This is The Turnaround with Rev. Zach Chandler, where, every week, we’ll be breaking down a different aspect of the blues for a deeper understanding of the music, culture, and people that are the blues. For the next several weeks, we’ll be examining some of the most influential bluesmen of the last century to try to understand where the blues comes from. As an art form centered around expression, the personalities around it are part of what makes this music so special
Last time, we honored one of the “Kings of the Blues”, certainly one of the most iconic bluesmen of all time — B.B. King.
This week, we’ll take a short break from the Kings and, with Halloween being upon us, focus on another influential personality in the blues, the Devil.
From its earliest days, talk of the Devil has been all over the blues community. The blues (along with just about every other popular genre of secular music) is called the Devil’s music. Songs like “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Devil Got My Woman”, and “Hellhound On My Trail” abound. Legends circulate about all manner of popular blues musicians selling their soul to the Devil, like we touched on with Robert Johnson a few weeks ago.
We’ll go more in-depth on some of these topics later when we get into religion and its influence on the blues, but here’s a quick overview of this dark, deceptive figure and his relation to the blues.
Here’s what we know: The most obvious figure being talked about in the blues when we refer to the Devil is Satan of the Abrahamic tradition. Satan, in this tradition, is a deceptive individual who tempts people into sin. In the Old Testament of the Bible, Satan is the Serpent in Genesis that tempts Eve into eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil who then convinces Adam to eat it. As a result of breaking this direct command by God, Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden of Eden forever. Women were cursed to know the pain of childbirth and men were cursed to have to work the land to live. In Job, Satan, in what almost seems likes a bet with God, causes all kinds of disastrous events to happen to Job to see if he could break Job’s devotion to God.
In the New Testament, Satan tempts Jesus as he’s fasting in the desert, promising him dominion over the earth if he’ll bow to Satan and worship him. Satan entered into Judas Iscariot to cause him to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. The Revelation of John talks about a war in Heaven between the angels and Satan and, when Satan loses, he is cast into Abyss for a thousand years. After a final battle on earth at Armageddon, he is finally thrown into the Lake of Fire. Christ rules over the New Jerusalem and all the pain and injustice in the world are set right.
It’s also apparent in the blues tradition, that the Devil in these stories is influenced by the Voodoo god Papa Legba. Papa Legba is a trickster god of communication and stands at the “crossroads” of the physical and spiritual planes, intermediating between man and the divine. Offerings to Papa Legba are often left at crossroads in exchange for some kind of supernatural intervention into the realm of man. It’s quite obvious that this is, at least in part, the root of the “selling your soul at the crossroads” motif.
In LaVeyan Satanism, practitioners reject the notion of the divine and supernatural elements of Satan and, instead, use him as a symbol for rebellion against authority. He is radical individualism anthropomorphized. This iteration of Satan is used in a lot of modern blues and rock and roll as a way to promote individual liberty and a bucking of traditions seen as oppressive to mankind.
Whether he is a tempter or trickster, adversary or intermediary, or simply an anti-establishment icon, the Devil has proved to be a profound figure in the Blues. Of course, the perfect pairing for this week’s column is Jim Beam Devil’s Cut bourbon, whiskey that has been extracted from wood barrels used in the aging process.
Have a fun and safe Halloween everyone and try not to eat too much candy (or grown-up candy, for that matter). We’ll see you next time to delve further into the Devil’s music with one of its kings: Freddie King.
Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You".