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College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Giving the Devil his Due: Adam Gussow Knows the Blues

Say what you will about him, but Satan knows how to work a room.

On a warm evening in May, he makes his way through the green neon glow at Rooster’s Blues House in Oxford, Miss., and the crowd welcomes him like royalty. It’s a crowded, second-floor bar on the town square, the kind of place that still has a cigarette machine. Satan accepts compliments and pats on the back, shaking every hand with a respectful, “Thank you, sir.” Walking a step or two behind him is Adam, his longtime sideman, partner, and acolyte. Satan and Adam: the fallen angel and the first man. They will be signing autographs in the back.

Satan — Mr. Satan to you and me — is Sterling Magee, a guitarist, backup player for musicians from James Brown to George Benson, and one-man band. And practically a force of nature — which you’d know if you spent any time around him in the old days. Adam is Adam Gussow, who leads something of a double life as an associate professor of English and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi by day and one of the best blues-harmonica players in the world — whenever time permits. The gathering at Rooster’s is a launch party for the duo’s new CD, Back in the Game, their first recorded collaboration in 13 years. It also happens to be Mr. Satan’s 75th birthday.

Magee crosses Rooster’s with a shuffle as Gussow hovers like an attentive son. In their brief time on stage, Magee shows he still can play a mean guitar, and his rasping voice retains much of its old force. As he used to do when the two were sidewalk regulars on 125th Street in Harlem back in the ’80s and early ’90s, Gussow is by Mr. Satan’s side, hands and harmonica cupped over his microphone, eyes closed, bobbing and jumping, feeling it as they jam on the blues song “Big Boss Man.”

Twelve hours later, Gussow and Magee meet up again in blinding sunlight at the opening of an event called Hill Country Harmonica. Gussow is the organizer and driving force behind what the psychedelic posters bill as “A North Mississippi Blues Harp Homecoming.” It is a festival/conference/seminar/jamboree held on a ranch about 20 miles north of Oxford. In this, its second year, Hill Country Harmonica has drawn more than 140 participants from 36 states and as far away as Russia, along with a documentary film crew and a blogger for The Huffington Post. Everyone sits at picnic benches in what is essentially a huge, open-walled shed, with a concession stand along one side and a stage at the end. For two days they will eat and play here, most of them sleeping in tents pitched out in the surrounding fields. 

It’s a blues-harmonica Woodstock, although a lot more organized than the prototype. There are lectures each day as well as breakout sessions on everything from “tone and tongue blocking” to “soloing over 1st and 3rd positions,” plus evening concerts and almost unlimited jam time. On the first day, Satan and Adam are lecturing about being buskers — street musicians — and then playing a set that night. If you want to learn the finer points of the four-hole draw or simply listen to some of the best blues going, this is the place to be.

After 25 years together, the affection and respect that Satan and Adam have for one another is undimmed. “He’s a No. 1 guy in my book. That’s the best I can say about him,” says Magee, who is otherwise a man of few words. Then he adds slyly, “At least look who he’s playing with.” Gussow returns the compliments, addressing Magee as “gentleman and genius.”

For a tiny instrument, the harmonica has a lot of nicknames — harp, mouth organ, whistle, even Mississippi saxophone — all of which are used interchangeably. Because harmonicas are tuned to a particular key, most good players travel with harps in a range of keys, carrying them in a small attaché case. The more flamboyant stud their harps on bandoliers worn across the chest. It provides a rakish look.

More than any other form of American music, the blues is steeped in romance. Perhaps the most romantic blues legend of all is of the time Mississippi blues great Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads at midnight in exchange for a demonic ability to play guitar. Adam Gussow never sold his soul to the devil, and considering that he is a half-Jewish white academic from suburban New York who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Ed Begley Jr., one could be forgiven for saying that any overlaps with Johnson are rough at best. But given that he partnered for so long with a man who calls himself Satan, it is not surprising that he has made an academic career of exploring, explaining, and to a certain extent exploding that old romantic trope. Gussow himself now stands at the contemporary blues crossroads where race, history, and the future of the genre meet.

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From Princeton Alumni Weekly by Mark F. Bernstein