visible by the varnish, form a more varied but still somewhat regular pattern: step step rest. Step step rest.

Strange stuff, polyurethane — paint without pigment, its presence detectable only by the gloss and extra depth it imparts to surfaces. Like some people’s idea of God, I suppose. And maybe because I just “got down on my bended knees” myself, my old cassette copy of the song Burning Hell, by John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat, seems like a perfect fit right now.

The appealing thing about the song is that the narrator’s skepticism is wholly focused on the afterlife; there’s no mention of God or devil, though one could certainly argue that their non-existence is implied:

Ain’t no heaven,
ain’t no burning hell.
When I die, where I go,
nobody can tell.

The song is culturally if not theologically Christian, borrowing imagery and a vocal delivery from the charismatic churches. The protagonist asks a deacon to pray for him, and also prays himself, all night long, in the spirit of “help Thou my unbelief.” But apparently it doesn’t do any good: there’s no epiphany, the prayer goes unanswered, and the song concludes as skeptically as it began.

The funny thing is that it doesn’t come off as despairing at all, but defiant and ultimately joyful. John Lee Hooker certainly didn’t invent the style of blues known as boogie, but his concept of it was fairly unique: verses of varying length, as much spontaneity as possible in verbal and musical lines, and an overall impression of songs as mere fragments of something essentially endless. Many of Hooker’s songs are more laid-back than “Burning Hell,” but all of them tap into the same, hypnotic groove, for lack of a better term.

I’ve loved that groove ever since I first heard it, which may be as much as thirty years ago, when my older brother first started playing clawhammer banjo. Though now associated with Appalachian string band music, it’s the old, African style of playing, featuring a bum-ditty beat with the thumb hammering out a drone note. Some sort of drone occurs in many, perhaps most, styles of traditional music the world over, especially those influenced by contact with Islam and the muezzin’s call to prayer — certainly the case with most musical traditions brought to the New World by West Africans. Even the explicit focus on drones in Indian classical music dates back only to the Mogul period, though its subsequent popularity on the subcontinent probably also reflects indigenous metaphysical concepts. According to an online paper on the subject, “the function of the drone or tonicizing ground in Indian classical music is rooted in the ancient Hindu philosophies: it is the physical manifestation of OM.”

So while “Burning Hell” celebrates spiritual homelessness, Hooker’s droning boogie guitar groove is anything but OMless.

Given the title of this blog, I’m sure you’d all be disappointed if I didn’t go on to point out that doubt is a very fruitful position. In fact, I do think about this sort of thing a lot, but have moved away from blogging about it because I don’t feel I have too many original insights on the subject. All I know is that for me, affiliation with some spiritual tradition or another is an on-going temptation I feel I must resist if I am ever to learn anything about reality, whatever that may consist of. As I’ve said before, one of my base assumptions is that if some doctrine or dogma makes me feel good, it can’t possibly be true. “Ain’t no heaven, ain’t no burning hell” has the appeal of a good mantra for me, teaching non-attachment to the self — something that most of the major religions also agree is a good thing, though perhaps only in the same way that Marxist-Leninism preaches the ultimate disappearance of the state.

At any rate, despite spending half an hour sweeping and vacuuming in advance of the varnishing, I’m still finding a few stray bits of dirt as I go along — a fragment of leaf, a hair, a small piece of broomstraw. I could get up and carry them over to the waste basket in the other room, but that would break the rhythm, so instead I shove them into my pocket. The really tiny grains of dirt can be pushed into the cracks between the floorboards, where 150 years of accumulated crud has acquired the status and patina of a deliberately applied grout. I’m reminded of the ancient riddle, quoted by Heraclitus:

What we found, we caught and killed.
What we couldn’t find, we brought with us.

The accepted answer is lice, but it could be almost anything. Atheists and believers both could probably take a lesson from it.

Last bus to Clarksdale

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The bus pulls up beside the gas station/convenience store that serves for a bus stop in Cleveland, Mississippi. It’s 8:30 in the evening; the last hint of daylight is just draining from the sky. A small line forms behind me at the side of the bus, waiting for the door to open. It purrs quietly, lit up inside like an empty theater. The driver has disappeared, presumably into the restroom at the rear of the coach, as bus drivers always put it in their welcome-aboard announcements.

“Tell me that this bus didn’t just drive itself here,” says the guy behind me with a bit of a tremor in his voice.

When at length the driver does emerge, he turns out to be the most taciturn bus driver I’ve ever met. There are no announcements, just lights-out and go. And I think I prefer it this way, to be leaving Mississippi on the fabled Highway 61 in quiet and in darkness.

You’d never know if you hadn’t heard the Bob Dylan song – or read a little history – that this arrow-straight stretch of road was once such a fabled route, one of the main arteries for the great African-American exodus out of the South. There’s a historical marker in the middle of Clarksdale, but the main highway now bypasses the town, which must frustrate blues pilgrims looking for “the” crossroads of 61 and 49, and finding themselves directed to the intersection of Routes 49 and 161 instead.

But even though this is a four-lane, divided highway now, it’s not limited-access. Numerous small roads still intersect with it, and even the major exits are, strangely, almost all unlit. I was struck by this the previous night, when I rode up to Clarksdale with my sister-in-law Luz to see a blues band there. As familiar as she was with the road, she had trouble finding the exit, and on the way back, with the car buffeted by high winds on a night with tornadoes in the forecast, the road felt lonely indeed.

The flat enormity of the Delta is best experienced after dark, when distant lights can keep pace with you for miles, almost as faithful as the evening star. Halfway to Clarksdale, the lights in the bus come on for no apparent reason, and I wait tensely for some explanation from the driver about a mechanical dysfunction or some other urgent need to pull over. But there’s no announcement, and after about five minutes the lights go out again. Maybe the bus is haunted. I remember Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues”:

You may bury my body
down by the highway side.

