Mister Satan's Apprentice: A Blues Memoir

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9780679450221: Mister Satan's Apprentice: A Blues Memoir

A raw, heartfelt memoir of an unlikely collaboration between an earnest young harmonica player and a charismatic, streetwise Harlem musician.

        Adam Gussow, shattered by failed love at twenty-seven, dedicated himself to blues music in an act of creative desperation.  When he met Nat Riddles ("harmonica-man for all occasions"), he got what he was longing for: initiation into the New York "harp"-playing demimonde and a headlong plunge into a Dionysian lifestyle that ended when Riddles' near-murder and flight compelled Adam to find a different mentor.  Mister Satan was that man.  Born Sterling Magee in Mississippi, Satan played guitar and various percussion instruments simultaneously, ferociously.  He was also a soapbox preacher and environmental philosopher, an African-American genius of Shakespearean immensity.  Defying cultural and generational divides, Adam and Mister Satan become fellow street musicians, would-be racial redeemers, and, eventually, an acclaimed performing duo.

        This is their remarkable story: at once the author's own coming of age and his account of the vicissitudes and tenacity of a friendship realized through a shared love of the blues.

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Review :

Adam Gussow grew up in suburban New York and graduated in 1979 from Princeton, where he is currently a Ph.D. candidate--a fairly typical background for a white blues fan. But Gussow took his obsession with the blues further than most when he started blowing harmonica on the New York City streets in the mid-'80s along with two gifted African American musicians. Nat Riddles, a near-contemporary and fellow harp player, helped Gussow hone his technique (this is the source of many earthy jokes about what else harmonica men do well with their tongues), and Mister Satan, a much older guitar man, imparted life lessons as well. Gussow's funny, impassioned memoir chronicles the growing success of Satan and Adam at blues festivals and on albums while poignantly depicting Nat's battle with leukemia. The author is wildly romantic about the music (described in passages of intense, charging prose) and extremely clear-sighted about the racial tensions simmering in an art form created by blacks but increasingly listened to and played by whites. Alternating sections describing collegiate musical experiences and a love affair that finally broke up in 1984 are less fascinating, but this is a moving tribute to "our American music, the best in the world." --Wendy Smith

From the Publisher :

"A fascinating and, indeed, almost unique contemporary American memoir. The story Adam Gussow tells---wonderfully complicated by questions of race and class, innocence and experience, sorrow and joy---is simply unforgettable."---Arnold Rampersad, author of Jackie Robinson

"Mister Satan's Apprentice tells of playing the harp through some rough, sad days; but it does so with upbeat enthusiasm. Between evocations of good jams and bad gigs, Gussow tells how a half-Jewish Princeton student became a fixture of the Harlem music scene; how art transcended barriers of race, class, and ego; how he got from optimistic apprenticeship to a nearly spiritual mastery. Like the music, Gussow's euphonious prose soars."---Andrew Solomon, contributing writer, The New York Times Magazine

"Gussow is one of the best blues harmonica players of his generation and now, with this blues memoir, he makes his mark as a writer. Mister Satan's Apprentice is an important contribution to the literature of blues in America. Any serious student of blues harmonica who hears Adam play can never hear the instrument in quite the same way again, and everyone who reads his memoir will see the blues in a different light. Gussow writes like he plays the harp---lyrically and with deep feeling."---Charles Sawyer, author of The Arrival of B. B. King

"Offers fascinating and engaging insights into Harlem street life during the volatile 1980s, the dynamics of New York's blues scene, and the mind and music of one of the most brilliant and idiosyncratic performers in modern blues. Above all, Gussow's intimate memoir allows his readers to experience the joys and sorrows, hopes and fears of his own dialogue with that most complex and crucial of American issues: relations between the races."---David Nelson, editor of Living Blues

"Gussow has really got a life, white-boy intellectual by day, blues-playing Harlem street musician by night; and in this book he tells the hell out of a great American coming-of-age story. Jay McInerney in some serious trouble, you know what I'm saying?"---Elaine Showalter, Professor English, Princeton University and author of The Female Malady

"Astonishing . . . What's remarkable about Gussow is that he's equally at home with the groove and with the words to tell us about it."---Harry Shearer, co-writer and co-composer of This is Spinal Tap

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