He’s a top-notch harmonica player whose playing, American Harmonica Newsletters says, is characterized by “technical mastery and innovative brilliance that comes along once in a generation”; he’s been nominated for a W.C. Handy award; in a career spanning over 30 years, he’s played major blues, jazz and folk festivals, and on stages with Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Otis Clay, and Johnny Winter; he’s the subject of a popular and moving Netflix documentary, along with Sterling Magee, the other half of the duo Satan and Adam; and he’s a popular harmonica tutor with students all over the world benefitting from his online video lessons.
And if that’s not enough, Adam Gussow is a professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, where he teaches courses in American and African American literature, the blues tradition, southern autobiography, and, would you believe it, the literature and culture of running! He’s the author of a number of award-winning blues books including a memoir of his days playing with Sterling Magee, a novel, and Beyond the Crossroads, which was voted “Best Blues Book of 2017” by the readership of Living Blues. And one which enhanced my own understanding of the blues greatly when I read it a few years ago, Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition, which won the Holman Award from the Society for the Study of Southern Literature.
So, with this rich background as a blues historian, blues artist, blues mentor and teacher, Adam Gussow clearly has a thing or two worthwhile to say about the blues and its history and tradition.
Down at the Crossroads was pleased to get chatting to him recently, and I suggested, first of all, that 2020 had been quite a year for him, with a new book being published, a new album being released and then, of course, that Netflix film.
He pointed out that the film had come out first of all at the Tribeca folk festival back in April 2018, but began to show up on Netflix last year. At that point, his email box blew up with lots of people he’d never heard from telling him how much it had touched them. If you haven’t seen it, don’t hesitate, it’s a great show and tells a remarkable and heart-warming story.
It charts the story of Adam’s relationship with Sterling Magee, beginning with his 1986 Harlem street jams with “Mr Satan,” at a time of considerable racial tension, and stretching through the next 23 years as they became a touring duo, were included in U2’s Rattle and Hum documentary, and released a number of albums before Sterling Magee mysteriously disappeared. What happened next is remarkable and I’ll not spoil it for those who haven’t seen it.
Adam said he had nothing to do with the way that director V. Scott Balcerek told the story but that he was pleased with the way it turned out. The film begins with Adam meeting Sterling on the street and beginning to jam, but what the film doesn’t explain is that Adam by that stage was an accomplished harmonica player. He had been tutored by Nat Riddles, a New York blues master. “Nat Riddles was a very important figure in my life, my mentor, and I had been a busker in New York, played solo, then played with two different guitar players, and then spent two months in Europe in the summer of ’86. So there was a whole lot of dues paid.”
Overall, though, Gussow said, “I think V. Scott Balcerek did a really good job and the proof of the pudding is that people again and again, say ‘it brought tears to my eyes.’”
He went on to explain the importance of that more sentimental aspect of the film, by mentioning Martin Luther King’s ideas about the beloved community, the interrelatedness of humanity. “I think,” he said, “there’s a lot of people who imagine that that idea just kind of somehow faded away. And I think that what our film does, is that it offers a kind of story, a narrative, living proof of that forged long-term brotherhood kind of relationship. And I think it gives people hope with all of this identity politics stuff.”
“I think that Sterling and I were kind of race rebels in some way, playing on the streets during a rough period of New York history in which young black men died. There’s no question that it was a rough time and he and I were out there, and he was very conscious, and he helped me be conscious, of the way in which we were offering a kind of a living image of brotherhood… after a while I sank into the woodwork. It was like I was just a part of the street scene. And all the guys who hung out around us…I was just wanting to be one of the guys. But what I would say is that 99.9 times out of a hundred, the response that I got, when people came up, and it wasn’t like they were praising me, it was more like it was a chance for them to talk, even connect in some ways.”
Gussow talked about what had happened in December 1986 in New York when a white mob in Queens had severely beaten three African Americans who’d been stranded when their car broke down, one of whom had been killed whilst trying to flee. Gussow had been away in California for a couple of weeks and when he came back in early January, he found Sterling and began to play on the street with him again. “At least two hundred people came up to give us, to shake my hand, which is to say, people were saying, basically, not only are they not associating me with the whiteness out at Queens that had killed this black guy, they were saying, we’re glad you’re here…we have a partnership. What’s going on in Queens can’t touch the brotherhood that you all are putting out right here.”
