Given the social and political lament in Billie Holiday’s evocation of the blues tradition (see “Why God Loves the Blues, Part I,” The Cresset, Advent-Christmas 2009), it is ironic that so much commentary, scholarly and popular, describes it as “The Devil’s Music.” Wouldn’t such a lament, either about abusive relationships on a personal level or as socio-political commentary, be worthy of careful attention by people of faith? This label is one reason many people of faith might hold such music at arm’s length. In order to argue about why God might love the blues, then, this characterization must be faced squarely. In trying to get behind it, we will be able to see both the truth and the limits of such claims, as well as find roots in the blues for the kind of honest cries Scripture itself teaches us to lift before God.
The understanding of the blues as the Devil’s music is rooted in the music first played on porches and in the juke joints and barrel-houses of the Mississippi Delta around the end of the nineteenth century. On the one hand, the music was associated with drinking, gambling, dancing, and illicit sex, things shunned by church-going folk and condemned by their preachers. This is one obvious reason for its categorization as sinner’s music. But there also are many stories of musicians—Robert Johnson being the most famous—selling their souls to the Devil in exchange for great musical talent.
The blues as a whole and its demonic mythology remained limited primarily to African American communities in the South and northern cities like Chicago and New York. This was partly because much of the early or “country” blues music was released on so-called “race labels” created in the 1920s for distribution to the “newly discovered” African American market. But social factors, including the urbanization and upheaval of the Great Depression and World War II years, shifted the record industry away from the “country” blues.
A major turn for both the blues and for the interpretation of them as the Devil’s music came as a result of the British blues revival in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Three interconnected forces of this era shape how the blues is understood by mainstream US culture today. First, and perhaps most obviously, was the work of musicians who heard R&B stars like Bo Diddley on the radio, traced the influences back to John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and others who had brought the old country blues tradition to the city, and who then transformed the tradition by using electric guitar and more urban themes. In England the most important in this group was the Metropolitan Blues Quartet—later known as the Yardbirds—a band that included the most influential guitarists of early rock ‘n roll: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck. Perhaps the most important is Eric Clapton, who later formed Cream. Clapton has single-handedly lifted Robert Johnson’s profile through tributes throughout his career, from his 1968 cover of Johnson’s “Crossroads” with Cream to his 2004 tribute album Me and Mr. Johnson. Page went on to found Led Zepplin, the quintessential rock ‘n roll band of the 1970s. Page’s embrace of the blues contributed much to Zeppelin’s sound and success, although the influence was mostly unacknowledged. Zeppelin was sued by Chess Records, a Chicago Blues label, and individual artists, for songwriting credit and royalties (see: Headlem 1995). Emerging from the same interconnected set of friendships and early 1960s London clubs, the Rolling Stones took their name from a Muddy Waters song and in 1962 set out with the aim to be the best blues band in England.
A second key force behind the role of the blues in the first decade of British rock ‘n roll had everything to do with the mid-1950s UK tours by Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, and other “rediscovered” bluesmen. The aging bluesmen found it both compelling and humorous to see young white people so crazy over their music, which in their experiences had been losing ground in the US to new sounds like Bo Diddley and Elvis Presley. Sonny Boy Williamson even toured Europe with the Yardbirds as his band. He famously said of the experience, “Those English kids want to play the blues so bad—and they play the blues so bad!” (Miles 133). What was it that these British youth wanted so badly to obtain? In an interview on National Public Radio, Eric Clapton recalled first hearing Robert Johnson’s blues as a teenager.
I was definitely overwhelmed, but I was also a bit repelled by the intensity of it. I kind of got hooked on it because it was so much more powerful than anything else I had heard or was listening to. Amongst all of his peers I felt he was the one that was talking from his soul without really compromising for anybody. (2004)
In an interview on Larry King Live, Clapton went deeper into the nature of his attraction and inadvertently raised some of the problem with the British revival of the blues, and white appropriation of the blues more generally. “You know what it was,” Clapton asked Larry King. “It was primitive. I think it was primitive, and it sounded like it was unattached to any kind of corporative thinking, you know what I mean? It was like a guy, one guy who was on his own reality in a kind of madness.” It is a short step from describing the primitive element, the madness in the music, to idealizing myths about blues singers making a pact with the Devil.
The third force shaping contemporary understandings of the blues as “Devil’s music” resulted from written histories that solidified a view that while not wholly wrong, bore within it serious misinterpretations of the roots of the blues and therefore its meaning for the culture that produced it. Paul Oliver, an English architectural historian, encouraged the revival of interest in the blues with his groundbreaking books including one of the first book-length histories, Blues Fell This Morning (1960). While his work went a long way toward interpreting the social and historical context of the blues within African American social life, as an outsider to that culture his work had inevitable limits. Writing over thirty years later, theologian and ethnomusicologist Jon Michael Spencer suggested that perhaps the most important limit for outsiders to the culture that produced the blues is the failure to “capture the music’s pervading ethos—its religious nature!” (xii). For example, Spencer notes Oliver’s position that “for the most part the blues is strictly secular in content. The old-time religion of the southern churches did not permit the singing of ‘Devil songs’ and ‘jumped-up’ songs as the blues were commonly termed” (117). Such framing shows, Spencer argues, that Oliver imposes “Christianity’s bifurcating worldview (the sacred versus the profane) on the holistic cosmology of this people of African origin” (xii).
