Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Devil Take the Hindmost
When I wrote about Cajun albums a few weeks ago, there was an unplanned but handy connecting thread. Each CD included a version of the tune "Les Flammes d'Enfer"--yes, "The Flames of Hell," a potent image for such a lively piece of dance music--which must be some sort of remnant of Catholicism's hold on early Acadien settlers and New Orleans Creoles. But since then I've been instead pondering the disappearance of the Devil from our culture. With so many Christian fundamentalists, so many followers of the Rapture and the "Taken Away" books, so much hellfire-and-brimstone talk, what's happened to Satan himself? ("Satan is real," sang the Louvin Brothers in 1958, "You can see him and hear him each day.")
The answer I've come up with is this: since we now ("we" meaning large chunks of the American populace) are rapidly and rabidly demonizing swarthy Arabs, Mexican immigrants, union workers and collective bargaining, women's-choice physicians, election opponents and rival political parties, Supreme Court (un)justices, and even the President himself... well, there's just no need for some master Lucifer to be manipulating the citizenry, because we're doing just fine by ourselves--we've already gone to the Devil--violence and vituperation outyelling and outselling mere outmoded venality and vice. Do banksters and Wall Street criminals escape with a slap on the wrist and a fine? Do the wealthy and undeserving get a pass on taxes while the Middle Class gets beaten down into the dirt? Do our stupid celebrities spend more time in rehab centers than they do in shopping malls? Oh, they're just so lovable and watchable and forgivable, all these victims of disfunctional or abusive families, troubled by their demons within. No one would ask, "What the Devil got into you?" now because no one's to blame. No Devil need apply.
I miss Old Scratch, that surly bastard and shadowy fallen angel, poet John Milton's not-very-secret hero. Robert Johnson believed, singing, "Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go" (his "Me and the Devil Blues"). So did Peetie Wheatstraw, who billed himself as "the Devil's Son-in-Law." Those good old country boys, the Louvins put out a whole Satan Is Real album, with an infamous cover photo truer than expected, because the Satan photo set caught fire and so nearly did the Louvins. Speaking of such, I've found versions of "Les Flammes" not only by Mamou and Richard Thompson per the earlier post, but also by Austin Pitre, Jo-El Sonnier, the Balfa Brothers (great one! but why "Flemmes"?), BeauSoleil, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Zachary Richard, et quelques autres. The chorus says "Priez pour moi, Sauvez mon ame, Je suis condamne Aux flammes d'enfer." (In simple English, "Pray for me, Save my soul, I'm condemned To the flames of hell.")
Who was it first sang "Old Devil Moon," and who had "that old devil look in her eyes"? Was it Mitch Ryder who recognized the "Devil with a Blue Dress On"? (And comedian Flip Wilson who'd often wear one? "The Devil made me do it!" he'd comically claim.) Now add "Devil or Angel," "Devil Doll," and "Devil Woman" (two songs by that title), and a pattern of misogyny emerges, summed up by the sleazy '50s paperback titled Satan in Satin. But Lucifer isn't a woman all that often; think instead of "Sympathy for the Devil," "Friend of the Devil," and the banjopickers' anthem "Devil's Dream."
There are plenty of period songs from the folk and gospel traditions involving demonic possession, satanic acts, and devilish trickery. But I'm more interested in cueing up a few particular songs that demonstrate (watch out for the first two syllables there; the Devil's in the details!) how widespread belief in Beelzebub used to be. Yes, Satan was once commonly found in country and Cajun, blues and r&b, Jazz and pop, even Classical music--Mephistopheles in operas by Gounod and Boito, Mozart's third act Don Juan in Hell, the Mephisto waltzes, "Devil's trills" among violinists, Paganini and Liszt themselves--and Devil take the hindmost.