I asked Adam about his new book, called Whose Blues? Facing Up to Race and the Future of Music, in which he contrasts and discusses two opposing views of the blues. One he calls blues universalism, where there’s “no black, no white, just the blues,” with a recognition that the blues is played and appreciated globally. And the other is “black bluesism,” which insists that the blues is black, and wants to resist cultural appropriation and to ensure the trauma of black communities which is inherent to the blues is properly safeguarded. It’s an important question, and one which Gussow deals with in a thought-provoking and sensitive way. He has, after all, come face-to-face with the issue in his long-standing engagement with black blues artists over many years; and, his in-depth knowledge of the blues and the social history of the blues gives him the tools with which to open up the discussion for the rest of us.
I asked him who the book is aimed at and he suggested there were several.
“One audience is probably white, Anglo, American blues aficionados, blues fans and blues musicians…What I’m determined to do is to think about the way that we talk about the music and to sort of educate. My generation of blues players, and I’ll say white blues players, came up at a time – and I know many musicians who fit this mould, including the guys a generation or half a generation ahead of me, like Rick Estrin and Kim Wilson, white harmonica players – came up at a time when, if you’re going to learn the music, you were in predominantly black or all black contexts, some part of the time you were in bands backing up African-American players, and you were getting all of this mentoring, all of this understanding. If you’re Paul Oscher, you were in an all-black context in Chicago.
“And there’s a number of us out there who had that sort of training, which is to say we can’t think about blues without thinking about African-American mentors, teachers, friends, who you’re on the road with. It’s your family. So that’s how we grew up. That’s how we learned the music. That’s how we think of the music. And so, you know, the phrase blues is black music obviously has a kind of weird paradoxical resonance for us, because on the one hand, we know the guys we learned from, we have played with. We also know that we’re a part of it though.
“So there’s a paradox there. So, what we don’t want to hear is that phrase and think you’re trying to tell me I don’t have a right to play this, to carry on a tradition that I was mentored into with somebody who trained me and valued the training he gave me…those guys would often talk about these younger white musicians as their sons.
“But there’s a younger generation that didn’t have that experience at all. And as blues goes around the globe, there are cultures in, it could be Ireland, it could be Chile and Argentina, where there’s no African-American presence to speak of. And so somebody might hear the phrase, blues is black music, and really not even feel the tension that I feel. Really not even get it. And so part of what I’m trying to do is speak to that audience. And I’m trying to say, let’s go back, at least before we move on into the future of this music, let’s go back into that.
“Before we go to the future, let’s go back and understand how the music really came into being with all of the paradoxes – one of my favourite little anecdotes is that in the 1920s, you get this handbook basically for would-be white blues singers written by two African-American blues songwriters that is saying, you must empathize with the lowdown feeling. The music is full of paradoxes, but there’s no question that it has a sort of black Southern identity in some profound way.
“It’s in the language, it’s in the call and response. So I want to make sure that everybody is grounded in that. And that was where, as somebody who taught blues literature, I was invested in saying, here’s how thinking about W.C. Handy can help you. Here’s how thinking about blues conditions, blues feelings, blues expressiveness, the blues ethos, here’s how those concepts can actually help ground you in this. And so that’s one of the audiences and I didn’t want to push that audience away from the music at all.”
Adam’s second audience, he says is the Corey Harrises of the world, black American artists who feel somewhat possessive about the music. “I want to say, I understand that. I want to think critically about the phrase, no black, no white, just the blues. I’m trying to understand what the people who use that think they’re saying. And why people who don’t like that, don’t like it. Maybe diffuse a little bit, I’m trying to see things from a range of perspectives.”
The third audience, he says, is academic readers, people who might be teaching the music. “So that’s why in some of the chapters I talk about the way in which I teach the blues. And my hope would be that those chapters might be of interest to people who teach the blues or are thinking about the blues. It may be in a school context and might help people think a little more clearly about stuff.”
