Adam Gussow

Adam Gussow
Journeyman's Road: Modern Blues Lives From Faulkner's Mississippi To Post-9/11 New York

The University of Tennessee Press
ISBN: 1-57233

By Karen Nugent
September 2007

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After reading the introduction to Journeyman’s Road, I became dismayed, figuring: here we go again with another pseudo-intellectual getting on his high horse.

It would be yet another snob taking great pleasure in labeling the average blues fan as a booze-guzzling, barbecue-spattered, Uncle Tom-loving buffoon.

After all, Gussow, who went to Princeton AND Columbia, (and is now is an assistant professor of English and southern studies at the University of Mississippi) uses words such as “rubric” and “declension.”

WHAT?

And a couple of time he takes direct aim at those of us who are fond of the saying “Keeping the Blues Alive” even though Gussow himself won the “Keeping the Blues Alive” award for achievement in literature from the Memphis-based Blues Foundation.

OK. Then, I realized most of Journeyman’s Road is a collection of columns Gussow, a white harp player, wrote between 1995 and 2000, while he was part of a blues duo who regularly played the streets of Harlem.

Hmm, kind of interesting.

His partner was Mississippi-born Sterling Magee, an older African-American who went by the name “Mister Satan.” Their act was called “Satan and Adam” and Gussow wrote an earlier book in 1998, called Mr. Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues Memoir.

Well, I was wrong. Journeyman’s Road turned out to be a great read.

Set against the backdrop of Satan and Adam, with a lot of opposites going on: black/white; Princeton/the Delta, author/street harp player (he calls himself a “busker”), the book is a fascinating series of columns with a whole lot of variety.

Gussow’s essays have appeared in The Village Voice, American Literature, Southern Culture, and African American Review.

Some of the chapters in this book provide a great history of the overlooked New York City blues scene in the 1980s and 1990s, including the fabled Dan Lynch Bar. Others colorfully describe in life on the road with Magee and his (for real) schizophrenic girlfriend. At one point, Gussow, who tends to smoke and drink too much at the beginning of the book – yet also does long distance running - has a mild heart attack (at age 41) after playing a particularly energetic set.

There are vignettes about musicians (including a gay harp player), gigs, street performers, a spiritual awakening, depression, and healing via the blues.

The second half of the 189-page hard cover deals with gigs, jam session etiquette, blues myths, racism, and all of those controversial blues subjects such as whites singing blues, women playing harp, and the myths surrounding the history of blues.

An especially riveting chapter explores lynching and other violence against blacks in the Delta, and has a horrific 1920 photograph of a dead man hanging after a lynching, and a passage from B.B. King recounting his own witnessing of one when he was a child.

Gussow seems a bit obsessed with black-white relations (in 2002, he published another book, Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition) and his take on the origins of the blues is bound to spark controversy. I know I felt miffed a few times.

But the book does not get boring, except perhaps at the very end when Gussow get a bit long winded about William Faulkner and his interaction, or lack of, with black Delta bluesmen.

At the very end, the reader learns that Mr. Satan – an avowed atheist, hence his new name - has been taken back home by his religious sister, placed in a nursing home, and has reverted to using his real name.

I won’t say what happens when the two reunite.

Pick up the book and find out for yourself. If nothing else, it will entertain, and get you to reflect on blues from all kinds of perspectives. Even if you do spill beer or barbecue sauce on it.

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