[spoken] Baby, I don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead and gone.
You may bury my body, oo,
down by the highway side,
so my old evil spirit
can catch the Greyhound bus and ride.

Except that this isn’t Greyhound, it’s a regional outfit called Delta Bus Lines. Greyhound doesn’t stop here anymore, although the historic preservation people in Clarksdale have kept up the old Greyhound station downtown, probably for the benefit of tourists searching for the ghost of Robert Johnson, as so many like to do. Me, I’m more interested in Bessie Smith, who, though hardly a Deltan, did die in a hospital in Clarksdale after her car rear-ended a parked truck along a dark stretch of Route 61 somewhere north of Cleveland, back in 1937. Try to imagine how her driver must’ve felt, having just killed his lover, the Empress of the Blues. Really, any number of unquiet spirits could be haunting this stretch of highway.

Judging from its schedule – one run south out of Memphis beginning in the early morning, and one run north back to Memphis beginning in the early evening – I suspect that Delta Bus Lines might consist of just this one bus, and maybe one other plying a different route. This looks very much like the same bus I rode down on, though the driver then was short, female, and very aggressive toward her passengers. In the little town of Shelby, the transmission suddenly failed and she spent ten minutes vainly trying to get the bus into gear. This apparently involved pushing a few buttons and muttering a few words over and over. She called for help on her cellphone, then tried pushing the buttons in a different way, or something, but nothing worked. Everyone sat very still; you could tell we weren’t in the northeast. At last, the hundredth time she tried it, the bus suddenly lurched into gear.

“That was Jesus!” a black woman across the aisle called out. “Yes it was!” answered the elderly white woman in the seat next to me. I bit my tongue.

There’s always an extra bit of pathos to rural bus routes, I think. Maybe it’s because country people tend to approach travel with more ceremony and trepidation, given what the Big City represents. The young white couple a few seats ahead of me, who were so giggly and affectionate at the bus station, have grown quiet, staring out at the night. The older black man whose entire extended family assembled at the side of the bus to see him off puts on a headset and listens to music for less than twenty minutes. Now he, too, has surrendered to the pull of the darkened landscape.

Our bus swings off the highway at Mound Bayou – the oldest incorporated African-American town in the South, named for one of the tells from the Mississippian civilization that dot the Delta – but no one is waiting there, so it doesn’t stop. We pull into Clarksdale without further incident.

The new bus station is out on the strip, and looks as if it might once have been a fast-food restaurant. Some of the older buildings out here would probably already qualify for historic preservation, I think, if only they had had the good fortune to have witnessed something certifiably historic. But history is often dangerous, as all too many people found out back in the heyday of the civil rights movement. Most of the time it’s probably better to remain anonymous. Plus, towns that have reinvented themselves as Historic Quaintsville annoy the hell out of me, like the blues band we’d driven up to see the night before: still playing the same, tired songs in the same generic way. Funny how the attempt to be completely authentic often results in just the opposite. We left after two beers.

The driver gets off the bus, then climbs back on as if suddenly remembering the passengers. “We’ll be here about five minutes if you need to get a smoke,” he says in a quiet voice that surely must have been inaudible to the folks in the back. “This is Clarksdale. Clarksdale.”

For my poem about the death of Bessie Smith, see here.

Blues country

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The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta is a vast, inland delta or floodplain stretching from Memphis in the north to Vicksburg in the south, and miles deep in rich, alluvial soil. Rocks, such as this rip-rap along the bayou in downtown Cleveland, Mississippi, are a valuable commodity.

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“As for surrealism, I think there’s more of it in the blues [than in jazz]. The early stuff, especially. Most people know Bessie Smith and perhaps Robert Johnson, but there are many others. Incredible verbal invention. What one would call ‘jive,’ but also eroticism, the tragic sense of life. If the blues were French, we’d be studying it at Yale.”
Charles Simic (interview with Sherod Santos)

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“Some of my blues is kinda sad blues ’cause sometimes I be feeling down and out. And I know some other womens do too. I play them so it will hit somebody. The songs are for anybody that listen to it – so I can tell ’em. … Shotgun, everywhere I play it, everybody like it. It’s just kinda of you’ve been mistreated and you want to blow somebody away. [laughs]. The other one is about nosy neighbors. They talk about you all the time. See, I got a lot of neighbors talking, lie, go on about me. They all the time lying and going on. And I just sat out in the yard and made a record about them. Turned the amplifier up as loud as I could get it so they could get the message.”
Jessie Mae Hemphill (1991 interview)

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Nearly 400 families lived on the Dockery plantation in the 1920s, when the style of guitar blues later associated with Clarksdale (and still later with the South Side of Chicago) first took shape. Blues researcher and native Mississippian Gayle Dean Wardlow: “It may at first seem fantastic that three of the very best bluesmen – [Charley] Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown – should have been on the same plantation at the same time. However, once we accept [Patton’s sister] Viola’s statement that Patton taught them all, it no longer seems so remarkable…. Brown was Patton’s closest disciple. Son House, with his dark brooding singing and strange chording, started a following of his own.”

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Parchman Farm, still one of the most brutal prisons in the United States. David Oshinsky:

The most common offenses – fighting, stealing, “disrespect” to an officer, and failure to meet work quotas – were punishable by five to fifteen lashes. Escape attempts carried an unspeakable penalty: a whipping without limits. One superintendent recalled a mass breakout in the 1930s in which a trusty-shooter was killed. “To get confessions,” he said, “I had whippings given to the eight we caught who weren’t wounded. Before the young ringleader confessed, I had him lashed on the buttocks, calves, and palms, then gave him fifteen lashes on the soles of his feet. This cleared his mind.”The number and severity of whippings depended on the sergeant in charge. “Book rules” meant little in the field camps, which were fiefdoms unto themselves. The sergeants worked in relative isolation. Some of them were alcoholics; a few were sadists. “They beat hell out of you for any reason or no reason,” an inmate remarked. “It’s the greatest pleasure of their lives.” Above all, the sergeants were under pressure to make a good crop, and that meant pushing the men. “What can you expect in the way of judgment at fifty dollars a month?” asked one prison official. “What kind of foreman on the outside [is] employed at fifty dollars a month? They usually pay foremen more than anybody else, the man who works the men, but that’s what they pay here – fifty dollars a month!”

