Beyond The Crossroads

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Adam Gussow’s latest book, BEYOND THE CROSSROADS, has a subtitle, “The Devil and the Blues Tradition,” which aptly sums up what it’s all about. It’s no secret that the devil figures in countless blues songs, as typified by Lonnie Johnson’s 1938 tune, “Devil’s Got the Blues.”

“The blues is like the comes on you like a spell

The blues is like the comes on your like a spell

Blues will leave your heart full of trouble...and your poor mind full of hell.”

But Gussow, a musician as well as a scholar, insists that the devil is a much more complex symbol than Johnson’s ditty implies. The devil is also a stand-in for the slave-holder, boss-man, or white racist of Jim Crow times. Gussow quotes a passage from Frederick Douglass’ 1845 “Narrative,” which describes the latter’s feelings after slave-traders attacked him in jail after his attempted escape: “I found myself surrounded by so many fiends from perdition. A band of pirates never looked more like their father, the devil.”

There are also “devilish” feelings of power, masculinity and liberation that come with being a bluesman. “I wasn’t going to work for nobody,” one musician said proudly and defiantly. “I was so fast, I went too fast to catch any root anywhere. I don’t know why I was like that. I was always wanting to pull up and leave, go somewhere else.”

This oppositional identity, Gussow explains, makes a hero of the bluesman, turns him into a rogue, “an ever-mobile, shape-shifting trickster” who will never allow a white man to best him and become his master.

The author spends considerable time discussing–-and dissecting–-the life and legacy of Robert Johnson (1911-1938), the Mississippi Delta bluesman who supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for “unearthly talents on the guitar.” That legend has spawned a vast number of stories, films, albums and concerts (including Eric Clapton’s triennial Crossroads Guitar Festival), children’s books, academic and biographical studies, and a state-sanctioned tourist attraction in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Johnson’s home town.

The devil is alive and well in Gussow’s deeply researched, provocative, and compulsively readable book.

(The University of North Carolina Press,