Blues sleuth recalls search
ECHOES OF THE PAST Gayle Dean Wardlow listens to some of the first blues records he bought more than 40 years ago by going door-to-door in Meridian's black neighborhoods.
By Steve Gillespie / staff writer
Aug. 28, 2003
If anyone interviews the devil, it will be Gayle Dean Wardlow.
A native of Meridian, Wardlow, 62, is a respected historian and collector of Delta blues a genre that long ago was often referred to as "devil music." He said he'd like to find out if the devil enjoys the blues.
Much of Wardlow's work as a "blues detective," as he calls himself, is recounted in his book "Chasin' That Devil Music: Searching for the Blues," published in 1998 by Backbeat Books.
He also co-authored the book "King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton" in 1989, and has written many articles for blues magazines.
A journalist who formerly worked for The Meridian Star, Wardlow has collected up to 3,000 78 rpm records over the past few decades; he also has player piano rolls and other records in his collection.
His concentration, however, has centered on the Delta blues that originated in northwest Mississippi between 1920 and 1942.
Wardlow also researched blues artists by finding essential documents pertaining to their lives and conducting hundreds of interviews with people who heard them, knew them, loved them, hated them, played music with them and recorded them.
In 1968, after searching for about four years, Wardlow found the death certificate of Robert Johnson, an obscure, mysterious and legendary Delta blues musician.
The legend is that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads one midnight in the Mississippi Delta. In exchange, Johnson gained his incredible guitar-playing ability.
Johnson's songs continue to be redone today by blues and rock 'n' roll artists.
It was said that Johnson came from the Delta and traveled everywhere in his young, short, life. The devil supposedly took him at the young age of 19, by way of poisoned moonshine.
Finding Johnson's death certificate allowed Wardlow to set the record straight on some of the myths.
Johnson was 27 years old when he died and had been a musician for 10 years. There is speculation on the back of his death certificate that he may have died of syphilis. And he was born in Hazelhurst in Copiah County, not in the Mississippi Delta.
Wardlow also takes every opportunity to set the record straight about Johnson's spirituality. Wardlow said Johnson left a note before he died that read: "I believe Jesus will resurrect me on the last day."
He also points out that Johnson's song, "Cross Road Blues" is a plea for being saved. The first verse goes:
I went to the cross road, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above have mercy
Save poor Bob if you please"
Johnson apparently never made the claim the he sold his soul to the devil, although some of his songs, "Me and the Devil," and "Hellhound on My Trail," suggest an intimate relationship with Satan.
In many ways, the recorders of blues, or "devil music," in the 1920s and 1930s were no different than Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne or other entertainers whose persona is associated with the dark side.
A Delta bluesman named Tommy Johnson, however, is another story. Johnson was portrayed in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" by second-generation blues musician Chris Thomas King, 40, of Baton Rouge.
Johnson is known to have perpetuated the story that he sold his soul to the devil. In one account, the deed was done at a crossroads. In another version, he made the deal in a cemetery at midnight.
Wardlow's research tells us Johnson had a severe drinking problem that affected his career. He was born in Copiah County, just like Robert Johnson; the two, however, were not related.
Tommy Johnson died in 1956.
As Wardlow quotes one of Tommy Johnson's brothers, Ledell, in his book: "Tom, he was already embalmed before he died. He drank so much of that Solo [a paint remover with a high alcohol content] that it ate his insides up."
How it began
It was 40 years ago, this month, that Bernard Klatzko came from New York to Mississippi in search of "devil music."
In August 1963, Klatzko and Wardlow canvassed black neighborhoods looking for records.
He said he and Klatzko spent four days in the Delta researching Patton, following what little trail they had.
Wardlow was introduced to the Delta blues, in a roundabout way by country music artist Roy Acuff.
In the early 1950s, Wardlow began collecting Acuff records going back to the 1930s. By the early 1960s he had bought some records from a collector in California, who told him he would swap a box of Acuff records for some old jazz and blues records.
Wardlow began knocking on doors in the black neighborhoods of Meridian, offering to buy residents' old 78 rpm records. After listening to the music he was buying, Wardlow decided he didn't want to give it up.
It was "Street Walker Blues" on the OKeh record label from 1926, sung by Bertha "Chippie" Hill and backed by a young trumpet player named Louis Armstrong.
As long as there is music, some of it will be associated with the devil, according to Wardlow. He also said there will always be a young person somewhere in search of that "devil music."
But the blues has its redeeming qualities, too.