Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Adam Gussow - Journeyman's Road

I actually began to read this when it was sent for review three years ago. But, unfortunately, considering the nature of the book – a compilation of separate articles, many from “Blues Access”, as well as a variety of other sources – it was all too easy to put aside and not pick up for the longest time. Thus, the long delay, which has nothing to do with the quality of the book.

Adam Gussow is now an academic with impeccable credentials, teaching literature at the University of Mississippi. However, he formerly played regularly on the streets of Harlem as harmonica sidekick to blues singer/guitarist Sterling “Mr. Satan” McGee, under the curiously Biblical name of “Satan and Adam”. Professor Gussow sees himself during this street-musician phase as being a white apprentice to a black master of a black musical idiom, thus the use of the word “journeyman” in the title of the book.

New York City is not a location generally associated with blues music. To be sure, many of the vaudeville blues divas of the 1920’s spent much of their performing time in the theaters and recording studios of New York, as a sort of undervalued adjunct to the Harlem Renaissance. Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, Rev. Gary Davis, and a host of lesser-known Carolina bluesmen found their way to New York during the 1930’s and 40’s. The Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1950’s/60’s shared (with Cambridge, MA) in the development of the first generation of blues-influenced white singer-guitarists (such as Dave Van Ronk and John Hammond).

There are still blues performers on the New York club scene, but it has rarely been thought of as a “blues town” in the past several decades. One of the most valuable aspects of Gussow’s book is that it documents not only the work of Satan and Adam, but also that of a number of other New York-based performers, many of them quite obscure. The book also contains many insights on what it is like to be a late-20th-century bluesman on the road and in Europe, as well as on the streets and small blues bars of New York. There is also a heartbreaking look at the dissolution of Mister Satan’s musical career (but with a note of hope at the end; since the book was published, the duo has resumed performing on an occasional basis).

The first part of the book gathers together most - why not all? - of a series of columns Gussow wrote for “Blues Access” magazine, mostly in the 1990’s. These are more journalistic than academic in tone. Even so, he is a very literate writer, and will use academic jargon (talk of dialectics, Postmodernism, etc.) to make his well-considered points. Among his assertions - which I wholeheartedly endorse - is that there are no easy answers, no one-size-fits-all explanations for either the historical development or “meaning” of the blues. He is also very conversant with the social history behind the blues idiom. For example, one very affecting segment discusses the role lynching played in the development of the blues.

The English professor in Gussow emerges in the second half of the book. There is a substantial look of what might be termed blues-as-literature and literature influenced by blues. The majority of the works he discusses are works of fiction, a genre rarely encountered in lists of essential blues reading. Included is a fascinating paper on blues influences on the writings of William Faulkner, which non-academic readers may find much easier to digest than most serious literary criticism.

This is a somewhat slim volume (188 pages), but there is a lot to chew on here, a great deal of variety, fact, opinion, and views of many subjects not already done to death on the ever-growing blues bookshelf. It would not be my recommendation as a beginner’s intro to blues, but the faithful will much of interest here.

“Journeyman’s Road: Modern Blues Lives From Faulkner’s Mississippi to Post-9/11 New York” was published by the University of Tennessee

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