I share a section from my new book 'Music to Raise the Dead'
I'm truly enjoying your work, Ted. Peter Stampfel shared the first installment of your book on facebook last summer, and I've been following you since then.
I wanted to mention two sources that both confirm and may further enlighten your work, in case you aren't aware of them. The first is an essay by Michael Ventura called "Hear That Long Snake Moan" which looks at the alchemy which created American Music in New Orleans as informed by the connection to Haitian Voodoo. That essay was the keynote in a 1980s book called Shadow Dancing in the USA, and can be downloaded from Ventura's website here: https://michaelventura.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/HEAR-THAT-LONG-SNAKE-MOAN.pdf
The other is the work of Peter Kingsley, who has done much on the pre-Socratic philosophers. In particular, his book _Reality_ discusses a journey to the world of the dead by Parmenides, who is now known as the father of logic - cleaned up just like you have the critics of Robert Johnson attempting to do in this piece. But he was much more.
One detail of particular note is Willie Mae Powell saying Johnson met the devil at "a fork in the road" which is more specific than a crossroads. Kingsley specifically discusses the significance for the ancient Greeks of the crossroads being a place where a road split - a fork - not what we think of now as two roads crossing. You may find further fodder and fuel for your fire there. Keep on keepin' on!
What a great Substack this is. Substack keeps delivering. Is that book available?
Since I'm Jewish, it's hard not to think of the conflict between secular and sacred music in The Jazz Singer or in the original play and short story, Yom Kippur.
WORLD magazine reported (some years ago now) that Johnson experienced a deathbed conversion to Christianity. I don't know the source of this claim. I would be interested to know if your research touches on this either to confirm or deny.
This is brilliant and medicinal. I haven't been to the Church of Coltrane yet, but it's on my list. Huge Alice Coltrane fan, v. happy to see mention of her here. Thanks for whacking down some of these goofy pop-psych cliches about Johnson & the blues in general. Can't wait to read Part II!
The phenomenon of judging in a negative way an artist's output that directly invokes spirituality is also present in one of America's greatest composers, Duke Ellington. From all accounts Duke was always a spiritual man, going back to his childhood in Washington D.C. when he would go to both his mother's and his father's Church on Sunday. Obviously, there were certain tenets of a religious life that Duke continually ignored, such as his lifelong affairs with women, but no one can contend his view of God was unimportant to him, and he showed that in his music. The spiritual theme from "Black, Brown & Beige," entitled "Come Sunday," is a masterful song that both describes the joy African-Americans found in church, and has a sonority that can evoke the transcendence of existence for even non-believers. Later, with his three sacred concerts, described by Duke himself as "the most important things I have ever done," he was able to bring his spirituality to its full display. However, for many serious scholars and fans of Ellington, his sacred music is often not held in very high regard. I have always sensed a level of discomfort, even, at the music, as if the reviewer him or herself cannot bring themselves to like the music due to its spiritual themes. They would rather think of Ellington as this mythical figure, surely not bound by the trappings of old-time religion, the composer who best put the African-American experience into music. But one cannot tell the story of the African-American experience without religion, so such views have always confused me. I find it very easy, even as a non-believer myself, to set aside the spiritual messages and focus on the music, and in my opinion there is a great deal to appreciate.
I am a little surprised that you don't mention Elegua, the Yoruban orisha who is seen as the messenger of the crossroads. (or maybe I missed something). I think that Robert Farris Thompson may discuss this in his book Flash of the Spirit. The spiritual meeting ground at the crossroads was a concept that was deeply embedded in West African religion and mythology - and in this area of the Delta there were many elements that were retained from the Yoruban religions and practices.
Excellent! You can feel the energy of something beyond the mundane in those old blues recordings. Patton is my favorite of them and I have nearly worn out my cds of his recordings listening to them. Something ethereal crawls through those recordings and into your ears, mind and soul listening to him. I like Johnson too, but his music is harder for me to listen to for any length of time. Something is darker and more disturbing, to me at least, in his recordings, but they simply shimmer with the spirit of his muse. I am loving this book! Anyone who doesn't hear the deeply transgressive and trance-state energies of the old blues just doesn't know what they are hearing, and wouldn't know a spiritual experience if it bit them on the backside. :-)
My father was from Clarksdale, his father moved the family away after the '27 flood. I worked on the Delta and saw and heard many things. It is a different kind of place.
Thanks, Ted, love your work! Have you read William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell?" I think you'd appreciate the connection . . . Blake writes, "I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments," which came to mind when you wrote "with every one of the Ten Commandments getting trampled upon."
This is just great. Can’t wait for more... on all this, Jason Bivins’ Spirits Rejoice is wonderful.
🙏 🙏🙏🙏 this will be transformative for many.
Those who believe the devil doesn’t exist, look at how many people kill others and themselves daily, then think about it.
It’s not just Johnson and the Blues, it’s everyone and everywhere that we each find that devil or devils or the demons, and once you have seen the horror that man does to himself and others, you will know.
Looking forward to part two.
Enjoying this discussion stirred up by your quest, Ted, and by those who are commenting from their quests. There is a mystical quality of soul/spiritual/blues music that pulls on the strings of human struggle with the divine and the devil. Alan Lorax curated slave songs that have this same mystical quality of communicating hope while wearing the chains of slavery.
Hi Ted. I'm torn between my enjoyment of reading this book and my frustration at having to wait a month between episodes. But I know we're getting it more quickly than if you'd had to find a conventional publisher. I'm looking forward to reading what you have to say about the Yoruba tradition. I encountered this on a trip to Cuba and was struck by its parallels to Catholicism.
Maaan, within the last week I just put up on my wall a postcard of this picture of Trane with his holy horn...! All praise Ohnedaruth...and Robert Johnson too!