Seems Like Murder Here - Southern Violence And The Blues Tradition

REVIEW by Willard Manus

SEEMS LIKE MURDER HERE--SOUTHERN VIOLENCE AND THE BLUES TRADITION by Adam Gussow (University of Chicago Press) takes a gutsy, provocative look at the linkage between the blues and white racism. At the turn of the last century, we couldn't have had one without the other, Gussow believes. "Black southerners evolved blues song as a way of speaking back to, and maintaining psychic health in the face of, an ongoing threat of lynching."

Gussow, an English professor who also played the blues for many years as the white half of an interacial duo, Satan & Adam, has shaken up the blues world with his hypothesis. Those who see the blues as strictly entertainment have attacked him roundly, but he lays out his argument so thoroughly and convincingly that it cannot be easily dismissed.

"Sifting the archive of recorded and transcribed blues for every conceivable reference to violence," he writes, "what I unearthed wasn't merely evidence of a long and previously invisible shadow cast by lynching on the blues lyric tradition, and equally compelling evidence for black retributive violence in the face of such white racist violence, but a far more overt and politically problematic theme: black folk threatening and exacting revenge against other black folk, 'cutting and shooting,' and taking unmistakable pleasure--as much pleasure as white lynch mobs--in that vengeance."

This is strong medicine and Gussow admits that, at first, he had a tough time swallowing it himself. "I, like Mister Satan, am a peace-loving man. This was not a pleasant book to write, although it was fascinating and compelling. It took me away--at many points, far away--from the open-hearted joy and optimism about America's multiracial future that I have been blessed to experience as a blues performer and friend of countless blues performers: black, white, Asian, Native American. Writing it has given me a profound respect for scholars of slavery, genocide, and other fields of research where unrelieved bad news is what one dwells with for years on end. There is good news here, to be sure, but such rays of hope emerge only intermittently from a field of action that had been severely repressed by the violence that upheld Jim Crow, and pervaded southern lives, black and white, in the early decades of the 20th century. The best news is to be found, really, in the brave new world blues has made in recent decades--a world in which B.B. King, broken-hearted by a lynching he witnessed during his Mississippi childhood, has gone on to become an international ambassador for his world-conquering art. It is my hope that this book leads you, as it has led me, back to the music, which is where the healing is."