Chasin' The Devil's Music: Searching for the Blues

Tony Scherman reviews 'Chasin' the Devil's Music' by Gayle Dean Wardlow.


Tony Scherman
January 19, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Thirty-five years ago, the young Northerners who formed the inner core of
the 1960s blues revival were thrilled to find a white Mississippian who not
only shared their passion for the country blues but knew the back roads and
was an indefatigable researcher, the type of guy who could spend years
tracking down a nugget or two of information on some dirt-obscure,
long-deceased African-American rural entertainer. At 57, Gayle Dean Wardlow
of Meridian and Long Beach, Miss., remains the King of the Delta
Bluesfinders: America's most assiduous and successful rediscoverer of '20s
and '30s Mississippi bluesmen. Without Wardlow, much of what is now widely
known about the music that underpins so much of 20th century culture would
never have come to light. Wardlow found and interviewed survivors like
Ishmon Bracey, Johnny Temple and the recording scout H.C. Speir, and
unearthed crucial information about long-dead giants like Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson. In 1966 Wardlow began writing for journals like Living
Blues, Blues Unlimited, Blues World and 78 Quarterly, and most of his
articles, essays and interviews have been included in this book.

"Chasin' the Devil's Music" is the sort of book that's best appreciated --
and I mean this as a compliment -- by 15- or 16-year-old misfits with
active imaginations, a taste for music, an urge to throw over middle-class
pretensions and an eagerness to embrace whole new realms, memorizing and
ranking their denizens like the members of an imaginary baseball league.
Many a lifelong passion has taken root in such fertile soil, and if
hardcore blues fans often seem to be overaged adolescents -- well, there
are more harmful obsessions.

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As a writer, Wardlow lacks the polish of more literary bluesologists like
Sam Charters, Peter Guralnick and Paul Oliver. But this drawback is easily overlooked; in its plainspoken way, this book spins its own magical atmosphere. Here are some of its high points: Wardlow's account of his successful three-year search for Robert Johnson's death certificate, which established some of the first solid facts about the greatest of the Delta bluesmen; the two chapters on Speir, a genial white Mississippian without whom Patton, Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Son House, Skip James and many others might never have made records; and Wardlow's memories of canvassing black neighborhoods for old 78s ("I had the best luck with older women who had flowerpots on the porch." Flowerpots? Read the book and find out why). Another winner is Wardlow's playful rebuttal, possible only from a son of the Bible Belt, of the increasingly tiresome legend of Robert Johnson's crossroad pact with Satan. Citing both the Bible and Johnson chapter and verse, Wardlow pulls an ingenious switcheroo on the myth (again you'll have to read the book for the details) and ends with a flourish: "May the devil be chained in hell. The Lord and Robert won this one at the crossroad."

Why do thousands of us continue to be fascinated by this primitively recorded, often primitively played music, the lyrics barely comprehensible, the surface noise all but drowning out the music? This is a question that Wardlow unfortunately doesn't take up. But if you're one of those thousands, or even feel a slight tug in that direction, you'll plunge into the world of "Chasin' the Devil's Music" -- the vanished world of Charlie Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson -- to return again and again.

The book comes with a CD drawn from Wardlow's collection. Most of the songs are extremely rare, some (Patton's "A Spoonful Blues" and "Green River Blues," Willie Brown's "Future Blues," Skip James' "Illinois Blues" and Charley Booker's "No Riding Blues") extremely fine.


Tony Scherman

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