Sunday, August 05, 2007

Journeyman’s Road

Journeyman’s Road: Modern Blues Lives from Faulkner’s Mississippi to Post 9/11 New York
By Adam Gussow
University of Tennessee

It has sometimes been said that as bad as the commercial outlook for jazz looks, it is positively robust when compared to that for the contemporary blues scene. As the apprentice to a senior African-American blues musician, music writer, and scholar of Southern literature, Adam Gussow is well positioned to evaluate the sources for both optimism and pessimism in Journeyman’s Road, his new collection surveying the contemporary blues scene.

Gussow is best known as a musician for his work as the junior partner in the duo of Satan and Adam and best known as a writer for his memoir of his time with Mister Satan (or Sterling Magee), Mister Satan’s Apprentice. In fact, the most interesting selections of Journeyman, both emotionally and commercially, pick up the story of their partnership after publication of Apprentice. In “Life with Mister Satan,” Gussow describes his mentor’s primal force:

“Even with perfect intonation Mister Satan is an earful; with six wimpy rock strings melting under his onslaught, not to mention cymbals and tambourines, he sounds like a street-rodding TransAm blowing itself out, losing muffler, tailpipe, and manifold in a screeching clatter of metal rubbed raw against macadam. Something terrifying and impressive is careening past you with great conviction, but it’s hard to say precisely what. He remains a miracle, which is why I do this.” (p. 12)

Sadly, the Satan and Adam collaboration would largely be put on hold due to what is eventually referred to as Mister Satan’s breakdown. Presumably, under the influence of evangelical family members he gave up the Satan moniker and for a while, the blues that went with it. At various points in the collection Gussow’s articles provide intermittent updates on Magee as he is now known, that are heartbreaking, but at times hopeful.

Journeyman illustrates the question of identity that reoccurs throughout blues history. Many blues artists’ original names are remain unknown or subject of conjecture. Rice Miller, if that was actually his name, could become the second Sonny Boy Williamson, even as the original was still actively performing. It seems toward the end of Journeyman that the individual now known as Magee is not the same musician as when he was known as Mister Satan. Of course, age and life had intervened.

Blues is not the only music heard in Journeyman. Gussow also covers a Great Night in Harlem, courtesy of the Jazz Foundation of America. The executive director of JFA, Wendy Oxenhorn is a fellow blues harpist who clearly had made quite an impression on Gussow:

“Perfect fit between Wendy and job. She has endless compassion for their [musicians in need] sad tales and bottomless respect for their creative artistry. The musicians adore here.” (p. 85)

Wendy is one of my heroes too, and Gussow gives an entertaining account of the first annual Foundation fundraising concert at the Apollo Theater. Gussow is at his best when writing of his mentor and his friends like Wendy and other bluesman who deserve a greater share of limelight, like Frankie Paris (a regular at Arthur’s Tavern) and Irving Louis Lattin, who was the voice of Viagra during the first year of its commercial campaign. There is probably a little too much of Gussow’s analysis of blues in the work of William Faulkner, but to his credit, “Plaintive Reinteration and Meaningless Strains: Faulkner’s Blues Understandings” is fairly readable for a conference paper.

Ultimately, it is the continuing chronicle of Satan and Adam that will draw readers to Journeyman. When discussing those who live the blues life, Gussow writes with sensitivity and experience. Despite an occasional academic or New Age excess here and there, Journeyman often makes for compelling reading and ultimately gives one hope for the future of the music.

(Note: Satan and Adam will be the subject of an upcoming documentary mentioned in Journeyman. See the trailer here.)