The Blues Doctors find room in their lives for teaching and music
FARMINGTON — Upon his arrival at the University of Mississippi in 2002, English professor, author and blues harmonica player Adam Gussow had every intention of putting music aside and focusing on reaching his professional goal.
"I wanted to get tenure," he said.
Easy enough to understand. As a new associate professor of English and Southern studies at Ole Miss, Gussow planned to demonstrate to his department head that he had come to the town of Oxford, home to a renowned literary tradition headed by the likes of William Faulkner, to focus on academia — and not on the devil's music, the art form for which Mississippi is perhaps best known.
But it's not as if Gussow — one half of the duo the Blues Doctors, who will perform Saturday, July 11 at Crash Music in Aztec — didn't have a foot planted firmly in both camps.
Even as his teaching and writing career progressed, Gussow had spent the previous 25 years honing his harmonica skills and playing with Sterling "Mr. Satan" Magee as the duo Satan and Adam. A longtime member of the New York blues scene, where he performed with many of the genre's most renowned guitarists, Gussow had done time as a Harlem street musician and chronicled those experiences in his 1998 book "Mister Satan's Apprentice."
Coincidentally or not, Gussow found himself in what is widely considered the cradle of that musical style when he moved to Mississippi 13 years ago. As a university town, Oxford is much better known for fraternities, sororities, football games and the aforementioned Faulkner than it is for its music scene. But Gussow wasn't far from such towns as Gulfport, Clarksdale and Greenville — communities that are soaked with blues history and regarded with reverence by serious fans of the genre.
Under those circumstances, you can hardly blame a guy for falling back into old habits.
That's exactly what happened to Gussow, even if it took a while. He stood by his vow to place his academic career first, but he eventually found there was room in his life to resume his music career, as well. He released a couple of solo albums, 2010's "Kick and Stomp" and 2011's "Southbound" that showcased him on harp, vocals and drumset, but he didn't really hit his stride again until he formed a partnership with Alan Gross, another Ole Miss faculty member and an accomplished blues guitarist. The two had been aware of each other for years, passing each other on campus and seeing each other at gigs, but they did not form an immediate association.
"I didn't even know his name," Gussow said. "I just knew he was a guy like me who was a professor and a blues musician."
That changed in 2011. They ran into each other at a gas station one day and struck up a conversation.
"I said, 'I've been doing the one-man band thing, but I'm looking for a guitar player. You want to get together and jam?'" Gussow recalled by phone last week from his home in Oxford. "We did, and it was fun."
In Gross — who had made a name for himself around Mississippi by working with many of state's top bluesmen — Gussow quickly realized he had found not just a fine blues guitarist to fill out his sound, but a kindred spirit.
"We meshed really quickly," he said. "Alan is a very strong rhythm guitarist, as well as a lead guitarist, and he was just what I needed."
The best part of their partnership, he quickly found, was the common experiences they shared, both inside and outside music. During the hours they spent in the car traveling to and from gigs, he and Gross always had plenty of talk about, Gussow said.
"There are three dimensions to that," he said. "The first is now, the show you're doing that night. The second is road stories, the guys we've played with and the places we've played. And then the third, since we're both professors, is talking about graduate students and academics. That's an unusual thing to have."
Gross and Gussow chose the name Blues Doctors because they both hold doctorate degrees. Gussow sounded almost apologetic about the name as he discussed it.
"It's an incredibly generic name, and nobody would take it. We thought in a strange way there was a legitimacy to it," he said, referring to the fact that he and Gross both actually are doctors. "That's pretty good for a blues guy to do that."
And since authenticity is perhaps the most highly valued trait in their chosen genre, Gussow believes he and Gross have a solid claim to the name.
"We're stuck with it, but now I like it," he said.
The two released their first disc together in the fall of 2013 — "Roosters Happy Hour," a nod to their regular Friday gig at an important Oxford watering hole. The recording features plenty of well-known material in the form of Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Pride and Joy," as well as the standards "Sweet Home Chicago" by Robert Johnson and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" by Duke Ellington. But the album's best moments are reserved for the disc's opener, the spirited "Put It Where You Want It" by Joseph Sample and the Gussow originals "Next Time You See Me" and "Sidewalk Revival."
That project isn't the only significant one Gussow has found himself involved in over the past several years. He said a film crew plans to wrap up a long-awaited documentary on Satan and Adam by late September. The project has been in the works for decades, and Gussow said it is his understanding that the film's producers hope to submit it for inclusion in the Sundance or Tribeca film festivals.
But the item on his agenda he is most excited about combines his academic and musical careers. He recently completed a 137,000-word manuscript called "Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition." While Gussow acknowledges that even the most casual blues fan is likely familiar with the legend of how blues icon Robert Johnson met up with the devil at a Mississippi crossroads one dark night and bartered his soul in exchange for some otherwordly talent, Gussow maintains that song after song and story after story tie Satan and the blues together. He explores those themes in depth in his book, which he has submitted for consideration to the University of Chicago Press.
The devil's outsized role in blues culture and mythology is a rich vein to mine, Gussow believes, even if the Johnson-at-the-crossroads legend usually dominates the conversation. Gussow goes so far as to say it "seems to have stolen the oxygen from the room."
Gussow does explore that well-known legend in his book and said its enduring popularity probably has a lot to do with a need by Baby Boomer music fans to find a genealogy for the rock-blues they favor. The story positions Johnson as a "bad boy," and rock fans certainly are given to a fascination with that character type, he said.
But during the course of his study, Gussow was surprised to learn that the original "devil's instrument" was not the guitar at all — it was the fiddle. He would unearth other nuggets, as well.
"I had to get straight on some things I was not straight on," he said.
Most of the early references to blues as the devil's music didn't come from the musicians who played it, Gussow said — they came from ministers.
But many of those musicians would come to embrace the idea of invoking the devil in their songs. Gussow said their reasons for doing so were complex. Often, the devil was a figure in African-American romance, as evidenced by the countless blues songs that included a reference to the devil stealing the singer's woman.
"That was a sign of the tortured sexual dynamics in the Delta," Gussow said.
It was not uncommon for black southerners to project a range of meanings on the devil, he said, and in that respect, the blues became protest music.
"It was a rebellion against being dissed," Gussow said, noting that the devil who was so often invoked in blues songs was, in fact, a veiled reference to the white man who inflicted so many forms of violence and chicanery on black southerners.
While Gussow may have been surprised by some of the particulars he turned up in his research, he went into it expecting his work to yield results much deeper than the cardboard image of Johnson as the devil's trading partner.
"As a scholar, I know that when you drill down, what you find is that the true story is more complex," he said.
As an example, he said, the commonly held notion that the blues is a term that originated with "black people's music" is mistaken. The first reference to the blues comes in Mark Twain's "Roughing It" in 1872 in the form of a miner who talks about having the blues, Gussow said. He added the blues was a commonly used term among white people in that era to describe a nervous disorder.
All of that seems to support Gussow's contention that the blues is something that defies effective generalization.
"That undercut a lot of the glib, simplistic ways people look at stuff when they talk about the devil and the blues," he said, explaining what he hoped to accomplish with his book. "There was a lot to say that hadn't been said."
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