Oh listen you men, I don’t mean no harm
Oh listen you men, I don’t mean no harm
If you wanna do good, you better stay off old Parchman Farm

-Booker T. Washington “Bukka” White, “Parchman Farm Blues”

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Amber waves of foam on the Mississippi River at Rosedale

Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gon’ take my rider by my side
Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gon’ take my rider by my side
We can still barrelhouse baby, on the riverside

– Robert Johnson, “Traveling Riverside Blues”

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Eatery in Rosedale

“Blues taught me a number of things. How to tell a story quickly, economically. The value of gaps, ellipses, and most importantly, the value of simplicity and accessibility.”
– Charles Simic

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Crossroads at sunset, Bolivar County, Mississippi

“The world’s still standing like it was a million years ago. Sun still comes up and goes down, wind still blow from the four corners of the earth, the stars still shine. It’s the peoples that live in the world that’s got it so messed up.”
– Big Jack Johnson (1991 interview)

Longing (5): the narrow road

Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”


Cue up Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck, “Djam Leeli” (“The Wayfarers”)

I want to begin this last installment with a salute to all casual or first-time readers: you who have just alighted briefly in the course of a Google search for something else entirely and are wondering, “What the hell’s all this, then?”, or you wanderers who have been whiling away a few hours in a maze of links. “Longing? You gotta be kidding! How can anyone blog longing? What’s to say?

“On the other hand, what’s not to say?”

This extended meditation/collation of texts was sparked by the close conjunction in my mind of two very dissimilar things. One was the Robert Hass quote with which I have been heading each installment. The other was a chilling series of graphic photos and journal entries purportedly from an S&M slave that I stumbled across online, just as some of you have now stumbled here. I don’t normally get too worked up thinking about what consenting adults might choose to do to each other in the privacy of their own homes. It’s a free country, right? What disturbed me about this site was the lucidity with which the self-described slave extolled her torture, humiliation, and loss of will.

One page contained a critique of desire that could almost have been written by an adherent of some more extreme world-denying religious sect – a modern-day Manichaean. Like most people, she said, I grew up in a soulless American suburb convinced that the key to happiness was to acquire more and more stuff and to indulge myself in every way possible. But I found that the more I fed my desires, the more insatiable they grew, and the unhappier I became. But since I found my master, I have become a completely new person. The person I used to be no longer exists, vanished along with all consideration of “happiness” or “fulfillment.” I no longer have any will or desires of my own apart from his. I am his whore, a possession for him to dispose of as he wishes. If he took me to the edge of a cliff and told me to jump, I would do so without a moment’s hesitation.

I’m paraphrasing because I can’t quite bring myself to go back there (the torture photos were kind of harsh). In the past I have encountered some equally disturbing blogs that explore these issues from both master and slave perspectives; they shouldn’t be hard to find if you’re curious.

The point is, a little while later when I read that poem by Hass, I had a bit of a “Eureka” moment and decided to launch what would be in effect a brief for unquenchable desire. I wanted to avoid moralizing as much as possible, concentrating instead on presenting a comprehensive epidemiology, if that’s the right word. Deciding which among untold thousands of applicable cases to include has been daunting. Many of the blogs I read (mole, Lekshe’s Mistake, The Coffee Sutras, the vernacular body and Nomen est Numen, among others) deal with themes of desire, suffering and impermanence on a regular basis, so I knew I could avoid the more obvious sources.

It’s not exactly an original subject. And as the 20th-century Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz maintained, it may be every poet’s most essential theme: “The true subject of poetry is the loss of the beloved,” he maintained. (English translations of his selected poems by Naomi Lazard have been published by Princeton University Press under the title The True Subject [1988].)

I guess if I had to articulate my own position, I would say that for societies or individuals to achieve health and harmony, they must seek a balance point between longing and satiety, transcendent and immanent forms of the divine. There must be a middle way, whether or not one follows the Buddha’s eightfold path. In this last installment, I want to celebrate the journey itself.


Cue up Bessie Smith, “Long Old Road”

Blues lyrics so often look flat and disappointing on the page. If you can’t actually hear Bessie Smith’s world-weary contralto balanced by Louis Armstrong’s horn, the drummer’s snare interpolated between the Empress’s phrases – call and response, I and Thou – then the words she happened to sing on that long-ago day at the beginning of the Great Depression might seem a little lacking. It would be like trying to intuit a tapestry merely from the warp on the loom.

The frank despair of “Long Old Road,” while it might conform to popular stereotypes about the blues by people unfamiliar with the music, is something rarely found in an art form that was intended, first and foremost, as catharsis – medicine, as so many blues performers have testified in recorded interviews. Blues music in the early and middle decades of the 20th century functioned as a kind of secular alternative to organized religion for African Americans struggling to escape the daily indignities of Jim Crow in the South and discrimination in the north. It was unusual for a singer to declare on record, as Smith did in one of the last recording sessions before her tragic and untimely death,

You can’t trust nobody, you might as well
be alone.
Found my long-lost friend, and I might as well
stayed at home.

It has always struck blues fans as darkly symbolic that Bessie Smith died in the heart of that vast, deltoid-shaped piece of floodplain known as the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, origin of what would become the most famous style of guitar blues. Actually, the Delta included several distinct musical traditions, but the one that people most identify with the region was invented in the environs of Clarksdale – the very place where Bessie Smith’s road reached its untimely end.

