Few figures in Western culture possess such knee-jerk, ookie-spooky clout as the Devil. Excuse me. THE Devil! Christian believers get nervous, metalheads get excited, and if you’re that one goblet wielding Dapper Dan from Sam Dunn’s incredible 2005 documentary, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, you’ll stroke your face and say, “Yesss….Satan was worth it.” Which is so ridiculous and utterly amazing. The horned one bless that man.
Whatever your personal beliefs or non-beliefs are, the Devil as a figure in the arts is a rich one. Seductive, evil, or even just merely impish (ever experience a Kansas City Hotfoot?), the Devil’s place in early American popular music is fascinating, fun, and socially complicated one. Modern day music listeners are used to hearing rock and roll referred to as “the devil’s music,” complete with all of the fun, sexy, and possibly moshing your way direct to eternal damnation implications. To the extent that the main genres that were targeted in the 1980s by the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) were hard rock, metal, punk, R&B, and later on, rap. Fascinating that the genres that they gunned for all had solid roots in the African-American community, as well as ties to anti-authority and status quo artists of all races. Country and opera, two genres whose subject matter often include enough violence, sex, love gone wrong, and mentions of Lucifer himself to make a version of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus starring Annie Sprinkle and GG Allin blush, escaped scrutiny.
Rock & Roll might still be the bogeyman to repressed, misguided fundamentalist types, but it wasn’t the first modern musical genre to get labeled “the devil’s music.” During the 1920s, Jazz was branded with that very same satanic descriptor. (Why do I have feeling Paganini is somewhere threatening to haunt me for not including him? The classical era will have to be delved into another time, Sir.) Jazz, like all forms of expression, is at its best when it has teeth, heat, and pure-as-a-Saint’s-smile vision. In the 1920s, Jazz was a musical infant that exploded into this world big, bold, and beautiful and it touched the vibrant pulse of youth culture. After all, they did not call it The Jazz Age for nothing.
The Devil was a popular topic for both hot jazz, pop, and especially the blues during this era. One such jazz chestnut, courtesy of the groundbreaking lady of popular crooning herself, the massively under-looked radio girl, Vaughn De Leath, who gave us the swinging 1927 tune, “Dancing the Devil Away.” De Leath is a fascinating figure. Though she died prematurely at the age of 42, she packed a whole lotta of life in the short span, singing multiple hits, becoming one of the first American crooners, she created soundtracks for several silent films (yes, the silent era had soundtracks, often performed either live or via a recording that was played during the screening), and even managed a radio station, which was a severely male-dominated field at the time. (And probably still is now.) De Leath also covered “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” in 1927, a song most famously sung by Elvis Presley, to the extent that many may not realize the song was already decades old by the time The King took it to number one in 1960. Getting away from the misty-eyed pathos and heartsickness of that song, “Dancing the Devil Away” is a fun and crazy-catchy ditty about blaming the devil for your blues by dancing! Sounds good to me and a nice way to fend off evil while horrifying your Baptist relatives. Fascinatingly, a YouTube commenter actually left some heavy religious statement on a clip of this De Leath song, as if the song is a) literally about Satan and b) there are a tremendous lot of matters on this planet to be concerned about. War, famine, and fascism far outweigh frugging away the Satan.
Fast forward a few years later to the release of one of the greatest and most infernally accessible songs invoking the horned one, all in the form of Larry Clinton & his Orchestra’s 1938 song, “The Devil With The Devil.” Though released over ten years after Vaughn De Leath’s song, “The Devil With The Devil” makes an amazing sonic double feature with it. They work well enough together that I had originally assumed that it was released in the 1920s. Which is a compliment, because this song brings up all kinds of Max Fleischer-swinging-lysergic-acid-dancing goodies to mind. Judging by the lyrics, the song seems to be about living your life to the fullest since death and quite possibly the devil, are unavoidable.
So afraid of Old Man Sin
Now why don’t you stop your hesitatin’
Gonna be a long time dead
So the devil with the Devil says I
“The Devil With the Devil” Larry Clinton & His Orchestra
There’s such a bon vivant-ness with this song, complete with this sensibility of a narrator tired of being constantly judged by the stuffy-bingo-playing set and decides to 23 skidoo and just enjoy what life there is to live. Plus, you just know that old scratch can mix a mean martini. Clinton’s resume was equally impressive, getting his start as a talented musician, mastering the trumpet, trombone, and clarinet. He would soon become a music arranger during the 1920s and a bandleader by the mid-late 1930s. Clinton would also go on to write the classic, “Satan Takes a Holiday,” which would later be covered by the likes of Tommy Dorsey, The Three Suns, and Anton Lavey, the famous ex-carny and founder of the Church of Satan himself! Oh, the sweet-salt-brimstone taste of apropos-ness.
From the First Lady of Radio and the brilliant arranger, creator, and bandleader from NYC to the King and Queen of the Blues, which can only mean I’m about to invoke Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson. Yes, not the deepest old school blues picks, but you cannot ever go wrong with Smith and Johnson. Plus, writing an article about the devil in early modern American music and not mentioning at least Robert Johnson would be akin to covering white musicians who raped and pillaged the blues and leaving Eric Clapton out. (Please Mr. Johnson, haunt him with all of your spectral might!)
