What many histories about rock & roll do not plainly state is that the blues, speaking generally, represented the ungodly side, the dark side, the “red light district,” of black music and culture.
Blacks in America in the first half of the twentieth century were notably religious and more often than not were churchgoers. They were divided into two distinct categories, though: Pious and impious; those who lived a sincere Christian life and those who maintained merely a veneer of Christianity. Pious blacks who took Jesus Christ and the Bible seriously and who were faithful to biblical churches, condemned immorality and drunkenness and violence as well as the blues and boogie-woogie music that was associated with those things. On the other hand, those who played the blues were commonly in contact with the Bible and church during their youth, but they did not repent of their sin and reject the lusts of the flesh and live faithfully for God.
“If you played blues, you played where people drank and gambled and carried on and committed adultery—all the things that the black church and the white church stood against: gambling, fornication, adultery, violence, murder” (Chasin’ That Devil Music, p. 144).
“Sex was inextricably linked with blues and jazz. It was not a prejudice: it was a fact of life. … In truth, black parents were also disapproving of blues and jazz music, and often pulled out the broomstick when their daughters showed an interest in the ‘devil’s music’” (Dickerson, Goin’ Back to Memphis, pp. 29, 30).
Blues historian Robert Palmer, though glorifying the blues musicians in his book Deep Blues, admits that the bluesmen were looked upon as immoral and shiftless by their own people, by black preachers, schoolteachers, small landowners, and faithful churchgoers (Deep Blues, p. 17).
Booker Miller, who played the blues with Charlie Patton in the late 1920s and became a Baptist preacher after he was converted from a blues lifestyle, testified: “Them old folks did believe the devil would get you for playin’ the blues and livin’ like that” (Chasin’ That Devil Music, p. 197).
Henry C. Speir, who was responsible for the recording careers of Son House, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson, and many other bluesmen, testified:
“You were either serving the Lord or you were serving the devil. And if you played blues and lived that lifestyle, you served the devil and you were going to hell. Good church people didn’t have anything to do with blues singers” (H.C. Speir, interview, Chasin’ That Devil Music, p. 142).
W.C. Handy, whose autobiography is titled “Father of the Blues,” was from a Christian home. Both his grandfather and his father were preachers. When he brought a guitar home in his early teen years, his parents were shocked. Handy’s father said: “A guitar! One of the devil’s playthings. Take it away. Get it out of your hands. Whatever possessed you to bring a sinful thing like that into our Christian home?” (Father of the Blues, p. 10).
Handy’s father felt that “becoming a [blues] musician would be like selling my soul to the devil” and that those who are living the licentious blues lifestyle are “trotting down to Hell on a fast horse” (Ibid., p. 303). Handy’s Christian music teacher warned him that blues music would bring him to the gutter (Ibid., p. 303).
When Muddy Waters, who organized the first influential electric blues band, learned to play the blues as a boy, his godly grandmother warned him: “Son, you’re sinning. You’re playing for the devil. Devil’s gonna get you” (Bossmen Bill Monroe and Muddy Waters, p. 105).
Muddy Waters ignored his grandmother, but she was right. He was playing the devil’s music, the music that fit his immoral lifestyle like a hand and glove.
When Charlie Patton started playing the blues, his preacher father looked upon it as a sin. “To a man of God, guitar picking was a sin, and playing reels and other sinful tunes at parties and picnics where gambling and fornication were rampant was tantamount to selling one’s soul to the devil. So when Bill [Charlie Patton’s father] caught his son making music, he considered it his Christian duty to deliver stern warnings and, as the warnings continued to go unheeded, increasingly severe corporal punishment” (Deep Blues, p. 51).
Charlie ignored his father, wasted his life on liquor and loose women, and died at age 43 of a heart attack.
Jazz/blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow, who went house-to-house in black neighborhoods in search of old blues records, said: “I also discovered that women who were active churchgoers only had sacred music, never blues or jazz records” (Chasin’ That Devil Music, p. 12).
It was not uncommon for blues players eventually to get saved and to become serious about serving God; and when they did, they usually gave up their blues music. An example was Ishmon Bracey (1900-1970). He played with some of the well-known bluesmen, including Tommy Johnson, and he recorded for Victor and Paramount Records. He lived the immoral blues life for many years, but in 1951 he repented of his sin, trusted the Lord Jesus Christ as His Savior. He returned to the Baptist church of his youth and became a preacher of the gospel. From then until his death of natural causes at age 70, he thanked the Lord for his conversion from the wicked blues lifestyle. He refused thereafter even to play the blues recreationally. When interviewed in 1963 by blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow, Bracey described the immorality and violence that went on in the “juke houses” (Chasin’ that Devil Music, pp. 58-60).
Another example is Freddie Spruell. He also recorded with Paramount and lived the wicked blues lifestyle until 1944. His mother had asked him to stop playing blues, and he obeyed and started going back to the Baptist church. A few months later he began preaching the gospel.
Another example is Skip James, who “got religion on him and wouldn’t play the blues.”
My point is that blues and boogie-woogie represented the seedy side of early twentieth-century Black society. Rock & roll was born out of that ungodly atmosphere.
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