Oliver’s work prepared the audience and energy for BBC-TV producer Giles Oakley’s five-part documentary and companion book both titled The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues. This work, intersecting with the powerful ethos of rock ‘n roll increasingly tied to drugs and sex, fed the fire of a growing fascination with the Devil-lore in blues music. Oakley responsibly noted that the label “the Devil’s music” was given “by (usually black) opponents who have feared its power as a social force, whether for ‘disruption’, ‘irresponsibility’, ‘irreligion’ or for sexual freedom” (8). Those fans and followers of the blues who lacked such careful attention to culture and context simply embraced the myth of sex and the Devil as an element of counter-culture music.
This mythology centered in the person of Robert Johnson who famously traded his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in order to gain his musical (and likely also sexual) prowess (see Palmer 1981 and Guralnick 1998). Spencer found that popular writing about Johnson often resorted to colorful stereotypes. Johnson was, for instance, “the original singer of American evil who played like the Devil and died like a dog,” supposedly barking on all fours as the Devil demanded his soul in payment (xiii). Spencer notes that since he was likely poisoned with strychnine-laced whiskey by a jealous husband of one of his many lovers, he quite possibly seemed delirious, on the floor, and even perhaps “barfed” like a dog (10). Such actual events unfortunately are bent to fit the fantasies of white fans drawn to the Devil mythology suggested in his music. Johnson’s classic song, “Hellhound on my Trail,” confirmed for many fans the whole mythology of his running from place to place to escape the Devil only to be caught in the end.
Extensive interviews and field research produced a much more nuanced portrayal of Robert Johnson’s life, one that resonates with the mythology of West African culture brought to America by the slaves, especially the story of Legba, a trickster god often found at crossroads. Legba was known as a god of good and evil, sacred and profane, male and female (Spencer 10–11). Such a trickster personage allowed Johnson—and other musicians—to claim the Devil as their relation (father, uncle) in order to gain attention and notoriety, building the crowds as they traveled and played. The multiple valences—both African and European Protestant—of their language allowed talk of the Devil to carry multiple nuances that were lost in translation to white urban youth of the 1950s and 1960s, and the blues, Spencer notes, gradually lost its original religiousness born of the complex culture of the Delta (99ff). In fact, one can see this transition even in one blues singer who made the transition from country to urban blues in his own lifetime: Muddy Waters. While his early songs both evidenced African religious traces (“I got my Mojo Working,” referencing “hoodoo”) and Protestant Christian (“I Can’t Be Satisfied,” with its intermittent cry, “Lord”), Waters last studio session in 1981 offered the song “Champagne and Reefer,” an homage to his favorite mood changing substances. The song was enthusiastically covered by The Rolling Stones, with special guest Buddy Guy, for their 2008 New York concert film Shine a Light.
For Muddy Waters as for much of the blues tradition, the story is not as simple as music on the side of God or the Devil, despite the tendency of many blues fans to have, as the Rolling Stones later sang, “sympathy for the Devil.” Yet the intimate relation of the juke joint and its pulsing blues with the clapboard church and its swelling organ gospels on Saturday night and Sunday morning holds the key to understanding how it might be that God loves the blues. To that final subject we turn in part three, forthcoming in The Cresset.
Christian Scharen is Assistant Professor of Worship and Theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. He is currently writing Broken Hallelujahs: Imagination, Pop Culture, and God (Brazos Press 2010).
Clapton, Eric. “Eric Clapton Takes on Robert Johnson’s Blues: Guitarist Records the ‘Powerful’ Music that Influenced Him.” Interview by Bob Edwards. Morning Edition, National Public Radio, 30 March 2004. (www.npr.org/templates/sotry/story.php?storyId=1798862)
_____. Interview by Larry King. Larry King Live. Cable News Network. 13 February 1998. (online at www.eric-clapton.co.uk/interviewsandarticles/kinginterview.htm)
Guralnick, Peter. Searching for Robert Johnson. New York: Plume, 1998.
Headlam, Dave. “Does the Song Remain the Same? Questions of Authenticity And Identification in the Music of Led Zeppelin.” In Concert Music, Rock, and Jazz Since 1945. Elizabeth West Marvin and Richard Hermann, eds. London: Boydell & Brewer, 1995.
Miles, Barry. The British Invasion: The Music, the Times, the Era. New York: Sterling, 2009.
Oakley, Giles. The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues. Second Edition. New York: Da Capo, 1997.
Oliver, Paul. Blues Fell this Morning: Meaning in the Blues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. New York: Viking 1981.
Scharen, Christian. “Why God Loves the Blues, Part I.” The Cresset, Vol. LXXIII, No. 2, (Advent-Christmas 2009), 35–38.
Spencer, Jon Michael. Blues and Evil. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.