Joe Louis Walker in his song Soldier for Jesus on his new ablum Hellfire continues a biues tradition of fighting with the devil.
The devil makes an appearance relatively frequently in the blues. Tommy Johnson famously reported that he’d sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for guitar-playing chops. The same myth, of course, was ascribed to Robert Johnson. One of Johnson’s songs features the devil as a major character. In Me and the Devil Blues, Johnson answers the devil’s knock on his door and goes off with him – “me and the devil, ooh, was walking side by side”. The result of this walk with the devil was – “I’m going to beat my woman until I get satisfied”. It’s an appalling lyric, but clearly Johnson knows that such action belongs to the darker side of life, exemplified by his walking companion.
The first appearance of the devil seems to have been in Clara Smith’s 1924 song, Done Sold My Soul to the Devil. Not long after we have Charlie Patton’s Devil Sent the Rain, where he says in a song about berievement, “Good Lord sent the sunshine, devil he sent the rain”. A straightforward idea here about the source of good and evil.
In 1927, Sam Collins recorded Devil in the Lion’s Den – “yon’ comes the devil, we gonna set this town on fire”. The song is about the unfaithful, ramblin’ gambler and it seems clear to Collins that, although he’s boasting in such behaviour, it nevertheless is to be associated with the devil.
In Skip James’ famous Devil Got My Woman, he moans about losing his woman and claims it was the devil who stole her away from him. He feels so bad about this state of affairs that now he’d rather actually be the devil than “that woman’s man”. James is not the only one to implicate the devil in a failed relationship – Piedmont bluesman Brownie McGhee sings about a lover who wants to poison him, shoot him and hit him with a blackjack. The song is called Dealing with the Devil.
What’s going on here in these early blues songs? There’s clearly something of seeking a certain noteriety by some of these artists, mixing a reputation for rambin’ and drinking and womanizing with talk about the devil. But beyond that, in a genre that focuses on life’s injustices, hardships and disappointments, is the recognition that there exists in the world good and evil, and that human beings at times are at the mercy of forces greater than themselves, be they inner impulses and addictions, unjust structures in society or ill-treatment by others.
Moving on a few decades, Rev. Gary Davis gives us I Heard the Angels Singing, where the singer goes down to the valley to pray to get to the place where the angels are singing. On the way he meets the devil who tries to prevent him from praying. In the end however, the “Holy Ghost” gives him the power to resist and he gets to hear the angels singing. Eric Bibb has recently done a terrific version of this song.
Bang up to date we have Joe Louis Walker in his recent release, Hellfire – terrific album, by the way – with Soldier for Jesus, which takes a similar theme where the singer is opposed by the devil in his attempt to be a follower of Jesus. Walker’s fight as a soldier for Jesus is against the devil. He recognises this is a fight “all the time” and alludes to the temptations of Jesus where the devil offered him all the kingdoms of the world if he would fall down and worship him – “And I was staring him eye to eye, He said, “I’ll give you anything”. Like Jesus, Walker tells the devil “I say what you selling, You know I ain’t buying”. Victory in the battle, according to Walker, comes by falling “down on my knees to pray, I have my Bible in both hands”. Result? – “you know the devil done took off and ran”.
The problem of evil in the world, whether we want to personify it as the “devil” or not, is obvious to us all. It was obvious too, to the various writers of the Biblical literature, where we see God’s good creation corrupted and human beings held culpable for the evil which becomes part of the world. The New Testament, essentially, tells the story of how God finally deals with the problem of evil in his world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Although many Christians recently have become very focused on certain theories of atonement, the idea that seems to have been most important to early Christians was that of Christus Victor – Jesus as the one who brings victory over evil. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God was dealing once and for all with the problem of evil in God’s world. The odd thing here for a world used to the power of violence and sheer brutal force is that this victory was won by suffering, humility and love. It was this that God vindicated, by raising Jesus from the dead.
The call for Jesus followers is to seek to implement this victory of God over evil in the same way – by suffering love. In the end, it is this that has more power than any tyrant or totalizing empire. And it is this power that in the end will see God finally put the world to rights and deal finally with the problem of evil.
In the meantime, we all face the devil day after day – whether it’s in the injustices we suffer or see around us, or in our our personal struggles with doing the right thing or with our own desires and addictions. The good news is that it’s possible to be personally free – to hear the angels singing, as Rev. Gary Davis put it – through God’s power. Paul in his letter to the Romans in chapter 6 gives us a inspiring vision of what’s possible for us. But it’s also possible to see real change in God’s world here and now – through the power of forgiveness and love. And once we orientate our lives around forgiveness and love, we’ll find, as Joe Walker says, “you know the devil done took off and ran”.
Joe Louis Walker with “Soldier for Jesus”