Bessie Smith was THE Queen. Such a voice and musical force that her reverb still echoes powerfully to this very day. There is something so enchanting about Smith’s voice, which at times was like roughly hewn silk with a hundred-percent heart and authenticity. Anyone can merely sing or play the blues, but it takes an artist who without a shadow of a doubt, gets it and innately feels the point and purpose of the music. This was Bessie Smith to an absolute T. Smith was also a bisexual working-class goddess to the extent that according to her Wikipedia entry, had been dismissed from an audition for Black Swan Records due to her being deemed “too rough” and taking a moment from singing to spit. Smith is an art-heroine who sang music that spoke about issues ranging from female desire to discrimination. The real heartbreak is knowing that her art was viewed as unseemly basically due to her singing her truth that was shared with so many other women, especially in the African-American community.
Oh, and the devil, whose name gets invoked in the Porter Grainger-penned song, “Devil’s Gonna Get You.” Here, Bessie is the reverse Larry Clinton by warning her lover that “…Mister Devil down below/Pitchfork in his hand/And that’s where you are going to go/Do you understand?” if he doesn’t stop his running around town chasing skirts. While I would have preferred it if the main narration sang about cuckolding her lover by stealing his lady, hey, if I’m gonna have to hear Satan being invoked to warn one about their wicked ways, at least let it be Bessie Smith singing. “Devil’s Gonna Get You” also has one of the greatest ending lyrics, with “…Sure as you’re born to die.” Oomph. That is some perfect heaviness right there.
Me & the Devil
Was walking side by side
I’m going to beat my woman
Until I’m satisfied
“Me & the Devil Blues” Robert Johnson
There’s not much one can say about Robert Johnson that hasn’t already been written, whispered, or mythologized. The latter to an extent that lines between fact and fiction are blurred, but then again, isn’t that the gift-curse of history? Most know about the famous story that Johnson got his musical gift by making a deal with the Devil, literally, at the crossroads at midnight. Which is amazing and is in the annals of blues and rock museum of lurid, right next to Led Zeppelin’s mud shark (though a variation of that more than likely did happen, which is dag nasty), a woman’s murder being recording on The Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster,” and Bob Dylan actually being a rancid billy goat named Frankie. (Okay, I made that last one up but you try coming up with something better while dealing with three hours of sleep and trying not to visualize a Zepp lackie assaulting a second-tier groupie with a dead fish.)
Realistically, Johnson was a man with some innate talent that no doubt practiced relentlessly until the meeting of technical chops and inner vision collided and produced some game-changing blues playing. That said, the Devil does seem to pop up more than a few times in Johnson’s work, giving a nice bright red infernal glow masquerading as credence to the whole “selling your soul to the Devil for talent” lore. One of the best is the 1937 song, “Me & the Devil Blues.” Released just a year before his untimely passing/possible murder at the tender age of 27 (cue up more of the spooky blues-rock-death-theremin music), “Me & the Devil Blues” is one somber, subtle fist-punch of a song.
While the word “devil” gets invoked a lot in music, it’s usually more metaphorical than literal, ranging from “back away devil woman” to “she’s just a devil woman” to “devil in a blue dress.” (There’s a lot of men with women issues in rock and roll, apparently.) Here, Johnson sings, “Early this morning, when you knocked upon my door and I said, “Hello Satan, I believe it’s time to go.” That is some bold stuff right there and we’re still only hearing the beginning of the song and have not even got to the talk of spousal abuse and evil spirits. I’m hard-pressed to think of that many artists that sang about Satan in such a fact-of-the-matter and non-evangelical kind of way.
This song could serve as a warning, of course, especially as the tone and lyrics carry this weighted, resigned film of unhappiness, vice, and evil, but it lacks the judgment and direct warning that tends to be associated with tunes about the Devil from this era. This is obviously several decades before bands like Coven and even, later on, Mercyful Fate would arrive on the musical scene with songs celebrating all manners of the horned one. Granted, I wouldn’t say that Johnson necessarily put any glee in his dealing with Satan, Hell, or any associated minions. In fact, his approach here is weirdly reminiscent of the Velvet Underground song, “Heroin.” Not musically, of course, but in the sense of just stating what is going on with zero condemnation or jubilation. “Heroin” is a song that still bothers some because of the steadfast refusal to go black or white and that’s also some of the tonal power of both “Me & the Devil Blues” and Johnson in general.
His narrator knows he’s living a bad life and is walking with the beast (to invoke a great latter-day bluesman, the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce), but it’s a decision he has made and gonna see it through, even telling his battered woman that he “…don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead and gone…” The capper is him mentioning the possibility of being buried by the highway, just so his “…old evil spirit can get a Greyhound bus and ride.” This is so good and eerie. An entire metal festival of C-Grade black metal bands could still not out-evil the man, Robert Johnson.
There are so many more songs and artists worth looking into related to this era of Jazz and Blues. Talk about a golden age of musical riches, the Devil be damned. That said, if early modern American music and Satanism pique your exquisitely varied interests, giving a listen to artists like Vaughn De Leath, Larry Clinton, Bessie Smith, and Robert Johnson is a prime start. Throw on an old Max Fleischer cartoon, sip some bootlegged liquor, and enjoy.
If anyone judges and looks askance in your direction, just tell them that the devil made you do it.