The Last of the Devil’s Music?

Timothy Young
May 01, 2001
black and white photo of man singing and playing guitar

I'm sitting in the Alumni Hall of the new HUB-Robeson Center, admiring the gleaming facility. Large windows cast pillars of light into the room. Tastefully painted pilasters frame the stage, which is topped by a massive speaker blaring Top 40 hits. Teen idol Britney Spears belts out her latest cookie-cutter single. Rival Christina Aguilera follows; the only difference I notice is in the lyrics. Then come the commercials: dial 1-800 CALL ATT for collect calls; use America Online when you chat on your computer. Another ad, for Hard Rock Live, a TV program, opens with a guitar riff in a major pentatonic scale that leaves no doubt of its bluesy roots, but the sound is amplified and distorted to a point that would have made an old blues man cringe.

It's the first day of "The Blues Tradition: Memory, Criticism, and Pedagogy." Clyde Woods, assistant professor of African and African American studies at Penn State and the conference organizer, is setting up a video camera as attendees file in. The opening presenters move hesitantly to their seats on stage. Now Woods takes the podium and begins to speak. "The blues are more than just a musical form and an aesthetic," he says, gripping the sides of the podium. "They are sociology and philosophy. They are a working-class university constructed by African Americans, with a faculty composed of the traveling performers of yesterday who taught their students survival in the face of inequality, destitution, and humiliation."

This is not the kind of talk I was prepared for. When I think of the blues, I think of aging white British guitarists: Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. The guys whose music surfaces now in car commercials and lottery ads. And I guess that's really a big part of Woods's point. "The blues now belong to middle-class whites," he concludes. "They are segregated from everything they once stood for. The blues have the blues."

Among all the legends surrounding the early blues, Daphne Duval Harrison of the University of Maryland told us, none are more prevalent than those linking the music with the Devil. Robert Johnson, the Mississippi guitarist considered the best Delta blues man ever, was said to have sold his soul for his talent. The story of Johnson's fateful meeting with Old Snatch at a rural crossroads is an enduring blues theme. Songs like "Me and the Devil Blues" and "That Black Snake Moan" make clear the music's roots in African voodoo (or hoodoo), an earthy religion in which the Devil played a prominent role.

Before the North American slave trade, Harrison noted, African peoples had developed vibrant oral traditions which were kept alive by touring professional musicians who played xylophones, drums, and a variety of guitar-like instruments. From these musicians comes the celebrated blues standard of call-and-response—in which a line is sung or spoken by the musician, then reiterated by the crowd or another musician. "Call and response," Harrison said, "served a strong communal function for Africans. It was a means of civilization, indoctrination, and inclusion."

Slavers kept tribe members isolated from one another, Harrison pointed out, finding it easier to control people who couldn't communicate. Upon reaching the new world, the first African Americans found themselves far from their homeland, alone in their despair. "Forced to dance with tears in their eyes at slave markets," Harrison continued, "the slaves found an outlet for their grief in music." Slave music developed first as field hollers and work songs; simple forms that set a rhythm for small groups at hard labor and helped to relieve the drudgery of slavery. A slave could speak of his or her troubles—physical, emotional, or spiritual pain—and that pain would be taken up by the group. "The words of these simple songs were more important than the melody, with free rein given to improvisation and spoken litanies."

statement in red font

After the Civil War, as Southern blacks experienced their first taste of freedom, a new strain of blues emerged. Valerie Sweeney Prince of Hampton University dubbed it the "wandering blues." "Confined by centuries to the cotton fields, many of us could scarcely believe we were free, and so we had to test that freedom," she said. "Many of us roamed the countryside just to test our legs." The simple joy of traveling from place to place became another durable blues theme.

But the brief spark of freedom died almost before it began. Jim Crow laws, segregationist legislation designed to prevent blacks from exercising their new right to vote, sent African Americans back into virtual slavery. Blacks who tried to leave their shackles behind were frequently met with a hangman's noose or a burning cross. "For black people," Prince concluded, "There are strict limitations to the American dream. Call it existentialism, call it hopelessness, call it what you will. I call it the blues."

Harriet Ottenheimer of Kansas State University spoke of the difficulty of pinning down just where the blues got their start. Although traditional theories hold that the music developed in the rural Mississippi Delta, spreading north to Chicago and Kansas City, west to Texas, and east to the Carolinas, more recent scholarship is leaning toward a Midwestern origin, perhaps in St. Louis, or Evansville, Indiana. Ottenheimer cited the rediscovered work of Charles Peabody and Howard Odum, who traveled the country in the 1880s and '90s studying "Negro" music, as evidence for this claim.

