New English/Southern Studies professor brings blues scholarship into the classroom
Aug. 29, 2002
By Deidra Jackson
OXFORD, Miss. — New York native Adam Gussow has no Southern accent, but he may know more about Mississippi than many of her sons and daughters.
The new assistant professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi also can play the blues out of a harmonica, as his students heard recently.
Gussow, 44, taught American, African-American and Southern literature, as well as black music, cultural studies and Beat poet Jack Kerouac during a stint as visiting assistant professor of English at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. His intense immersion into blues tradition — whose origins are firmly planted in Mississippi — is impressive.
“The blues tradition is, needless to say, thoroughly grounded in Southern lives, