"Seems Like Murder Here is a true and rare presentation of the blues. With this phenomenal book, Gussow becomes a triple-crown winner in his contributions to the blues: as a brilliant performer, as a poignant memoirist, and now as a seminal blues scholar."Sterling D. Plumpp, author of Blues Narratives
Racing Down the Blues
Question: Congress has decreed that 2003 is officially the year of the blues2003 is the one hundredth anniversary of W. C. Handy's encounter with the blues style, which he heard played by a musician on a train platform in Tutwiler, Mississippi. The rural folk music style that became the blues coalesced in the early 1890s in the Deep SouthTexas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Can you set the scene for the birth of the blues?
Adam Gussow: The 1890s saw three consecutive years of flooding along the Mississippi and a worldwide depression with devastating local effects. Racial hysteria reached a fever pitch in the South, focused on the specter of the so-called black beast rapist. And lynchingsuddenly reinvented as a white spectator sportreached unprecedented levels.
The 1890s also saw the coming-of-age of the first freeborn generation of black southerners, a generation that enjoyed an unprecedented freedom of travel (although hemmed in by lynch law and vagrancy laws), a new freedom to determine the contours of one's sexual personhood, and a freedom, too, to live out the violent outlaw identities of mythic "bad niggers" such as Stagolee and Railroad Bill. In the midst of virulent racism and violent repression, the blues emerged out of a creative tension between black grievance and disillusionment on the one hand and black freedom and expressive license on the other.
The blues came into being as a new musical idiom within which footloose, guitar-playing, young black male musiciansand their female equivalents on the black vaudeville circuitcould grapple with the violent and dehumanizing constraints on their lives by lyricizing and singing the freedoms that they were in the process of exploring.
Question: In Seems Like Murder Here you make the link between southern violencespecifically lynchingand the blues as explicit as possible. In what ways were the lyrics of the blues a response to white-on-black violence?
Gussow: In "Blues in the Mississippi Night," an interview taped in the late 1940s, Big Bill Broonzy told Alan Lomax that black sharecroppers would sometimes shout things like "Get off my foot, goddammit!" at their mules when their white boss was around. There were things they wanted to say to the boss himself, but the threat of violence that hung over any black self-assertion in Jim Crow Mississippi silenced them. In the same way, much of the response to white violenceand particularly lynchingtakes this indirect, coded form in the blues.
For instance, Bessie Smith's "Blue Spirit Blues" and Little Brother Montgomery's "The First Time I Met You" are coded blues about lynching in which the noose is never mentioned, but the lyrics paint a dark drama in which the singer is completely alone and yet surrounded by absolute evil. Lyrics like these drew on the black southern audience's memories and fears of lynching.
Question: The song "Crazy Blues" was written by Perry Bradford and recorded in 1920 by Mamie Smith. "Crazy Blues" has often been dismissed as a period novelty, interesting only because it was the very first recorded blues song. However, your take on this is much differentyou call it "an insurrectionary social text." Can you talk specifically about how this song is a response to southern violence?
Gussow: What I've always found fascinating about this song is a couplet that shows up late in the final verse, and that no blues scholar or scholar of African American culture had previously discussed. "I'm gonna do like a Chinaman," Mamie sings, "go and get some hop / Get myself a gun, and shoot myself a cop." Drugs, guns, and cop-killing in the very first recorded blues! Surely this is worthy of commentaryespecially since the song was, as every scholar had noted, a hugely popular hit in 1920, the first real "race record" hit. But nobody had discussed these lines.
Seventy-five thousand copies of "Crazy Blues" were sold through Harlem record shops in the first month of the song's release. What did this song mean to a black Harlem audience? That Harlem audience was greatly thickened by migrant black southerners, many of whom had fled from places in which lynching was rampant and in which the all-white police forces often connived with the lynch mobs, or personally led them. The Red Summer of 1919marked by black and white rioting in northern cities, including Chicagowas a fresh memory. The Ku Klux Klan was stirring back into life across the South and a serious attempt was made to start a chapter in New York City. "Crazy Blues" was a quiet riot.
Question: So the blues expressed not only the dread of being a victim of violence, but it expressed a retributive violence as well.
Gussow: All the themes of gangsta rap were first expressed in the blues. The blues expressed the determination of blacks to defend themselves, in good old American outlaw fashion if necessarysuch as the "bad nigger" example of "Railroad Bill" who's going to "kill everybody ever done me harm."
