Weekly Discussion Questions for Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition by Adam Gussow
Discussion Questions

Discussion Question for the Week of Apr 14 – Apr 20
Gussow’s introduction overviews the conversation about the devil and the blues tradition. What have you heard about the devil in blues?

Discussion Question for the Week of Apr 21 – Apr 27
Gussow states that even though the popular lore about “the devil” in blues origins is that it came from African griots and was molded onto the Christian devil, there is far more evidence for it coming from Christian dislike of stringed instruments, particularly the fiddle and later the guitar. In his words:

“An accurate genealogy of the devil’s-music idea in the American South, in sum, must acknowledge the possibility of African antecedents. But it must pay even closer attention to the economic incentives and existential challenges confronting both slave musicians and their successors in the decades after Emancipation. Ultimately the evidence suggests that the demonization of the blues is best understood not (or not primarily) as an African survival but rather as a racially inflected modern instance of an enduring conflict: fundamentalist religion, with its constricted behavioral protocols, pronouncing on a younger generation’s yearning for pleasure, freedom, and moral license.” (25-6)

Does this complication of the blues origin story change the way you look at the history and evolution of the blues? Why or why not?

Discussion Question for the Week of Apr 28 – May 4
How does discussing the development of the blues and the devil in the blues tradition change when we discuss it generationally–as Gussow calls them, “‘the river generation,’ ‘the railroad generation,’ ‘the automobile generation,’ and ‘the young moderns’” (63)–instead of by decade?

Discussion Question for the Week of May 5 – May 11
Sometimes we are so focused on the racial politics of the blues that we forget that there are other types of politics to discuss. Gussow brings up one important one: gender. He states, “We would do well to acknowledge that the challenge posed by black female sexuality— how to control it, channel it, and express it; how to protect it from the depredations of white men, black pimps, and the hurtful Jezebel stereotype continually inscribed by popular culture— was a source of vivid interest and intense concern to many African Americans during this period, not least the mothers of daughters entranced by the siren song of show business” (81). How do you see discussions of gender entering into blues music and performance, particularly when considering the works of female blues musicians?

Discussion Question for the Week of May 12 – May 18
In a world where it is dangerous, even deadly, to directly speak out about injustices, art forms become not just forms of protest, but of communication within specific communities. What vital messages do you see conveyed within the songs and situations Gussow discusses? Do you see any parallels between blues music and today’s black art forms?

Discussion Question for the Week of May 19 – May 25
Gussow states, “The devil, in short, was a figure of useable power for many black southern blues musicians: a rakish, voracious, dangerous, unpredictable, unconstrained exemplum of masculine potency. These qualities made the devil a particularly attractive role model in a Jim Crowed South intent on emasculating and immobilizing African American men” (138). In what ways do you see the devil in blues music as a figure of empowerment for black men?

Discussion Question for the Week of May 26 – Jun 1
Scholars such as Angela Davis have stated that one of the most empowering freedoms that came with emancipation was choosing who to love, have sex with, and perhaps marry. Gussow challenges that view somewhat, stating that while certainly sexual freedom was empowerment, blues songs, rather than largely celebrate that freedom, mourn the problems that come with it: “The phrase ‘irresponsible freedom’ suggests, among other things, a thoroughgoing promiscuity free from localized subcultural condemnation, but of course there were consequences for such behavior, and those consequences— enacted sexual freedoms wreaking psychological havoc and worse— are the very stuff of the blues. They are where the devil enters, in fact” (161). In what ways do you see the devil in blues music as part of the conversation surrounding love and sexual freedoms?

Discussion Question for the Week of Jun 2 – Jun 8
Based on Gussow’s reading, what are the differences and similarities between how male and female blues singers utilize the devil trope to discuss the perils of love? What are your thoughts on his analysis?

Discussion Question for the Week of Jun 9 – Jun 15
How and where have you encountered folklore surrounding Robert Johnson? What did you learn about him? How does Gussow’s research change how you think about the mythology surrounding Johnson?


Discussion Question for the Week of Jun 16 – Jun 22
This week’s reading focused on an often still-heated topic in blues, white involvement, particularly white musician succession of black blues greats. Gussow contextualizes this debate by noting that the 1980s is when this became a turning point discussion. He frames the conversation in postmodernism, saying:

I’m drawing on Jean-­François Lyotard’s idea that the postmodern condition is characterized by “incredulity toward metanarratives,” a loss of belief in the big cultural stories that anchor our social and imaginative lives. . . . One response to postmodernity is a what-­me-­worry attitude, a willingness to mix and match various cultural elements, an embrace of paradox and uncertainty. The slogan “No black, no white, just the blues” embodies this sort of stance, clearing aesthetic space for white blues performance even as it configures the blues scene as an antiracist utopia enabled by the collapse of Jim Crow. The other characteristic response to postmodernity is fundamentalism, which is to say, a retreat to reductive explanations, a return to origins and origin-­figures, a purging as illegitimate of whatever cultural elements are unwanted or inconvenient. In the blues world, we are all familiar with fundamentalist gestures. The irritable assertion, “Blues is black music,” is one such gesture. Both slogans represent a retreat from the complexities of history into the reassurance of myth. (244-5)

What are your thoughts on Gussow’s discussion of this issue? Does it help you contextualize debates about this topic in your local communities? What alternatives are there to the two responses Gussow outlines?

Discussion Question for the Week of Jun 23 – Jun 29
How does myth fuel various historical narratives, and why is it important to distinguish between myth and history when discussing any history, but in our case, particularly blues history?