Beyond the Crossroads

The Devil and the Blues Tradition

By Adam Gussow

416 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 6 halftones, 2 maps, 1 table, appends., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-3366-4
    Published: October 2017
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-3367-1
    Published: September 2017
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5381-3
    Published: September 2017
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3365-7
    Published: October 2017

New Directions in Southern Studies

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Awards & distinctions

2018 John G. Cawelti Award for the Best Textbook/Primer in Popular Culture and American Culture, Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association

Best Blues Book of 2017, Living Blues Reader's Poll

The devil is the most charismatic and important figure in the blues tradition. He's not just the music's namesake ("the devil's music"), but a shadowy presence who haunts an imagined Mississippi crossroads where, it is claimed, Delta bluesman Robert Johnson traded away his soul in exchange for extraordinary prowess on the guitar. Yet, as scholar and musician Adam Gussow argues, there is much more to the story of the devil and the blues than these clichéd understandings.

In this groundbreaking study, Gussow takes the full measure of the devil's presence. Working from original transcriptions of more than 125 recordings released during the past ninety years, Gussow explores the varied uses to which black southern blues people have put this trouble-sowing, love-wrecking, but also empowering figure. The book culminates with a bold reinterpretation of Johnson's music and a provocative investigation of the way in which the citizens of Clarksdale, Mississippi, managed to rebrand a commercial hub as "the crossroads" in 1999, claiming Johnson and the devil as their own.

About the Author

Adam Gussow is associate professor of English and southern studies at the University of Mississippi and author of Mister Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues Memoir.
For more information about Adam Gussow, visit the Author Page.


“A model work of scholarship: years of meticulous and extensive archival work are the foundation for this multidisciplinary study that carefully and respectfully applies research in cultural history, anthropology, psychology, popular culture, film studies, and more to the use of the devil figure and related imagery within the blues tradition.”—Journal of Southern History

“By looking at over 125 blues songs, Gussow illustrates that the devil stands at the center of the black Southern blues tradition as a figure that sows trouble, wrecks love, but also gives power.” —No Depression

"Masterfully researched, impeccably well-written, spell bindingly interesting food for thought for curious minds. . . . An important addition to any serious blues reader's bookshelf." —Country Blues

"Gives blues fans plenty to ponder in this challenging book that doesn’t back away from taking on some cherished parts of the blues tradition. Readers will be compelled to revisit some classic tunes to hear the songs with fresh ears, ready to garner new meanings based on the many forms of the devil illuminated in this work. Thanks to Mr. Gussow for attempting to get us out of our blues comfort zones, and for providing readers with well-researched concepts that invite us to do more than just listen to the music." —Blues Blast

"Gussow's scope is broad and deep, impeccably researched and far too complex and thorough for a brief review to do it justice. . . . His central thesis. . . [challenges] much of the mythologizing of blues culture that has arisen over the years — and, by implication, the patronizing (at best) or downright racist (at worst) assumptions that have often accompanied it. . . . Gussow’s analysis is prescient, and it adds significantly to our understanding of the texture and complexity of the bluesmen’s art, its legacy and its meaning."—Living Blues

“An excellent antidote to the mystification of the music.” —Choice

Multimedia & Links

Listen: The author's custom Beyond the Crossroads Spotify playlist: