Cover Story: The Blues Artist as Cultural Rebelby Stephen T. Asma
Published in the Humanist, July/August 1997 (Volume 57, Number 4), pp. 8-15.
A humanistic critique as well as Promethean defiance of Christian faith lies beneath the surface in the genre of music called the blues. As such, it reveals an important undercurrent of African American dissatisfaction with the Christian doctrine of forbearance toward oppressors.
The tension between the African American sacred music known as gospel and the secular music known as blues is philosophically illuminating. Many, gifted black vocalists, composers, and instrumentalists honed their respective arts within the nurturing context of the Baptist church choir, and many of those who have crossed over to more secular genres, from the 1920s to the present, have struggled with family disapproval and with personal conscience.
The inner struggle, for example, of Thomas Dorsey, the "father of gospel music," is well known. Dorsey wrestled with the powerful temptation of making money as a "wicked" blues composer versus the consecrated but starving existence of the gospel artist. So strong was this personal struggle that Dorsey claimed to have been healed only after a minister, in the midst of an ecstatic church service, pulled "a live serpent" from his throat. But even this draconian catharsis did not last very long, for Dorsey was soon penning more blues songs about sex, gambling, and struttin.' The idea that blues music is a temptation that ultimately must be exorcised is a powerful and recurring theme in twentieth-century black culture.
Musically speaking, the relationship between blues and gospel has been very close—in chord progressions, pentatonic scales, rhythmic structures, and so forth—but the two genres have been consistently characterized as representative of the sacred and the profane dimensions of African American culture. The struggle between the "calling" of the blues and the calling of gospel is frequently understood as the struggle for the souls of individuals; gospel artists get filled with the Holy Spirit in church while blues artists make deals with the devil at desolate crossroads.
Cultural historian Michael Bane describes the ongoing quarrel between secular and sacred music forms in his book, White Boy Singin' the Blues:
The Blues especially were the opposite side of Sacred—blues singers went directly to hell, did not pass go, did not collect anything. You could sing gospel or the blues, but never both. The blues belonged to the Devil, with his high-rollin' ways . . . and if you sang his music, the door to the Lord's house was shut to you. That's how it was in 1905 and that's how it is today.
However, the tendency to interpret the artist's transition from gospel to blues as a kind of degeneration or "falling" is relatively recent and perhaps superficial. Compared with the development and duration of the work-song and recreation-song genres amidst African American communities, the Christian hymn can be said to be in its infancy. Cultural historian James H. Cone explains in his book The Spirituals and the Blues that blues music is closely related to the much earlier "slave seculars":
The "secular" songs of slavery were "non-religious," occasionally anti-religious, and were often called "devil songs" by religious folk. The "seculars" expressed the skepticism of black slaves who found it difficult to take seriously anything suggesting the religious faith of white preachers.
Blues music, then, has a strong pedigree relation with these earlier non-Christian song genres. Indeed, the language and the ideology of Christianity itself has been interpreted by some scholars and social activists (perhaps most notably Malcolm X) as an alien importation—an ideological tool of repression. The idea that Christianity itself (and its attendant musical expression) is but a species of cultural imperialism provides us with a powerful and alternative framework for understanding the dialectic between the so-called sacred and profane cultural expressions.
We must seek to understand the extremely positive and affirmative character that the unrepentant blues artist signifies. These artists, both in their lifestyles and in their lyrical texts, offer a kind of Promethean resistance to the acquiescent values of the mainstream church-based community. Blues mythology is rich with cultural rebellion.
The revolutionary posture of the blues artist has been a source of empowerment and cultural identity throughout the twentieth century. The improvisational nature of the music and the audacity of the artists' lives represent important expressions of personal freedom during economically and socially oppressive times. Thus, the blues culture challenges and critiques mainstream culture and its ethics. While not a definitive statement about all blues music and culture, I find this one thematic thread particularly suggestive.
* * *
Generally speaking, challenges to dominant value systems or moral codes can be divided into either internal or external critiques. An internal critique is one that questions, criticizes, or calls for reforms in dominant ethical practices from a vantage point inside that dominant system. The church-based civil rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr., for example, is a rebellion waged entirely within the Christian ethical framework. The keynote of King's strategy was to point out that racist Christians are not truly Christians. It was a charge of moral hypocrisy and a charge that presupposes the truth of the dominant Christian value system.
By contrast, an external critique—one that is leveled from outside the dominant system—challenges the whole system and charges not that a hypocrisy must be remedied between belief and deed but, rather, that the beliefs themselves are inherently flawed or counterproductive, as the case may be. An example of an external criticism is when a Democrat critiques a Republican ideology, and vice versa. Bob Dole's criticism of Bill Clinton during the last presidential election did not claim that Clinton was failing to live up to the ideals of the Democratic Party; the criticism was of the ideals themselves. The rebellion of the blues artist toward mainstream values is, I believe, a challenge of this external kind.
To better understand the nature of this particular criticism of mainstream values, where better to begin than with a central maxim of Christianity? "Resist not evil: but whoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matt. 5:39). This quote is the cornerstone of Christian ethics and, as such, is an unquestionable contribution to the philosophy of forgiveness. But this passage can also be intoned in matters of social and cultural coercion. Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason says of the cheek-turning biblical passage: "It is assassinating the dignity of forbearance, and sinking man into a spaniel." Remember also what St. Paul, the proselytizer from Tarsus, wrote: "Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not with eye service, as men pleasers, but in singleness of heart" (Col. 3:22). Combine the Nazarene's maxim of patient acquiescence with St. Paul's defense of slavery and it is not hard to understand Malcolm X's claim that "the Christian world has failed to give the black man justice." In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he further articulates this Nietzschean criticism of Christianity:
This white man's Christian religion further deceived and brainwashed this "Negro" to always turn the other cheek, and grin, and scrape, and bow, and be humble, and to sing, and to pray, and to take whatever was dished out by the devilish white man; and to look for his pie in the sky, and for his heaven in the hereafter, while right here on earth the slavemaster white man enjoyed his heaven.
Blues critic Paul Garon summarizes this interpretation in Blues and the Poetic Spirit when he states: "The black church, in attempting to incorporate the more 'civilizing' aspects of Christianity, has served the purposes of the ruling class by attempting to crush the spirit of revolt, replacing it with the doctrine of accommodation." Certain elements in blues culture follow this critical thesis.
Two basic presuppositions of the Christian or dominant ideology are challenged by the blues artist. One of the challenges raised is against the doctrine of human depravity or the "fallenness" of humankind. When missionaries began to convert slaves early in the seventeenth century, many slave owners became disturbed and concerned that baptizing African Americans might elevate them from their "subhuman" condition of "natural" servitude to one of freedom. To quell this fear, the Virginia Assembly passed a law in 1667 which assured the slave owners that baptism in no way exempted the slave from bondage. With this specter banished, the missionary could instruct the slave in the ways of Christian piety and theology, initiating them through baptism. The very act of baptism is, according to Christian theology, a cleansing of original sin.
According to the doctrine of original sin—a central component of all Christianity—human beings are born in a state of depravity; we are all marked with some offending metaphysical stain that makes us spiritually impure. In other words, no one is innocent and no one deserves happiness. Human beings are guilty simply because of their being born human.
Augustine fully understood that, if the human condition was a state of fallenness, then the greatest sin must be pride. Pride is a refusal to accept or recognize one's depravity or unclean nature—a refusal to go on one's knees for anyone or anything. If human beings are fundamentally sinful and guilty, then their proper attitude in life should be apologetic. Suffering is, for the Christian, par for the course; it is acceptable and perhaps even deserved, given the human condition. Yet the proud person is unapologetic and self-affirming rather than self-negating. For the proud Promethean character, suffering is always unacceptable.
British author W. Somerset Maugharn contrasts the two images of Christ and Prometheus in an illuminating way. In A Writer's Notebook, he argues that Prometheus is the freedom-loving rebel made from unconquerable courage, while Christ is the embracer of suffering whose greatest achievement seems to be a resigned acceptance of his own tortured death. That suffering should ever be seen to be good—let alone deserved—is a repugnant notion for the Promethean character. Maugham goes on to praise the prideful spirit:
Even though the fetters that bind a man cannot be broken, let him remain a rebel still; though he suffers from cold and hunger, illness and poverty and lack of friends, though he knows that the road is uphill all the way and that the night has no morning, let him refuse ever to acknowledge that cold and hunger, illness and poverty are good.
It is with this spirit of protest and resolve that the blues artist challenges the so-called slave ethic of mainstream morality. While the Christian is in need of redemption and forgiveness, the blues artist boasts of personal power and rebels against authority and convention.
In Looking Up at Down, music historian William Barlow divides the texts of blues songs into basic categories, one of which he terms "prideful songs of self assertion." And in The Music of Black Americans, music historian Eileen Southern, noting a similar bravado, states: "Almost always there is a note of irony . . . in the blues, as if the blues singer is audaciously challenging fate to mete out further blows." It is this prideful stance—this bold Prometheanism—that allows the individual to be a powerful and active player in the world rather than a passive servant. The blues artist is an "end in one's self" rather than a means to some other end. In the natural realm, the prideful self-assertion flies in the face of white supremacy postures; in the supernatural realm, it flies in the face of spiritual groveling. The Muddy Waters blues anthem "Mannish Boy" is a prime example:
Now when I was a young boy, at the age of five
My mother said I'm gonna be, the greatest man alive
But now I'm a man, I made twenty-one
I want you to believe me Honey, we're having lots of fun.
I'm a man, I spell M, A child, N, that represents man
No B, O child, Y. that spells Mannish Boy.
I'm a man, I'm a full grown man
I'm a man, I'm a rollin' stone
I'm a man, I'm a Hoochie Coochie Man
Sitting on the outside, just me and my mate
I made the moon, come up two hours late
Wasn't that a Man?
Or consider the chorus of another Waters classic entitled "I'm Ready":
I am ready, I'm ready as anybody can be.
I am ready, I'm ready as anybody can be.
I am ready for you, I hope you're ready for me.
The boasts of the blues artist often center around sexual bravado. Songs of sexual prowess are, of course, inconsistent with European spirituality because Christianity has followed the Platonic and Cartesian models of a double or dual self. A person, according to this cultural tradition, is made up of immaterial and immortal soul, on the one hand, and corruptible brute matter or body, on the other. Thus, to celebrate the body or the flesh, as the blues artist does, is to turn away from European cultural values and to turn toward a set of values that includes the body within the realm of "the good." In the song "Flamin' Mamie," Koko Taylor sings the following tale of sexual bravado:
They call me Flamin' Mamie, cause I'm the hottest gal in town.
When it comes to lovin'
I'm a human oven
And I know how to melt 'em down.
Everytime I shimmy,
Everytime I shake
I can do more damage than a San Francisco quake.
Yes, I love my way to hell
I love the devil and I love him well.
Little devils runnin' up and down the wall,
Sayin' do somethin' caddy, before she loves us all.
Blues culture, then, runs counter to a dominant value system that devalues the flesh. The celebration of the body in blues culture represents a stronghold of rebellion against a mainstream ideology that characterizes the human being as metaphysically flawed.
* * *
The second and related presupposition that blues culture challenges is the idea of transcendent or posthumous justice. Southern tells of the hymns and spiritual songs of Dr. Isaac Watts that particularly influenced and inspired black Christians through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. According to Southern, Watts' often-sung hymn, "There Is a Land of Pure Delight," inspired "his people to believe that their wretched existence on earth would be followed by a blissful one in heaven":
There is a land of pure delight,
Where saints immortal reign.
Infinite day excludes the night,
And pleasures banish pain.
There everlasting Spring abides.
And never-with’ring flow'rs:
Death, like a narrow sea divides
This heav’nly land from ours.
As Malcolm X points out, Christian ideology places the realm of justice outside this world. That is to say, one gets what one deserves only after one is dead. Justice in the transcendent afterlife allegedly amends all of the inequities that can be found here on earth. Indeed, some historians have pointed out that it was precisely this belief of life may be wretched now but just wait for the pleasures of heaven that appealed so strongly to the underclasses of the Roman Empire and set the small cult on its prosperous path. One can appreciate how this psychological interpretation of Christianity might explain its success among oppressed slaves in America.
