It’s hard to tell exactly when the Blues got saddled with the “devil’s music” moniker. On the other hand it’s much easier to determine why. “Blues was raggedy street music, performed and listened to by the down at the heel segment of society, known for doing lowbrow things like getting drunk on cheap beer, having bar fights, etc. People tend to politicize music, that is they can’t separate the music from its natural habitat. So they thought the people who played, sang, and listened to the blues were influenced by the devil, and by association, the music was also associated with the devil,” opines musician Collen Kitchen.
The downright anti-social behavior of a lot of Blues pioneers added to that perception. Son House, an early Mississippi Delta Bluesman, shot and killed a man who was shooting up the bar he was in, allegedly to protect his date. The Louisiana-born singer Lead Belly, best known for composing and singing “Goodnight Irene,” killed one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman and stabbed a white man after being released from prison. And then there was the legendary Blues singer Robert Johnson who supposedly sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads for an improved skill on the blues guitar. In “Me and the Devil Blues,” Johnson sings:
“Me and the devil
Was walkin’ side by side
Me and the devil, whooo
Was walking side by side
And I’m gonna beat my woman
Until I get satisfied”
All this negativity notwithstanding, perhaps the greatest contributor to the “devil’s music” stamp came from organized religion, both Black and White. “A large sector of the black community were fiercely religious at the time [early 1900s], and criticized blues artists for subverting the gospel and spiritual tradition in the name of this secular and self-indulgent lifestyle music,” states the Music Fans website. “The criticism came from all sectors of the ‘square’ community, including of course, the white establishment. No one, it seems, wanted to acknowledge or accept what was going on in the underworld of black life.”
Black music had, from early on, been criticized in print as well. One of the earliest published denunciations found is from 1913, when The New York Times defended the fear surrounding ragtime music, a form of the Blues more often associated with jazz. “Decent people in and out of the church are beginning to be alarmed at the crude and vulgar music and loose conduct accompanying it with dances defying all propriety,” the paper wrote. But times have definitely changed and Black traditions like “bump and grind” dancing, twerking, potty-mouthed lyrics and anti-social messages in rap music have not only been normalized but have become all the musical rage.
Books and films have also explained why the Blues got its “devil” label. One of the best books is Giles Oakley’s 1977 The Devils’ Music, which describes the texture of the life that made the Blues possible, and the changing attitudes toward the music. The book is a wholehearted and loving examination of one of America’s most powerful traditions. And then there is the 2008 The Devil’s Music, the first film to document the strange story of notorious shock-rocker Erika Spawn, who was the most infamous woman in the world after her music had been linked by the tabloid press to real-life atrocities.
That film, in alluding to a rock and roll figure, points out the handoff of the “devil’s music” label from the Blues to rock in the post-WWII era of prosperity. Baby-boomers, tired of the very straight music of such crooners as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Andy Williams and polka practitioner Lawrence Welk turned to the more exciting and more danceable tunes of rock pioneers such as Bill Hailey, Little Richard and Buddy Holly. When Elvis Presley single-handedly invented a new musical form called “rockabilly” in the early 1950s by combining Blues, R&B and Western music the acceptance of black influences in white mainstream music was complete.
Elvis’ 1957 hit song “Jailhouse Rock” turned the evolving rock and roll industry on its ear. When Elvis appeared on the nationally televised Ed Sullivan Show for the third and final time on January 6, 1957, the CBS censors would not allow the cameras to show anything below the singer’s waist. They feared that the suggestive gyrations of “Elvis the Pelvis” would sexually stir up young teenaged girls tuning in.
Clinical researcher John Beaton says, “As I remember the word Blues used to be linked to drinking and carousing. The ‘Blues’ was a type of music associated with Honky Tonks and bars which encouraged late Saturday nights and diminished Sunday Church attendance. Throw in the fact it was prevalent in black neighborhoods at a time when being black was all but criminal. In fact ‘Blue laws’ still prohibit people in some states from buying alcohol on Sundays.”
Texas is one of them. Texas law still prohibits sale of liquor for off-premises consumption all day on Sundays and sale of beer and wine for off-premises consumption before 12:01 p.m. on Sundays in some counties. In 1986, there were 62 counties wholly dry, but that number had dropped to seven by 2015. Does this suggest America’s reddest state is loosening up a bit? Good question; something to have a drink on.
Robert Johnson sings “Me and the Devil Blues”