Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Satan Says

A White Man Deals With The Devil

By Ted Drozdowski

JANUARY 25, 1999: 

MR. SATAN'S APPRENTICE:A BLUES MEMOIR, By Adam Gussow. Pantheon Books, 402 pages, $25.

No, author Adam Gussow hasn't sold his soul to Ol' Nick for wealth, fame, and power. Just the opposite, in fact, is the usual blues player's lot. And as the subtitle makes clear, Gussow is a blues man. This book is an account of the path he took to discover the heart of his music -- or at least the music he adopted and took to his heart.

Gussow, who's now a PhD candidate in English at Princeton, is also half of the duo Satan & Adam -- though the grizzle-bearded singer/guitarist who tutored Gussow through trial-by-fire performances on the streets of Harlem prefers to go by "Mr. Satan." Part folk artist, part crazed prophet, Mr. Satan is by far the more interesting half of their partnership. Yet Gussow does a good job recounting the circumstances of his own life and making even his failed romances passably interesting.

Indeed, the cleanly written Mr. Satan's Apprentice seems as much about Gussow's repeatedly broken heart as anything else. Which is reasonable, because every time another love goes bad, Gussow turns to his harmonica and the blues for solace. Why not -- no less an authority than B.B. King says that "the blues is about a man and a woman." More important, each of Gussow's turns takes him closer to his goal in this story of a young man's musical coming of age.

It's after a particularly terrible fracture with a long-time live-in flame in 1985 that Gussow -- then a journalist (primarily for the Village Voice), harmonica player, and guitarist struggling to find his place in the world -- stumbles upon Nat Riddles, in whom he discovers all the qualities he needs to authenticate his own blues-harp craftsmanship. Riddles is a hip, street-smart ladies' man who makes his living with a taxicab and his harmonica. His playing boasts the technique, tone, attitude, and character that add up to that indefinable-but-immediately-recognizable quality called "soul." That's the missing link in Gussow's own music. It's eluded him for years as he's learned from the recordings of blues harmonica kings like Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton, and Junior Wells.

The fact that Riddles is African-American is no small part of the equation. Or the book. Gussow repeatedly engages the concerns that any white musician who chooses to play blues must address -- at least as he or she develops. What right does a kid from the New York suburbs have to appropriate this music sprung from the hardships of the Mississippi Delta? To what extent can he ever claim the elements he loves of African-American culture as his own? Can anyone whose ancestors have never tasted the bite of shackles, picked cotton, or driven a mule in the sweltering heat really lay claim to the blues?

It's an issue pondered by blues scholars (or "blues mental patients," as the writer John Sinclair lovingly refers to them) ad nauseam. And for Gussow, it's a kind of barrier that he forces himself to confront repeatedly: in bars, on stages, in interracial friendships and romances. And eventually on the streets of Harlem with Mr. Satan. It's there that Gussow, playing black music in an urban center of "blacknuss," to borrow Rahsaan Roland Kirk's term, finds his answers. Most passers-by and Mr. Satan's regular coterie of fans accept him for his grit and determination, as well as his rich sound. Not to mention his obvious devotion to Mr. Satan, a somewhat unpredictable but locally beloved figure who combines an ambitious musical command with an otherworldly outlook. Mr. Satan's regular denunciations of God are not only perverse but oddly endearing, since he turns them into humanist pleas. He's a cranky self-proclaimed Devil with a heart of gold.

It's not until Gussow's shaken by a few threatening encounters with young black men who want him off their turf that he comes to the realization that license to play the blues is something he's got to grant himself. Through immersion in the music and shared experiences with the people for whom it's cultural history, it becomes part of his history and his nature as well -- an emotional and spiritual talisman that's as much his right to treasure as anyone else's. And as Gussow hurdles his barriers of self-doubt, his ability to take his music to a higher place increases, until the magic of "soul" is within his grasp too.

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