That’s a very interesting section of Whose Blues? where Gussow talks about the worldwide interest in the blues, particularly in his own area of harmonica. He introduces us here to harmonica players around the world who have been keen to learn from Gussow’s library of video tutorial material at www.modernbluesharmonica.com, some of whom have become accomplished players.
In conversation, Adam talked more about blues around the world, noting the role that B.B. King had playing the blues in around 55 countries and seeding the blues in places like Japan and Russia, African American blues artists going to play festivals in Europe, the British blues explosion in the sixties, and the role of American and British radio stations over the years. The blues has truly become a worldwide phenomenon.
In the book, Gussow says, “These are in the process of mastering the music as best they can and making it a part of their own developing cultural inheritances. Should we celebrate this change or condemn it? Should we embrace the postmodern globalization of the blues as a kind of progress, a victory for blues music as a cultural form, or critique that global spread as a crisis of cultural expropriation and dilution, a tragic erasure of the burdens and meanings of black history into the very fabric of music?”
The reality is, Adam told me, that if we were to do “a census of all of the people in the world who listened to blues today, and all of the musicians who played the music, we’d find that African-Americans are the least part of it these days. But in global terms they’re still there. They’re not irrelevant at all. In fact, a lot of the images, the music, the language – everybody knows Hoochie Coochie Man, I’ve got my mojo working, right? And those are all that kind of hoodoo stuff that goes directly back to sort of African rituals. That’s blues music.”
Gussow seems keen to, as he says, embrace the globalization of the blues, but at the same time wants to ensure the blues history, its tradition, its feeling is not lost. And he wants to ensure that the African-American presence is still felt.
Which was why he says he thought it was important to talk about blues literature in his book. One of the interesting things you’ll find in the book is the considerable amount of discussion Gussow has about blues writers, as opposed to just musicians: Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston. I would hazard a guess and say that most blues fans don’t know them at all. Gussow suggested to me that “blues is more than music,” which you discover when you read the blues literature, including authors he doesn’t deal with in the book, like poets Sterling Plumpp and Tyehimba Jess.
So, as well as acknowledging the reality of people responding to, and wanting to listen and play the blues around the world – and encouraging that, and welcoming that – Adam Gussow is anxious that the way in which the blues is rooted in Black history is kept to the fore.
“Blues is history. Blues is survival tools. It’s a site of memory. I try to make this point in my book, of memory for the traumas of slavery and Jim Crow. Blues indexes the sufferings of Jim Crow. And it’s a way of connecting with that history. And I think it’s so important that we not forget that, that we not imagine blues as just music. I don’t think of blues as just music. I think it is a music, but it has a power that’s deep, and it has some deep magic in it that I’ve certainly felt as long as I’ve been alive.”
Adam Gussow’s deep experience of the brotherhood of the blues, forged through decades playing with Sterling Magee and other African Americans, is on the one hand able to transcend race, but on the other it is rooted in the historical reality of the blues as a complex response to the context of social and political oppression of African Americans. That seems to me to a good pointer to the future. The globalization of the blues just is. But we need voices like Adam Gussow’s to keep us mindful of the reality of the blues.
Since call and response, as Gussow explains, is a key part of the blues, it’s appropriate, I think, to conclude with this joint statement – first the Black Arts Movement spokesperson Larry Neal (in italics), then Gussow’s commentary, echoing and expanding on Neal’s pronouncement.
“The blues were shaped in the context of social and political oppression…the blues are basically defiant in their attitude toward life. They are about survival on the meanest, most gut level of human existence. They are, therefore, lyric responses to the facts of life…These blues are not sorrow songs but survivor songs: the soundtrack of a spiritual warriorship that refuses to say die. These blues wrest far more than their share of swaggering lyric joy out of an evil world, inscribing personhood and sustaining the tribe in the process.”
Whose Blues? Facing Up to Race and the Future of Music by Adam Gussow, is published by University of North Carolina Press.