In the years following Bessie Smith’s death there were conflicting accounts of how she actually died. What is known is that after a late night performance somewhere in Mississippi, probably Natchez, Bessie headed for Memphis in a car driven by her boyfriend, Richard Morgan. In 1937 there were no expressways and Route 61 was a typical poorly lit, winding two-lane road. Near the outskirts of Clarksdale, in the early morning hours of that September day, their car, being driven at a high rate of speed, crashed into the back of a truck stopped on the side of the road.

A visit to this area two years ago finally gave me the images I needed to complete a poem I had been trying to write (and had even gotten published once, in an earlier version) for fifteen years.

Bessie Smith, September 1937

From here to home an empty stretch
of Mississippi mud. Step on it,
Ten years after the great flood
& everything still smells musty.
Could be
the Delta’s always like that–
overbearing sun fathering
cotton clear to the horizon,
rich black soil deeper than memory
& never a stone to throw.
The moody river & its serpent brood of bayous.

But I stay too long in any one place
& it heats up until I can hardly think
without boiling over, the fat
hits the fire & the whole
joint catches hell.

I need two bodies–the other
a refuge of Arctic relief for this
weary one, this jinxed & ginned
smoked glass-translucent skin
they spend a week’s wages to see
in the glare of gas lamps.
And the voice they skip revival for–
sure it’s mine. But the way
it takes hold of me sometimes
like a dog with a piece of old rag,
shakes me from head to foot,
I don’t know. That’s when I give
the word, hire a car
or hitch up with the next train out.

Keep moving. In all this flatness
I stand out like a bug.
But the moment I close my eyes
I’m stepping up to my house
back in Tennessee. With a sweet
soft absence of sound
I ease into the dark parlor,
my furs & silks whisper to the floor,
there’s the briefest of rattles as I slide
the deadbolt home.


Cue up Johnny Shines, “I Don’t Know”

Highway 61 was, even more than Route 66, a road to (relative) freedom. The northward migration of African Americans in the last century, flooding into the cities as economic refugees, was in many ways comparable to the earlier immigrations of peasants from Europe and China. U.S. Route 61 was the main north-south corridor between Mississippi and Chicago, and people, money, and music flowed in both directions. But even as some African American men were able finally to achieve a measure of security with a job from Henry Ford, their economic conditions remained still too marginal for many to provide for their wives or girlfriends, and those who had work as servants or cleaning ladies in the south were all too often unwilling to take their chances in a cold and alien north. In a country where employment was an essential accoutrement of manhood, the price for increased dignity and freedom was further instability in family relationships that had been fragile since slavery times.

This was the backdrop for Johnny Shines’ masterpiece, “I Don’t Know.” Again, while the lyrics in themselves are suggestive, one needs to hear Shines’ plaintive-yet-booming tenor, his understated slide guitar behind it. It is an ostensibly hopeful, even joyful, song with just a hint of melancholy about it – the opposite of “Long Old Road.”

Well I’m goin’ on the high road,
Gonna cross over on the eastern side. (2 x)
I’m gonna flag every passerby
Til someone give me a ride.

Well I’m goin’ to Chicago,
that’s what I’m gonna do. (2x)
Make a couple of paydays,
send back here after you.

When I’m gone, if you get lonesome
and you want to have some fun, (2x)
Just go on over to West Memphis, baby,
that’s where they barrelhouse all night long.

Shines grew up just south of Memphis in the northern tip of the Delta, and traveled all over the country playing music on street corners in the company of Robert Johnson. A moderately religious man, he never had much time for people who considered blues “the Devil’s music,” as he told an interviewer shortly before his death in 1992:

You want me to tell you where that all came from? It ain’t nothing but bullshit. That was told to us as a way of scaring us into never leaving the farm. Them overseers tried to prey on our religion, whenever they might see us playing guitar or mouth harp or drums or singing, they saw it as us trying to liberate ourselves, and they didn’t like it. Especially anyone who was running to another plantation to play a gig. We was freeing ourselves, and they couldn’t stand for that. So they told us that if we sang anything else but gospel music, we would die and go to hell and burn by fire and brimstone forever and all that mess. They even got our own colored preachers believing that stuff, so they preached it to us, too. Now, if a man had spent his life on earth in hell, he sure don’t wanna die and go to hell, so he changes his ways. A lot of black people got so scared to sing the blues, they would find an example within the town who was, say a bluesman, and they’d make him an outcast, call him the devil’s tool. And they invented folklore about blues musicians going to the crossroads at midnight and letting the devil himself come up and tune their guitar (laughing), and selling their soul to play the blues. It’s all a lie, just a plain lie. And when Robert made that song about ‘I went to the Crossroads and fell down on my knees/ asked the lord above have mercy/ save poor Bob if you please’ – well, that was proof to them that he done sold his soul! Boy, they really gave Robert hell in those church towns. They told him he would burn.

Then, everybody wants to know what exactly he was singin’ about in that song? It was just some old crossroads in Mississippi – I think it’s probably where the Southern crosses the Yazoo Dog [Railroad], up there in Moorehead. He was mocking the myth, more than he was fearing it.

Shines eventually got a factory job in Chicago. Despite a great voice and virtuoso command of the acoustic and electric guitar, he was unwilling to accept what he considered the humiliating demands of the recording industry. Only with his “rediscovery” by white blues fans in the late 60s did he finally enjoy a second career as a full-time musician, but he remained very much his own man. Like Bessie Smith, Shines put a premium on originality, refusing to adapt his style to conform to anyone’s stereotype, no matter how flattering. Greil Marcus described the effect of his music in a review in Rolling Stone: “Shines steps outside himself, considers his place in the world, draws you into his body, and then, still standing a few steps off, tells you where you are: where, for the moment you live . . . ”

homage to Johnny Shines

blue ribbon of tar runs by
my baby’s door where
I am bound

make a couple
of paydays
play it tight

write: here’s luck
you can bell the cat & clip
the eagle’s wing

sing: everybody
talkin bout heaven
aint goin there

prayer: in this city lord
there’s no horizon
where can I rest my eye

cry: baby
on You


Cue up the Sabri Brothers, “Kali Kamaliya Wale”

I’ve never been very good at separating the physical from the spiritual. The distinction strikes me as a little phony, despite a few, millennia-long traditions that assert an unbridgeable distance between the two. I’m not even sure that the great comparative religionist Mircea Eliade’s distinction between the sacred and the profane represents a universal truth. (Haven’t we had enough of universalizing ideologies by now?)