The writings of Peabody, Odum, and others identify the traditional 12-bar blues form, said Edward Komara from the University of Mississippi: a song in 12 measures consisting of two identical rhyming lines followed by a third line, non-rhyming, that comments on the first two. The form incorporates the first, fourth, and fifth notes of a given scale; in the key of G, the melody would begin at G, ascend to C in the second line, then return to G before moving to D at the beginning of the final line, dropping to C, and finally returning to G. In performance, Komara noted, this melody was a constant, while the lyrics and accompaniment were altered and frequently improvised, allowing any player who knew a blues song to tailor it to the circumstances of his or her own life.

This room for improvisation, along with audience participation, made the blues a music of inclusion, said John Bardi, a professor of philosophy at Penn State's Mont Alto campus. Anyone with feelings to share could join the song. As Valerie Prince had put it earlier, "The blues performance draws the listeners into a community, and gives that community a space and time." The wandering blues singer, moving from town to town, became an African-American cultural icon: the reawakening of the African griot, an almost mythic figure whom Woods called "the performer/poet/philosopher who embodies centuries of tradition and wisdom." By resurrecting the old tradition, Woods argued, the wandering blues singer finally gave African Americans a true feeling of home.

old photo on woman standing with one hand raised

Evolving with American life, the music did more than provide a cultural reference point. "The blues became an informal oral history of life on the margins of society," said Robert Springer, who teaches at the University of Metz in France. "It became an education for a people who were often excluded from schooling, and despite, or rather because of this, it tried to inculcate a moral, as well as practical, code." The blues captured every hardship blacks endured, from racism and segregation to poverty to flooding on the Mississippi, and along the way incorporated universal themes of jealous love and betrayal. By taking up the pain and rage felt by the black community and giving it a voice, the blues became a music of empowerment and protest. "The blues let black people know that it was okay to be black," Springer concluded, "and by doing so helped them to stand against injustice."

This new self-affirmation wasn't just limited to men, as Michelle Scott, a graduate student at Cornell University, pointed out. African-American women such as Bessie Smith found their voices through the blues as well, using the music to talk frankly about their rights and their sexuality. Smith, who toured the small towns and cities of the South through the 1920s, belted out lyrics that rang with proto-feminist thought. "Let me tell you daddy, momma ain't gonna sit here and grieve/ Pack up your stuff and get ready to leave," she croons on a surviving recording titled "Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle."

As the blues spread around the country, distinctive styles grew up around famous players. According to Wayne Goins of Kansas State, cities or regions inherited the legacy of those innovators. Robert Johnson typified the quick staccato strumming and spoken-sung style of the Delta blues. Blind Lemon Jefferson's slow, laid-back finger picking became the accompaniment for the Texas blues. Slightly later developments in the Midwest focused around Muddy Waters and the more diverse, electrified sound that became known as the Chicago blues.

Early players toured the countryside, playing the local "jukes," or dance halls, often being paid in whiskey and a bed for the night. But soon the blues worked its way into the American mainstream. W. C. Handy, an African American considered by many to be the father of the blues, published the sheet music to his "Memphis Blues" in 1912. "The St. Louis Blues" followed in 1914, selling three million copies on its way to becoming the best-selling blues transcription of all time. In the 1920s, white entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on this new popularity began to produce "race records," recordings of African-American artists that were marketed directly to blacks. "At the time," Marc Sykes, a graduate student at Rutgers University, told us, "RCA Victor even stamped the word 'colored' into the wax."

By the 1930s, the blues had become an integral part not just of African-American culture, but of American culture at large. Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes "radically changed the possibility of American literature, because he demonstrated that the living vernacular culture, blues, could be used in the development of crafted poems," said Sterling Plumpp, a "blues poet" as well as a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Robert Genter, a graduate student at Columbia University, spoke of how one of the greatest of African-American novelists, Ralph Ellison, used the blues to break down the negative images blacks held of themselves, rebuilding their sense of self through the creation of positive, empowered black characters in his works. Kevin Hagopian, a lecturer in media studies at Penn State, held up Paul Robeson as another example of the blues' transcendence of genre. Robeson, an African-American actor, classically trained singer, and political activist, recorded the blues song "King Joe" to immortalize boxer Joe Louis, the African-American heavyweight champion who was black America's first real popular hero.