The critique that Malcolm X makes of this admittedly soothing system of heavenly rewards and hellish punishments is that such a belief is a kind of "bad faith," as Sartre might call it, or a form of "philosophical suicide," as Camus might refer to it. That is to say, such thinking stands in the way of, or veils, an honest and unflinching engagement with reality—a reality that might be transformed if only it were boldly faced. When African Americans found themselves plantation slaves without basic freedoms, when they found themselves hung from trees in the South like "strange fruit," and when they found themselves unable to get service in restaurants or catch cabs on city corners, then it was undoubtedly comforting to envision one's self and others enjoying retribution in an afterlife and to envision one's enemies suffering in the same. But this extremely appealing vision, according to thinkers like Malcolm X, twins the eye too far in the distance and fails to remedy injustice in the here and now.
The modern mainstream African American culture, steeped in Christianity, is challenged by a core of self-affirming, rebellious heralds of injustice—the blues artists. The blues artist not only reclaims a non-European (prebaptized) attitude toward the body but also attempts to reclaim justice for this world. Michael Bane, following music historian Miles Fischer, points out in White Boy Singin' the Blues that African Americans never really interpreted the Christian concept of heaven as otherworldly until after the failed rebellions of people like slave leader Nat Turner (circa 1830s). Heaven did not originally represent a transcendent reality for the slave; it represented the freedom of Africa—a physical, geographical reality in this world. After the failed Turner insurrection, Bane states, "More conservative blacks gained control over the militants, and the operative philosophy in the black community became bow and scrape to the whites in order to survive."
Historian E. Franklin Frazier points out in his book The Negro Church in America that the African American church was able to flourish because its otherworldly message “offered no threat to the white man's dominance in both economic and social relations." Frazier goes on to say that “the Negro's church was not a threat to white domination and aided the Negro to become accommodated to an inferior status."
Another consequence of this philosophical revision was that the heaven of the slaves began to more closely resemble the transcendental heaven of whites—never attainable in this life. The blues artist, with the attendant emphasis upon bodily pleasure and the calls for undelayed justice, represents in many ways a return to the non-European cultural character of the this-life-affirming African. Paul Garon argues that blues music is fundamentally atheistic in the sense that it rejects the two-world doctrine of Western monotheism, stating that the blues "has no interest in the systems of divine reward or punishment: it holds out for 'paradise now.'"
Skip James, a blues artist who did an unsuccessful tenure as a preacher, explained the song "Cypress Grove" as a covert criticism of church piety. In I'd Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues, music historian Stephen Calt says of James: "His songs were public announcements of his breach with the church, and even his seemingly innocuous lyrics contained rebellious overtones that would have been clear to himself, if not his contemporaries." As James himself says in Calt's book:
I had heard those old people sing a song about "I don't care where the Lord bury my body," and "I don't care where you bury my body, since my soul's gonna be with God." But at that time I was kinda rough, an' I . . . say: "I'd rather be buried in a cypress grove."
Pious niceties about the next world did not play well with James, and he could not even confirm some basic tenets from the Bible. Witness this passage from "Cypress Grove":
The old people told me, but I never did know:
The Good Book declare "You got to reap just what you sow."
The rebellious rejection of divine justice can be seen in Son House's song "My Black Mama." House sings that there "ain't" no heaven and there "ain't" no hell, and where he'll be going when he dies "can't nobody tell." In Big Bill Broonzy's song "When Will I Get to Be Called a Man?" he expresses an essential and justifiable impatience with the idea of justice in some distant future. Broonzy does not want justice in some afterlife, and he does not want it in thirty years. He wants justice and respect now, and he doesn't want it as a favor—he wants it because he deserves it:
When I was born in this world, this was what happened to me,
I was never called a man and now I'm fifty-three.
I wonder when will I be called a man,
Or do I have to wait until I get ninety-three?
I worked on a levee camp and a chain gang too,
A black man is a boy to a white, don't care what he can do.
I wonder when will I be called a man,
Or do I have to wait until I get ninety-three?
They said I was undereducated, my clothes dirty and torn,
Now I got a little education, but I'm a boy right on.