The power that the lynch mob exerted on lone black subjects was entrancing as well as terrifying. Bluesmen also sang songs in which they imagined themselves exerting such dismembering and total power. For example, Skip James sings of taking his "32-20" pistol and "cutting" his lover "half in two."
Question: Another trail of evidence you follow in Seems Like Murder Here are the autobiographical writings of blues musicians. W.C. Handy himself had a close encounter with a lynching party. Can you relate that story and talk about the reflection of violence in Handy's music?
Gussow: Handy's 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues, has often been misread as the genial, Uncle-Tommish reflections of what one critic has referred to as "America's best-loved Negro." In fact, Handy's text both represents and contests Jim Crow violence in surprisingly blunt fashion. The black minstrel performers with whom Handy toured the South in the 1890s lived blues lives, in a sense: racist whites threw stones at them, shot at the trains that transported them, insulted them, threatened them with lynching, andin an episode Handy relates about Louis Wright, a young minstrel who refused to defer to a white crowdcut out their tongues and strung them up.
On one occasion in Texas, Handy got into a dispute with a local white man and ended up punching the man in the mouth. Handy fled, blustering about returning with a gun (the black minstrels carried and used Winchesters), then slipped back into the minstrel troupe's Pullman coach while the offended white man went off to rustle up a lynch mob. Handy's patron, Frank Mahara, squirreled Handy away in the so-called "get-away," a beneath-the-floorboards compartment. When the mob returned, led by the local sheriff, Mahara put on a show, claiming he'd wring Handy's neck himself if the errant bandleader dared to show his face. The mob finally dispersed; Handy's skin was safe. The minstrels fled town that night.
I read Handy's "St. Louis Blues," composed more than a decade later, as Handy's nod to this unnervingly close encounter with southern brutality: "If I feel tomorrow like I feel today . . . I'm gonna pack my grip, and make my getaway." Handy did indeed know about the "get-away," and about the complex feeling called the blues: fear and despair and loneliness, but also animating rage and a desire to get the hell out of a town that wanted you dead.
Question: In another lifebefore you became a professor of Englishyou made your living playing blues harmonica, forming the duo Satan and Adam with guitar player Sterling "Mister Satan" Magee. You wrote about those years in your blues memoir Mr. Satan's Apprentice. How has your experience as a blues musician shaped your view of the blues tradition?
Gussow: I'm a peaceful man, as was Mr. Satan, but I realized midway through my blues-and-violence project that a surprising number of the songs he sang (and I accompanied on harp) threatened violent retribution against women who'd offended him. I literally went back to our recordings and re-encountered them, astonished. In "C. C. Rider," off our first album, Mr. Satan sang gleefully about getting a rifle and sawing the barrel off, the better to blast his lover to kingdom come; in an original tune entitled "I'll Get You," he told his errant woman, "I'll break both your elbows." Hmmm. I'd never paid much attention to the violent themes of the blues. In all my years of performing, on the streets of Harlem and in clubs across the country, I'd never once seen a gun or knife. But once I began to pay attention, and began to read blues musicians' memoirs with their tales of witnessed lynchings and juke-joint brawlswell, sometimes the blind learn to see, later on. I had a sort of conversion experience.
Question: Are you still making music? Is Mr. Satan?
Gussow: Mr. Satan had some kind of nervous breakdown back in the summer of 1998, when he was living down in Brookneal, Virginia. He recovered enough that we were able to play one last gig, June 1999 in Lynchburg, before officially calling it a day. I lost track of him after that, and actually feared he might be dead. But he resurfaced in his boyhood home, St. Petersburg, Florida. That's where he's living today: in a nursing home, at his relatives' insistence. He's overmedicated and unable to play guitarI visited him about a year agobut he does play a bit of piano for the nursing home residents and he's very popular. Of course he's dropped the "Mr. Satan" moniker; everybody just calls him Sterling.
I left New York City for Oxford, Mississippi in August 2002 for a teaching job at Ole Miss. I love my job, but I've been too busy to play much music. I did have one wonderful gig, though, back in October, playing a festival at Hopson's Plantation in Clarksdale with Sam Carr, the longtime drummer with the Jelly Roll Kings. Talk about a deep-shuffle groove! Sam and I are playing a big gig in the Grove at Ole Miss on July 13: midsummer night's blues in Mississippi. I can't complain.