At the Newport Folk Festival about two years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing a friend play the kid’s stage—a stone’s throw from the main stage, guarded by snack tables, and elevated very sweetly about one foot above ground. After his glowing introduction by two ten-year-old boys, he launched into a heavy, guitar-slapping slide rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Me And The Devil Blues.”
Weirdly, watching these little waifish five-year-olds walk towards his very scary version of a very scary song with dead eyes and inclined heads made me realize that listening doesn’t change all that much as you get older. The thumping talking-guitar that mimes the devil’s footsteps to the frantic falsetto realization, “me and the devil, walking side by side,” is totally mesmerizing, even in daylight, at Newport, surrounded by fifteen babies.
“Me And The Devil Blues” didn’t make it onto “Make the Devil Leave Me Alone,” but not because it’s not an unbelievable blues song. It was for Tampa Red’s startling, moanin’ “Worried Devil Blues” that I sacrificed Robert Johnson to the ether. His mythos, selling his soul to the devil, makes him famous enough not to need me. Instead, I took the mix title from a 1939 song by Mary James, a female prisoner who—a far cry from Johnson—won’t relent. It’s a looping, loping refrain, a work song, a plea.
Oh, make the devil leave me alone
Oh now, make the devil leave me alone
Oh the devil’s on my back
Tryin’ to turn me back
Make the devil leave me alone.
Twenty years after Mary James’ recording, Ed Lewis and a few other prisoners were recorded by Alan Lomax at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (called Parchman Farm for its notoriously awful, plantation-like conditions) singing “Tom Devil,” a folk legend about the grim reaper roaming the barracks with a name, and a face, like a regular man. David Guetta and Nicki Minaj recently revived the most-sampled song in the Lomax/Parchman oeuvre, C.B. & Axe gang’s “Rosie,” for the club bangin’ “Hey Mama.” Let’s give the much scarier “Tom Devil” his day.
Go away devil, devil, and leave me alone
Oh go away devil, devil, and leave me alone.
For lots of these artists, the devil isn’t so forbidding. “I’m Feelin’ Devilish,” an A-side performed by popular hot-jazz outfit and Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom residents Fess Williams & His Royal Flush Orchestra, calls that “feelin’” something “peculiar”—a sneaky slant-way of making the devil sexy without saying s-e-x in front of the 1930’s public. “The Devil Is Mounted,” an old-time gospel hymn performed by The Phipps Family, is a great and accidentally(?) sexy response. Blues empress Bessie Smith’s “Devil’s Gonna Git You” and smut-king barrelhouse pianist Roosevelt Sykes’ “Devil’s Island Gin Blues,” both recorded within five years of each other, are “Dealing With the Devil” (says the great Brownie McGhee!) in a similar lowdown kind of way.
It seems like mostly, in old-time music, the devil works through moaning, yelping, pitching high and whistling low: as testament, Cajun swing musician Harry Choates’ snazzy fiddlin’ “Devil in the Bayou” next to Texas Gladden’s knife-voiced ballad “The Devil and the Farmer’s Wife;” Sid Hemphill and Lucius Smith’s fife and drum rendering of the traditional “Old Devil’s Dream” next to Hobart Smith’s fiddle version of the same; and Noah Lewis’ “Devil in the Woodpile,” a battle of vocal “ee-hee” and harmonica moan. A terrifying and mostly indiscernible upbeat blues by black secular vocal group Tim Brymn’s Black Devil Four. Then “Devil Got My Woman.” “The Devil in the Lion’s Den.” “Blue Devil Blues.”
Are you inviting the devil in tonight? Did you know he likes to jam?