Nevertheless, to me, heaven remains a very potent word, more signpost than destination, pointing beyond the objectives born of shallow cravings. A strong flavor of heaven attaches to the holy aspiration itself:

Shaykh Nizam al-Din said that in Kaithal there was a saint whom they call Sufi Badhni. He was so completely ascetical that he went about totally naked. Shayk Nizam al-Din comments that according to Islamic law, any person who abstains from the minimal amount of food and water required to keep the body functioning, or who does not wear at least enough clothing to cover the body parts . . . is commiting a punishable offense, but Sufi Badhni was a saint of such high character that he was exempt from these restrictions. . . .

Sufi Badhni loved the life of prayer. He sat in the mosque in front of the mihrab and had no other occupation but offering prayers day and night. One day some ‘ulama’ came to see him, as many people used to. The shaykh queried the ‘ulama’: “Will there be prayer in paradise?” They answered: “Paradise is the abode of reward, where no desire will go unsatisfied, no need unfulfilled. Devotions are only necessary in this world.” When Sufi Badhni heard that there would be no prayer in paradise, he exclaimed: “I’ll have nothing to do with a heaven where there is no prayer,” and then he added something in Hindi not fit to repeat.

“The Life of Sufi Badhni,” Bruce B. Lawrence, in John Renard, ed., Windows on the House of Islam (University of California Press, 1998)

The poems of the 16th-century Vishnavite saint Mirabai – a Rajput princess who renounced her title and privileges to live as a wandering beggar – remind us that the attempt to locate God or heaven is in some sense a game; we might as well enjoy it.

I’m like
the cloth
that someone dyed.

I’ll go now,
play at hide
and seek to please

my lord,
wearing five
teasing colours.

When found,
I will become
one-hued with light.

With lovers
away, girls write
line upon line.

My love,
he is here

He does not leave,
he doesn’t
need to arrive.

Says Meera, I gaze
at the path day and night.

(Shama Futehally, tr., In the Dark of the Heart: Songs of Meera, HarperCollins, 1994)


Cue up Toshiro Mayuzumi, “Mandala Symphony”

What about pilgrimage, then? What is being enacted when, after many hardships and reversals, the pilgrims finally arrive at the threshold of the very image of heaven – right on earth?

The peyoteros assembled in a line, in their proper order, facing the ever-brightening eastern sky while Ramón chanted, prayed, and gestured with his plumes, until he directed them to set down their bundles. Ramón, at the head of the line, then beckond forward the first pilgrim, Carlos. Ramón squatted beside the largest water hole and taking up some in his gourd bowl removed Carlos’ hat and poured water into it. He then touched both of Carlos’ eyes with his plumes, sprinkled water on his hed, and had him drink that remaining in the bowl. The ritual varied somewhat for the primeros [first-time pilgrims]. Ramón took more time and care with them, praying over them longer. After they had drunk the Sacred Water instead of sending them immediately back to their places in line he removed their blindfolds and urged them to gaze up and behold the sacred place to which they had returned as gods. He pointed out the important features of the landscape, the places the gods had stopped and rested, eaten, sung, or talked with the animals while traveling back to their homeland. Especially affecting were Ramón’s ministrations to [his wife] Lupe at this time. He carefully led her from her place to the water and she remained motionless for a moment after he had removed her blindfold. He bade her to lift her eyes, to behold the place of the Ancient Ones, where it all began, and she did so slowly, almost reluctantly. The sun struck her face fully. She seemed transfixed and tears spread evenly down the wrinkles of her rapturous face. Seeing her thus no one could help but know that she found the Sacred Land as beautiful as she had been told all her life. . . .

Offerings were then spread out by each pilgrim, lined up, and displayed . . . With great care, each peyotero laid out or held heavenward his treasures, displaying them to the ascending sun. Impassioned prayers by Ramón told the gods that these were the offerings being brought for the hikuri. Ramón drew from his bags tortillas which he blended in his gourd bowl with some of the Sacred Water, stirring the mixture with the end of his candle, and then placed some of the resultant mixture in each pilgrim’s mouth. This was the sacred food of the First People. All prayed aloud but independently with great emotion, weeping and shouting, waving plumes and feathers and candles to the sky and in the four directions, pointing out the beauty of their gifts to the gods. Even the shyest and youngest among them, Victoria and Pablo, were outspoken and animated, imploring the deities to give them success in their quest.

The mood changed after the consumption of the sacred food. Laughter and shouts of joy replaced the weeping and praying, this because the “deities” had glimpsed their homeland and had been promised a successful return and peyote hunt. There was now much capering and cavorting. Francisco leaped about the springs like a rabbit, dazzling everyone with his agility. He had the gift of surprising people usually by looking one moment like a wizened fragile old man who would break if he moved, then suddenly and without warning leaping straight up in the air or dancing a little jig without reason. The bottles and gourds were brought out and everyone moved among the springs to gather the Sacred Water . . .

(Barbara G. Myerhoff, Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians, Cornell University Press, 1974)


Cue up Bela Bartok, “String Quartet No. 5, Movement IV (Andante)”

The months and days are wayfarers in eternity – wrote the aging poet-priest, echoing a long-ago preface to a poem by Li Bo – and as another year comes around it, too, turns vagabond. Those who float away their lives on boats or arrive on the threshold of old age leading a horse by the bit – traveling is a constant for them; they are at home wherever they end up. Many are the worthies who, in centuries past, met their deaths on the road, and for my part, it’s been years now since I first found myself unable to watch a solitary cloud drifting on the wind without succumbing to an aimless longing. Last year I wandered down along the coast, and in autumn when I returned to my hut along the river and swept out the cobwebs, I found the year already drawing rapidly to a close.