I wonder when will I be called a man,
Or do I have to wait until I get ninety-three?
In another of Broonzy's songs, "Black, Brown, and White," he again characterizes the rebellious and defiant spirit that is rightfully impatient for justice in this world:
Me and a white man was working side by side, this is
what it meant,
They was paying him a dollar an hour, and they
was paying me fifty cents.
I went to the employment office, got a number
and I got in line.
They called everybody's number, but they never
did call mine.
I helped win sweet victory with my little
plough and hoe,
Now I want you to tell me brother, what you
gonna do 'bout the old Jim Crow?
And Texas Alexander, in his song "Justice Blues," makes a very clear criticism of the justice system embraced by the religious mainstream:
Take me out of this bottom before the high water rise.
Take me out of this bottom before the high water rise.
You know I ain't no Christian, and I don't wanna be baptized.
I cried, Lord, my father, lord, eh, kingdom come.
I cried, Lord, my father, lord, eh, kingdom come.
Send me back my woman, then "thy will be done."
The story B. B. King tells in the 1980 film Give My Poor Heart Ease about how he became a blues singer is itself a commentary on this tension between earthly and supernatural justice. He explains that it was common practice in his early career as a "street musician" for him to sing both gospel and blues songs. His conversion to blues music came gradually as he realized that those people who requested gospel songs smiled when the tune was finished and piously assured him of God's blessings and heavenly rewards, while those people who requested blues songs demonstrated their appreciation by reaching into their pockets and purses. Thus, the earthly rewards of earned money in the pocket thankfully delivered an unregenerate King to the ears of millions of grateful blues fans.
All of this indicates that blues culture may be closer to the inspirational heart of black social justice movements than previously thought. Contrary to the widespread belief that the black church was the chief inspirational and mobilizing force behind the civil rights movement, Adolph Reed Jr. amasses compelling data that uncovers a timid and pusillanimous religious community but a strong and determined secular community. In The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon: The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics, Reed's evidence of religious inertia throughout the twentieth century suggests that the oft-quoted bond between church piety and social justice is largely mythological. Such a bond is frequently fabricated as a rhetorical device for legitimizing the authority of preacher-politicians.
* * *
Before turning, finally, to reflect on the possible rationale for the African American "demonization" of blues, it is important at this juncture to consider the recent thesis of Jon Michael Spencer's book Blues and Evil. Spencer suggests that the characterization of blues music and culture as "irreligious," "anti-religious," and possibly "atheistic," is a mischaracterization by white scholars who do not understand black culture. This is a provocative claim, and worthy of some examination.
Criticizing blues theorists like Paul Oliver and Paul Garon, and even Richard Wright's claim that blues culture had "an atheistic vision of life," Spencer argues that such branding is a way for whites to dismiss and devalue black culture. Spencer likens these characterizations of the blues to the analysis of theatrical minstrel shows provided by literary critic Houston Baker. Citing Baker, Spencer explains:
"The device is designed to remind white consciousness that black men and women are mix-speakers bereft of humanity--carefree devils strumming and humming all day—unless, in a gaslight misidentification, they are violent devils fit for lynching, a final exorcism that will leave whites alone." Thus, the blues is not devoid of spiritual values; it was Oliver and those of his ilk who devalued the spirituality of the blues.
While it is quite true that white culture sought countless ways to dehumanize and distance itself from African American culture, in both the arts and particularly the sciences, Spencer's claim here rests on a dubious assumption. He presupposes that the charge of blues culture's anti-spiritualism is strictly and unquestionably "pejorative." It should be noted that pointing out the rejection of traditional religious precepts by blues artists may well be the highest form of praise and celebration rather than denigration. To claim that the blues artist's rejection of transcendental ethics is a Promethean rebellion is, contrary to Spencer's read, a humanist's highest form of flattery. It seems that Spencer mistakenly assumes that to devalue the gods is to automatically give way to nihilism and perhaps become less human, so he spends his entire book adamantly arguing that the blues is secretly "theological." There is, however, a long tradition of thinkers who have argued, contrary to Spencer's assumption, that it is not atheists who are "bereft of humanity" but the transcendental spiritualists.