If Old Scratch found his way to Southwest Louisiana first, it was fiddler Charlie Daniels who finagled him to fame further east: "The Devil went down to Georgia, He was lookin' for a soul to steal; He was in a bind, He was way behind, He was willin' to make a deal." But this time he gets outsmarted--or, rather, outplayed--by a kid whose fiddle is smokin' hot. Daniels performs both parts, with amazing crazed dissonance for the Devil's still-musical sawing (a violint assault, so to speak), answered by powerhouse chicken-pluckin' and gut-struck, soul-saver bowin' from young musician Johnny. And the track became an unlikely yet huge hit on both country and rock charts. (Yes, bow down, Satan--you met your match!)
Forty years earlier, eccentric Bentonia, Mississippi bluesman Skip James recorded "Devil Got My Woman," which sounds definitely ominous, but turns out to be not so bad after all. James could play free-style piano, beautiful guitar, and sing ethereally; this cut, his debut on wax, has Skip on guitar, resentful but resigned, and pitching his voice up high, "I'd rather be the Devil than be that woman's man (Repeats), 'Cause nothin' but the Devil change my baby's mind." (In other words, not The War for Heaven and Earth, but the daily war between the sexes.) More significant are Skip's stylish picking and general text, both of which turn up a few years later when young Robert Johnson gets his chance in a studio, indicating some sort of influence, James to Johnson, whether via records, actual close contact, or a third party.
Jumping forward a couple of decades, another Miss'ippi lad sang an upbeat paean to another irksome, ever-fascinating woman. Tupelo's Elvis Aaron Presley (just a country boy, hunh) identified her, "You're the Devil in Disguise," exercising his vocal cords when exorcising her might have been more salubrious: "You look like an angel, Walk like an angel, Talk like an angel--But I got wise, You're the Devil in disguise, Oh yes you are..." Still, those simple repeating lyrics and the quick, swirling-rhythms arrangement produced a major Sixties hit for Electrifying El'; good thing he missed noticing "the Devil in her eyes" early on. (But what should we make of "Elvis" rearranging to become "Evils" and "Veils" as well as "Lives"?)
Finally, taking another cue from the Louvins' album, I offer "Satan's Jeweled Crown," sung spectacularly in 1975 instead by the then-littleknown Emmylou Harris. If there's another 40-year mistress of rock and country more worth sinning for, more worthy of risking one's starry crown over... well, I sure can't name her. Gingerly and tenderly supported by her friends, resonator-guitar ace Mike Auldridge and D.C. area Bluegrass vocalists John and Fayssoux Starling, Emmylou reaches for the heavens, turning an old-style gospel hymn/sermon into something rich and strange:
If I could be queen and ruler of nations,
Wear jewels and diamonds profound,
I'd rather know that I have salvation
Than to know my reward is Satan's jeweled crown...
Satan's jeweled crown, I've worn it so long
But God for my soul has reached down;
His love set me free, He made me his own,
And helped me cast off Satan's jeweled crown.
The lovely Emmylou is jewel-crowned queen of country harmony vocals, and will remain such long past her active performing years. Any belated attempt by Beelzebub to alter that set-in-stone fact will just fall flat.
Better the Devil you know than... what? Start talking about Lucifer, open those floodgates wide, and you might suddenly have a devil of a time getting the demon back in the box. At the geologic level there's Devil's Canyon, Devil's Tower, Devil's Island, Devil's Cauldron, and more than one Devil's Anvil. Cast a wider net, and you find From Hell to Texas, Duel at Diablo, The Demon Seed, and a spectrum of notions ranging from The Screwtape Letters to Their Satanic Majesties Request, from Hell Is for Heroes and Sartre's Existential play No Exit ("L'Enfer--c'est les autres") to Spielberg's early, eerie TV movie Something Evil.
Go to the Devil, then--get back to the original creature again--with "The Devil's Right Hand," "The Devil Came from Kansas," and The Devil Walks at Midnight... and that's probably because he's starved for deviled eggs, devil's food cake, and a ration of demon rum. The increased number of the Beast must be 666 at least!
Clearly I need to stop obsessing over the many-named Mephisto ("Get thee behind me, Satan!") and focus my mind on healthier, happier matters. Hmm, maybe some Ellington on the CD player... "Satan Doll," perhaps...