With the new year came skies filled with springtime haze, and I thought about crossing the Shirakawa Barrier into the far north. I became so possessed by wanderlust, it was as if the god of travelers himself had taken hold of me, and I couldn’t keep my mind on a single task.

So I patched up my tattered underwear, strung new cords on my bamboo rain hat, and had three moxa treatments on my legs. I couldn’t get the thought of the moon at Matsushima out of my head. I sold my patch of land and moved into temporary quarters at Sampu’s villa. When I left, I hung a poem on a post in my hut. It began,

Kusa no to mo sumikawara yo zo hina no ie.

Even a thatched hut with one turn of the wheel can become a house for dolls.

– Matsuo Basho, Oku no Hosomichi, “Narrow Road to the Far North” (1690)

The automobile in the Walking Blues

Images of the holy and the damned. The police handcuffing a man who collected old copies of the New York Times and had them stuffed and mounted in flagrant violation of the Endangered Species Act. His two small children left to fend for themselves among the junker cars and the hippies with their experimental solar-powered aircraft. They were ready to go visit their daddy in jail if I would take them – but was that really the right thing to do? I was so confused! It’s never a good idea to sleep past dawn, I find.

Lethargy and impatience are conspiring against my enthusiasm for the written word. But is that all? This time of year can be unsettling for a confirmed bachelor, you know. Everything is thawing and flowing and springing up with unselfconscious abandon. (Is there any other kind?)
A body wishes to be held, & held, & what
Can you do about that?

wrote Larry Levis, greatest among the late 20th-century prophets of the heaven of loneliness –
. . . some final city made entirely
Of light . . .

And what did T.S. Eliot know about April? More than I might care to admit. Mixing memory and desire, I am finding it increasingly difficult to disappear between the keys on the keypad. Whose cruel idea was it to make this “National Poetry Month”? Hell, I can barely stomach Earth Day anymore. All those earnest pleas to be a responsible consumer, live lightly on the earth, etc. – as if that’s enough! But I have been guilty myself of indulging in the even more egregious delusion that Poetry Can Save Us. From which monstrous windmills, oh Don Coyote?

In truth, I woke up this morning with the blues for the blues. To wit: I sure do wish I hadn’t sold all my records off years ago to buy booze! That was so wrong. I especially miss my copy of the 1941 Library of Congress field recordings of Son House, about which an anonymous British reviewer somewhere out in cyberspace writes,

This is a rough ride, but he sure can drive any song home- as does the automobile heard going past on “Walking Blues.”

“Drive.” Where did that come from? And I’m wondering: can anyone who doesn’t own a car in the U.S. of A. – especially if they live out in the sticks – really ever possess “drive”? (Be careful, now!)

Or what about, you know, drives? Maybe I could just make do with a good old-fashioned urge or two. Once again. With feeling.

Got up this morning feelin’
’round for my shoes,
you know ’bout that musta had
them walkin’ blues . . .

Son of House, you knew only a heap of broken images, where the sun beats. But they sure sounded great coming out of that steel guitar! Not to mention the bottle’s severed neck riding on your littlest finger. That afterthought, that fifth wheel. Good for nothing but trouble –

When you vanish into that one cry which means
Your body is no longer quite your own
And when your face looks like a face stricken
From this world, a saint’s face, your eyes closing
On some final city made entirely
Of light . . .

(Levis again, in a completely different context.)

Unreal City, man.

Blue devils and the legend of Robert Johnson

1. A shady connection

Barely in time for Black History Month, I want to correct a few common misconceptions about Robert Johnson and his supposed pact with the devil.

I hope no one will be too shocked by the news that the 1988 movie Crossroads is a wildly inaccurate guide to the life and death of the historical (as opposed to the mythic) Robert Johnson. For example, in the movie, Willie Brown is a harmonica player, still living in the 1980s. In real life, Willie Brown was an older mentor to Johnson, one of the three or four greatest bottleneck guitarists of the first generation of Delta bluesmen to make it onto record. He died in 1952.

Johnson was far from the only ambitious bluesman of the 20s and 30s to exploit the bad man image, including the European-derived myth of the pact with the devil. According to the recollections of people who knew him, Johnson lived up to the image, constantly fighting and womanizing and using several aliases to keep ahead of the law. But neither “Cross Road Blues” nor “Me and the Devil Blues” were among his signature songs. None of his friends, former flames or traveling companions who were interviewed by blues fans from the 1960s on had ever heard about a pact with the devil.

The connection between the figure of the devil in southern Afro-American folklore and the Yoruba/Dohomean deity Legba is probably valid. But outside of places like New Orleans and the Georgia Sea Islands, explicitly African elements of hoodoo are submerged in a thoroughly Christian milieu. It would be much more accurate to say that a bluesman like Johnson was living out the Christian archetype of the Prodigal Son than to maintain that he was some kind of underground practitioner of an alternate faith. That is to say, he might have been anti-Christian at times, but he wasn’t non-Christian.

Johnson died too young to go through the complete cycle, but many of his contemporaries (Son House, Skip James, Ishmon Bracey, etc.) periodically swung between the two poles of blues singer/sinner and sanctified Christian. The lyrics to Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” are powerful precisely because they exploit this tension and ambiguity. The narrator begins,

I went to the cross road,
fell down on my knees,
I went to the cross road,
fell down on my knees.
Asked the Lord above “Have mercy,
Save poor Bob, if you please.”

So the cross road initially appears to be a Christian image. The strongest echo is of a revival service, with the narrator as a sinner repenting and seeking grace. In the following verse, Johnson seems to echo the parable about the man fallen by the wayside, waiting for a Good Samaritan who never comes:

Mmmm, standin’ at the cross road,
I tried to flag a ride.
Standin’ at the cross road,
I tried to flag a ride.
Didn’t nobody seemed to know me,
everybody passed me by.