Where Spencer is most interesting and suggestive is in his articulation of this secret theology of the "blues god." Following Carl Jung's analysis of mythological "trickster gods" in non-Christian systems such as Native American and African religions, Spencer argues that the god of blues culture is an African trickster god. The "problem of evil" or "theodicy" is an old philosophical puzzle that asks how an all-good god can be reconciled with the daily existence of suffering and evil in our world. The problem takes on palpable tension when we reflect upon the plight of those African Americans prior to civil rights legislation who were asked to believe in a just God that sat idly by while all kinds of suffering beset blacks nationwide. Spencer claims that "the 'problem of evil' partly resulted in 'blues people' ignoring the God they perceive ignored them and fashioning a new god." The trickster god is not understood to be "all good" and thus the problem of evil ceases to be a problem. The trickster god is a multifaceted deity that embraces and expresses all manner or contraries.
Spencer suggests that blues culture which embraced "the dark side" was not rejecting theology per se but was consciously or unconsciously (he never makes this clear) returning to a pre-Christian, African-based spiritual holism. In this holistic view, good and evil are not alienated from each other into cosmic dualities of god versus devil, sacred versus profane, or justice versus injustice but, rather, the two aspects of reality are envisioned as two sides of one spiritual coin. The Hindu religion has a similar deity, Shiva, who is both cosmic creator and destroyer, and the Chinese culture has its interpenetrating unity of cosmic principles, yin and yang.
It seems that Spencer wants to transform the anti-religious sentiments of blues culture into a higher theology by invoking a secret, complex metaphysical agenda. He wants to dialectically put the negative critical moment (the seeming atheism) into a positive synthesis. We are in agreement that the negative aspects of blues ideology give way to a positive, life-affirming stance; however, he claims that the positive moment comes in a new and improved transcendental theology, while I claim that it comes in the form of a this-worldly humanism.
One last feature of Spencer's important book requires comment. Spencer's thesis that the blues is a theologically grounded culture is confusing because of the license he takes with the term theology. For example, he upbraids Paul Oliver and others in the most dramatic fashion throughout the book, claiming that white scholars have missed the truth about the blues because they are white, but then turns around and asserts an interpretation that is frequently indistinguishable from Oliver's—all the while claiming that it is new because it is theological and it is correct because he is black. Spencer analyzes, for example, the "blues insurrection against the heavens" or what I have been calling the rejection of transcendent justice.
Unfortunately, he tortures the term theological into an unrecognizable and unhelpful form. More importantly, despite his claims to the contrary, it is very hard to see any difference between his interpretation of salvation as sexuality and Oliver and Garon's interpretation of the same issue; both camps argue for a rejection of transcendent reality and a replacing of heavenly rewards with worldly rewards. Nothing significant is added to the interpretation by simply calling it theological.
* * *
Having pointed out a number of problems with Spencer's analysis of blues culture, it is important to recognize the fruitful path that he has begun to clear for us. To my mind, the most provocative area to explore is the positive way in which blues iconography functioned for the individual and the community and how its chief icon, the devil, was seen from inside and outside blues culture. We have already reflected upon the manner in which blues texts and blues praxis challenge the presuppositions of fallenness and transcendent justice, but it remains to briefly examine the celebration of the devil and hell in blues mythology. Anyone who doubts that blues culture represents some challenge to Christian values must be unfamiliar with the enormous body of references, allusions, and folktales in the blues which pertain to the devil.
Make no mistake, blues artists are not secular humanists. When I earlier described the rejection of transcendentalism as humanistic, I was speaking relatively. That is, relative to a Christian metaphysics that envisions this mundane realm as a mere preface for the next realm, the blues singer's embrace of this mundane world looks more humanistic. But blues culture, with its emphasis on voodoo, has a rich lexicon of supernatural concepts and concerns. They are, however, all counterculture icons. There are countless songs about hoodoo women, voodoo doctors, deals with the devil, and mojo magic. The system of positive symbols that functioned in blues culture runs directly counter to the mainstream system of Christian icons.
