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March 8, 2013 / robinswood

Adam Gussow’s take on the Blues

Jamie Howison with James Cone

At Union with James Cone

When I was still in the relatively early stages of research for my book – prior to the month I spent in New York City in January 2011 – I had the opportunity to do a telephone interview the theologian James Cone. Cone is at Union Theological Seminary, which is where I was set to anchor myself during my New York sojourn, but I’d discovered he actually wasn’t going to be on campus during my month in the city. Given the significance of his book, The Spirituals and the Blues, I knew I needed to interview him, so I arranged an extended phone conversation.

I knew from my close reading of his book that James Cone is, “convinced that it is not possible to render an authentic interpretation of black music without having shared and participated in the experience that created it. Black music must be lived before it can be understood.” What might this mean for me, a white middle-class Canadian trying to wrestle with the music of John Coltrane?

seems like murderIn response to that question, Cone told me, “I think you have to go to where the music has been created, and get to know the people who created it.” And then referring to Adam Gussow’s book Seems Like Murder Here, he added, “He’s a white guy who paid the price, and I’ll tell you he understands the blues. So when you pay the price, you can do it. But you have to pay the price.”

That got me interested in Gussow’s book, which definitely informed the way I heard the blues, and which in turn helped me to hear Coltrane’s more blues-based material with new ears. It also alerted me to Gussow’s more personal book, Mister Satan’s Apprentice: a blues memoir, which I’ve just now been reading. Gussow is not only a scholar (he’s actually associate professor of English and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi), he’s also a serious blues harmonica player, who has this incredible story of being mentored by Sterling ‘Mr. Satan’ Magee, and performing under the name of “Satan and Adam.” For anyone who cares about the blues, this is a must read. And frankly, the same goes for anyone who enjoys reading memoirs. It us a beautifully crafted book.

There is portion in the middle, where Gussow is in conversation with an African-American woman named Gail, with whom he is in a relationship. The context for this relationship is that they are both performing in a touring production of the musical “Big River.” They’ve been watching Jimmy Swaggart on the television, and she begins to talk about her own sense of the church.

I just don’t believe in some old white guy sitting up there in the sky, watching over me. The whole Judgment Day thing. It’s not how I was brought up…. Church isn’t like that for me… Its’ about having somewhere you can go no matter what else is going on and don’t have to worry about work, your money troubles, whatever just sing and worship and get back to who you are inside. You might of had a terrible week and church lets you wash it off. I mean you can’t just say Forget about religion, because a guy like Jimmy Swaggart goes and gets stupid in God’s name.

blues memoirNot that I have a particularly deep experience of the black church – on the insistence of James Cone, I spent four Sundays in Harlem churches, and have just a few other experiences to add to that – but it seems to me that Gussow captured a big part of what makes church work in that context… or better, that he really heard what Gail was trying to say. In that phrase “no matter what else is going on” there is such truth. It isn’t escapism or denial; it is resilience.

Look into Adam Gussow’s work. He’s a great read, and he keeps opening these windows that let this great and new light stream in. For all of the grit in these pages, and for all that matters of God are about the last thing on his mind, he tells a pretty amazing story.

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