Appearing in more "respectable" forms helped the blues to legitimize itself, and to reach ever larger audiences. But this wider popularity was the beginning of the end for the blues as a pure expression of black culture. The decades of the 1930s and '40s were the hey-day of the blues, said David Evans of the University of Memphis. By the 1950s and '60s, African-American audiences, increasingly urbanized and economically better off, had found an ear for newer, more sophisticated musical forms, including rhythm and blues, jazz, and soul. Black interest in the blues had waned. The '60s blues revival, led by master guitarist B. B. King, spawned blues festivals all over the South and in traditional blues meccas like Chicago, Evans noted, but most of these events failed to draw more than casual interest among black audiences. At the same time, white British acts like Cream and Led Zeppelin were "discovering" the blues, and gradually building up a white blues following. A second revival, during the 1980s and '90s, played almost exclusively to white audiences.

black and white picture of movie theater with “colored admission” and “Dr. Pepper”

Today, adopted by advertising agencies as authentic Americana, the blues have become a world-wide phenomena. Speakers at the conference talked of Japanese blues bands, and the difficulties of creating a blues encyclopedia in Germany. Presenters from France and Georgia mingled over lunch, discussing the best way to introduce blues music into schools. But for Evans and other blues scholars, this new popularity is not a happy ending. "The blues have become a tourist attraction for white Americans," he lamented. "They exist now institutionalized in corporations. The traditional blues are almost gone."

Earlier, Sterling Plumpp had been even more harsh. "When whites listen to the blues," he said, "The status of the music goes down. They don't know what they're listening to."

Ashort black man with one gold tooth and a hat that barely sat on his balding head took the stage and unpacked a battered acoustic guitar. He made a few low remarks that were hard to discern, then tore into a rousing version of Robert Johnson's "Cross Road Blues." This was David "Honeyboy" Edwards, who, at 85 years old, has played with every major name in the blues pantheon, from Robert Johnson to Charlie Patton to Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter. Edwards punctuated his fiery playing with tales from a life that seemed half legend, harking back to the dawn of the blues that I had been hearing about for the last few days. He spoke of standing over Johnson's deathbed, of playing his way from the Delta all the way to Chicago, of drinking and fighting with the same men who taught him his licks.

In the break after his performance, watching him sign a CD with the slow, deliberate mix of cursive and clumsy block printing that comes from learning to write well beyond middle age, I was struck with the thought that many at the conference might be right. The blues are dying. In Honeyboy's own estimation, there are only two big blues acts left: Mississippi's B. B. King and the Chicagoan Buddy Guy. Even Guy, he says, is "too rock and roll."

"The fact is that many African Americans have moved beyond the blues," said William Eric Perkins of the University of Pennsylvania. Hip-hop, he said, a style which includes most of today's rap and R&B, is the blues of the current generation, full of the same swagger and bite that the blues boasted in its infancy. "The blues were about life," Perkins told us. "Hip-hop is about life. The blues," he concluded, "have become irrelevant to the modern black experience."

But does that mean the blues are dead? "The greatness of the blues arose from its interaction with its core audience," of poor and working-class African Americans, Kevin Hagopian acknowledged. Cut free from this core, the vitality of the blues has necessarily been muted. The blues are no longer a pure black folk music, no longer what they were. They have been adulterated, appropriated, and in some sense left behind. In spite of all that, however, Clyde Woods suggests, the music still has something left. "When the blues created a community," he told me, "they created a beginning. What we're seeing is part of the life cycle. The blues still have a lot to say, and you never know where that spark will come from."

Outside the hall's doors at the close of the conference, a stocky black man wearing overalls and a red t-shirt sat strumming his acoustic guitar in the fading afternoon sun. This was Fruteland Jackson, a veteran blues man and educator who had performed on the first day of the conference and had stuck around until the end. Baggy cap hanging low over his eyes, he sat next to a boy of no more than 11 or 12 who concentrated intensely on his awkward fingers as he tried to mimic Fruteland's chords on his own guitar. I stopped to watch. Other conference attendees, drifting out of the auditorium, stopped too, slowly gathering around the pair as they strummed. Before long, one by one, people began to join in. Guitars were strapped on. A harmonica player pulled out his instrument and blew a low, mournful note. A homemade bass was unpacked as hands beat time on the arms of chairs. There were no thoughts about notations, or influences, or significance. Chairs were pulled closer. Feet began to tap. People, black and white, began to play and sing, each adding his or her contribution. In the pull of that moment, the music took on life. And I realized that Clyde Woods was right.

Clyde Woods was assistant professor of African and African-American studies at Penn State at the time this article was written; he has since taken a position at the University of Maryland. John Bardi, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy at Penn State Mont Alto. Kevin Hagopian is a lecturer in media studies at Penn State. The conference was sponsored by the Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies, Robert Edwards, Director, 101 Ihlseng Cottage, University Park PA 16802; 814-865-0495;

Last Updated May 01, 2001