Only in the third verse do we catch a note of premonition, but longing for love and/or worry about where the narrator will sleep overshadows it.

Mmm sun goin’ down boy,
dark gon’ catch me here.
Oooo ooee eeee,
boy, dark gonna catch me here.
Ain’t got no lovin’ sweet woman that, love and feel my care.

And then (given the severe time constraints occasioned by 1930s record-cutting techniques) we’re already at the last verse. Johnson seems more interested in reminding his listeners of his relationship to the famous Willie Brown than in suggesting any supernatural partnership:

You can run you can run,
tell my friend, boy, Willie Brown.
You can run,
tell my friend, boy, Willie Brown,
Lord that I’m standin’ at the cross road baby,
I believe I’m sinkin’ down.

2. Singing in tongues

So where did the Robert Johnson-crossroads myth come from? Over-enthusiastic blues scholars, steeped in West African mythology (where the crossroads is indeed a potent symbol) simply invented it in the 1960s. According to blues scholar Gayle Dean Wardlow (Chasin’ That Devil Music, Miller Freeman Books, 1998), it was Pete Welding who, in 1966, first proposed a “selling his soul” interpretation to the song “Cross Road Blues” in an article in Down Beat. I confess I haven’t seen that article, but I do resent the oft-encountered implication that blues songs were primarily autobiographical. Some were, but many were not. I’m bothered by what I see as a persistent unwillingness to accept blues artists as fully creative lyricists who were capable of adopting alternate personas. In fact, their lyrical creativity is well documented: as in modern rap, the ability to extemporize was highly prized. Further, most blues singers employed a variety of dramatic techniques, including alternating voices and dramatic monologues; an authentic blues song is worlds away from the purely personal mode of a contemporary singer-songwriter. We know from an interview with the musician, for example, that Bukka White’s first-person “Fixin’ to Die Blues” was written in the “expected voice” of an alcoholic he once knew.

“In the 1975 book Mystery Train,” Wardlow continues, “Greil Marcus ‘symbolically’ implied Johnson mastered the guitar because of his alleged pact with the devil . . . In 1982, Peter Guralnik added the Ledell Johnson story of Tommy [Johnson] ‘selling his soul’ at midnight at a Delta crossroad.” Tommy Johnson – no relation to Robert – was another master bottleneck guitarist with a decidedly more desperate tone to his lyrics. He also died young, but not under such mysterious circumstances as Robert did: he fell victim to the blue devils of “Canned Heat” (i.e. sterno) and “Alcohol and Jake” – the titles of two of his songs which, according to his contemporaries, did indeed draw heavily on his own circumstances. (See below for more on the blue devils.) Thus it was Tommy – not Robert – Johnson who was portrayed in the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? as having made a pact with the devil.

The only Robert Johnson song to explicitly elaborate upon a connection with the devil is “Me and the Devil Blues.” Though again, some ambiguity remains: is it Satan himself, or is the narrator simply saying his woman is the devil in disguise?

Early this mornin’
when you knocked upon my door.
Early this mornin’, ooh
when you knocked upon my door.
And I said, “Hello, Satan,
I believe it’s time to go.”

But in the second verse, the narrator owns up and admits that it is he who is bedeviled, and he who bedevils others:

Me and the Devil
was walkin’ side by side.
Me and the Devil, ooh
was walkin’ side by side.
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman
until I get satisfied.

While the listener is still recovering from the shock of that boast, Johnson shifts gears. The narrator has the woman speaking up – and psychoanalyzing him. She says he suffers a compulsion he hasn’t come to grips with; he protests that she’s to blame. It’s not clear which of them decides to blame the devil. By the end of the song, the narrator is defiantly proclaiming his own devilish identity. The segue to the last verse exemplifies the “linked verse” technique of blues composition at its best.

She say you don’t see why
that you will dog me ’round.
[spoken:] Now, babe, you know you ain’t doin’ me
right, don’cha?
She say you don’t see why, ooh
that you will dog me ’round.
It must-a be that old evil spirit
so deep down in the ground.

You may bury my body
down by the highway side.
[spoken:] Baby, I don’t care where you bury my
body when I’m dead and gone.
You may bury my body, ooh
down by the highway side.
So my old evil spirit
can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.

It probably go without saying, but the deity Legba is neither evil, nor is he associated with an afterlife destination “deep down in the ground.” This is as Christian a song as anything Black Sabbath ever wrote.

3. Blues as spiritual ju-jitsu

Another Robert Johnson song, “Hellhounds On My Trail,” partakes much less of specifically religious imagery than it may appear to. The eponymous hounds were actually intended to evoke the police and their bloodhounds, according to Wardlow, who traces the verse to a record by an obscure East Texas bluesman. Given the widespread use of bloodhounds during slavery, when church songs often contained coded messages about the Underground Railroad, it’s hard not to hear some echo of an otherwise lost spiritual here.

Diverse roots (or as the philosopher Giles Deleuze would say, multiple rhizomes) are at work here. A modern listener might need reminding that in Johnson’s world the police were anything but enforcers of justice. Instead, they represented an oppressive and brutal system designed to thwart the ambitions and crush the spirits of African Americans. The word “blues” is Anglo in origin, dating from the late 19th century. Its original usage denoted the blue devils that are said to appear to an alcoholic going through delirium tremens. It would not have escaped the attention of African Americans that the police in their blue uniforms were the most visible counterpart to the now-generalized inner torments known as the blues. I can think of a couple lyrics offhand that come close to spelling this out: Bessie Smith’s “In the House Blues,” and the barrelhouse standard known usually as “Vicksburg Blues,” which Howlin’ Wolf turned into “.45 Blues” (with the reference to policemen judiciously removed). But doubtless there are many more.