It seems reasonable to suggest that, if an oppressed individual is force-fed a pantheon of positive and negative icons, and if the supposedly positive icons provide him with no tangible power, then the search for personal power may turn toward the system of negative symbols. Thus, the negative iconography is inverted by the counterculture into a system of symbols that bestow power in an otherwise powerless environment. Feminists, such as Robin Roberts, argue that women are currently reclaiming or transforming originally misogynist images (everything from Malleus Maleficarum to pulp science fiction) as new icons of feminine empowerment. Blues artists seem to have done the same thing with Christian deities which previously served only to frighten.
African American culture that fully embraced the mainstream Christian-based value system equally embraced the demonization of blues artists. Contrary to blues artists, however, mainstream black culture interpreted the demonology in a more predictably pejorative way. Nonetheless, one can ask the anthropological question about why mainstream Christian blacks demonized blues culture. I believe that a very rational explanation, having to do with social cohesion, can be given for the tendency in mainstream culture to discourage the blues lifestyle.
It must be admitted that the rebellion and the freedom won through blues praxis is highly individualistic. Again, James Cone confirms in The Spirituals and the Blues that "in contrast to the group singing of the spirituals, the blues are intensely personal and individualistic." Blues is a form of cultural rebellion, but it is carried out by the individual—the loner, the wanderer. In Running with the Devil, historian Robert Walser's analysis of "devil imagery" in heavy metal music can be applied, at least in part, to the same imagery in blues music. A song about "runnin' with the devil" is a trope for having freedom, according to Walser:
Freedom is presented as a lack of social ties: no love, no law, no responsibility, no delayed gratification. One might feel lonely, but that loneliness can also be a source of pride. Running with the Devil means living in the present, and the music helps us experience the pleasure of the moment.
The blues artist, a social and moral gadfly, threatens the cohesiveness of an underclass that accepts its place in this world (maintaining hopes for the next), and so it makes sense that such "boat-rocking" should be demonized using the Christian images of evil. Thus, the devil plays a crucial role in blues culture and mythology, partly because no greater stigma could be attached by mainstream black culture to the threatening postures of the counterculture blues artist. An African American mother might tell her son or daughter that blues music is the devil's music not because it really steals one's soul but because she wishes to spare her child the additional pain and suffering that any social rebel necessarily brings upon him- or herself and the community. As Calt puts it, "Blues-singing was, in fact, one of the most dangerous occupations in America." One can imagine ancient Greek mothers, for example, telling their children that philosophy was evil, citing the subterfuge rationale that it corrupted the soul. But the true rationale behind such a prohibition may be the rather obvious fear that her child might share the agonizing fate of a Socrates.
The function of blues music in the individual psyche could also branch out into the wider community, and perhaps it should not be too narrowly confined to the individual and set against the social psyche. The blues singer could give voice to—with an intimidating honesty—the absurdities of black life in an oppressive white world. Just giving voice to an absurd condition can give tremendous relief and strength. Cone explains that the expression of absurdity in blues music "afforded black people a certain distance from their immediate trouble and allowed them to see and feel it artistically, thereby offering them a certain liberating catharsis. That black people could transcend trouble without ignoring it means that they were not destroyed by it. "This analysis makes a compelling case, then, for the healthy sociopsychological function of blues music on Friday and Saturday nights—a function for which gospel music on Sunday mornings has frequently been praised.
Muddy Waters said that the blues had a baby and named it rock `n roll. I think it is reasonable to suggest, along with many others, that much of rock music (certainly in its early days) is a kind of sanitized version of blues music. That is to say, the deeper and more disturbing themes, such as I have discussed, have been left to the margins, and the strictly entertaining facets have been magnified and transformed into commodities. Admittedly, these are generalizations, and it would be more accurate to claim that most musical genres have their respective serious and entertaining dimensions. My hope in this article has been to excavate some of the very serious philosophical themes which often lie buried within the blues genre and which may tend to be forgotten when contemplating the purely entertaining dimensions. Blues music frequently meant psychological survival and identity affirmation in a world without political freedoms.
Stephen T. Asma is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Columbia College in Chicago and a professional blues artist. He is the author of two recent books, Buddha for Beginners and Following Form and Function: A Philosophical Archaeology of Life Science.