People on both sides of the sinner-sanctified divide would have agreed about the absolute necessity of spiritual resistance to this internal and external oppression. In fact, what really distinguished the ‘sinners’ was their insistence on individualism and self-expression, as opposed to the collective, communitarian spirit of the black churches. Although it might be a bit of a stretch to say that bluesmen and women were revolting against the accomodationist stance of the churches, explicit, satirical critiques of church people are not hard to find in the recorded blues. Blues singers tended to stereotype preachers as charlatans, only interested in a free meal ticket and easy access to women. Of course, bluesmen often portrayed themselves as rakes and scoundrels too, but the subtext of the many “Preaching Blues” songs is, “at least I’m not a hypocrite.”

Robert Johnson’s own “Preaching Blues,” subtitled “Up Jumped the Devil,” is a fascinating exception to this pattern. More than that, it is a masterpiece, musically as well as lyrically. In it, Johnson suggests a fusion of church and blues through words that, for me, come closer to true Hoodoo Man conjuring than anything else he recorded. The preacher is evoked through Johnson’s style of vocal delivery alone, and the Devil is nothing but the blues personified: a malevolent force that only a visit to the distillery can exorcise.

Mmmmm mmmmm,
I’s up this mornin’,
a blues walkin’ like a man.
I’s up this mornin’
a blues walkin’ like a man.
Worried blues,
give me your right hand.

And the blues fell mama’s child
tore him all upside down.
Blues fell mama’s child
and it tore me all upside down.
Travel on poor Bob,
just cain’t turn you ’round.

The blu-u-u-u-ues
is a low-down, shakin’ chill.
[spoken:] Yes, preach ’em now.
Mmmmm mmmmm,
is a low-down shakin’ chill.
You ain’t never had ’em, I,
I hope you never will.

Well, the blu-ues
is a achin’ old heart disease.
[spoken:] Do it now. You gon’ do it? Tell me about it.
Well the blu-ues
is a low-down achin’ heart disease.
Like consumption,
killing me by degrees.

I been stuttering, oh, oh drive,
oh, oh, drive my blues –
I been stuttering,
I’m ‘onna drive my blues away.
Goin’ to the ‘stil’ry.
Stay out there all day.

4. Real devils, real contests

All too many white blues fans appear deaf to the racial subtext of blues music. They literally don’t want to hear about it: the blues is good time party music, they say. It’s for everybody, regardless of race.

Well, yes. And it is also potent medicine of the homeopathic variety, as countless blues artists have testified. But if the classic country blues songs seem deep and eerie beyond words, it is because they represent a passionate attempt to escape the devils of poverty, racism, violence, alcoholism, alienation and hopelessness. A consideration of the specific social and cultural matrices from which the music emerged should not diminish its universal appeal.

The immense, inland delta formed by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers has been called “the most southern place on earth.” It is a thoroughly domesticated landscape, a sea of perfectly flat cotton fields stretching from horizon to horizon, interrupted only by mosquito-ridden streams and backwaters. Its floodplain soil is hundreds of feet deep: rich black earth with nary a stone. As so often in the Third World, great natural wealth has permitted the growth of a powerful and vindictive elite who traditionally possessed no sense of responsibility toward land or people. Why conserve? The river and soil will last forever.

Thus, violence or the threat of violence against black sharecroppers was intense and pervasive throughout the period when the greatest bluesmen and women were getting on record. In this climate, explicit references to racism were off-limits, at least in the recording studio. But the desire to escape is palpable in songs like Johnson’s “Walking Blues” and “Traveling Riverside Blues,” and songs about guns (“32-20 Blues”) fairly crackle with electricity. I personally find these sorts of themes far more challenging to contemplate than the sadly diminished echoes of African religion.

Robert Johnson was a brilliant guitarist, and yes, he mastered the instrument quite quickly. But there seems to have been no shortage of musical geniuses in the Delta region in the first four decades of the 20th century. Johnson’s stature among modern-day, white blues fans seems to derive as much from the myth as from the songs. In the case of the latter, Johnson was lucky to have been remarkably well recorded, and to have found many posthumous fans among top-selling rock musicians who covered his songs. In real life, Johnson is said to have had a relatively weak voice, but you don’t hear that on the record. The poor quality of surviving sides by greats like Charley Patton and Willie Brown militates against their ever achieving even the limited form of mainstream popularity accorded to Robert Johnson.

For hard-core country blues fans like me, Johnson doesn’t hold a candle to fellow-Delta natives Son House and Johnny Shines. These men didn’t have the sense to play up the bad man image and to die young, and thus will remain forever unpalatable to the youth culture that grew up with rock ‘n’ roll. But House, Shines and others who managed to live to a ripe old age had the satisfaction of enjoying what those who died young never could: escape. Not only from the daily humiliations of Jim Crow-era apartheid, but even from the bipolar disorder that was African American society under Jim Crow.

The first- and second-generation bluesmen and women who survived into the 1970s and beyond may never have earned have earned great wealth, but they did at least get the satisfaction of mentoring and playing to fanatically respectful audiences of mostly white people. They got their dignity back, and with it, I would guess, experienced the confirmation of their individualistic ethos. The choice between church and blues became less stark, less black-and-white. If the recorded statements and relatively tranquil later lives of the majority of the “elder statesmen of the blues” are any guide, in the last decades of the 20th century blues artists no longer felt themselves to be stranded at a lonely crossroads, forced to choose between go-along-to-get-along and self-destructive defiance. Unlike Willie Brown, Charley Patton, and Tommy and Robert Johnson, they were able finally to beat the devil at his own game.

Note: transcriptions have been modified from those that appear on-line at The Robert Johnson Notebooks, which gives little hint about the extent of scholarly disagreement about some of these lyrics. The “stuttering” interpretation of verse 5 of “Preaching Blues” is my own, but it seems to fit the song’s dis-ease imagery. The website’s interpretation, “I’ve been studyin’ the rain” is extremely far-fetched, in my opinion.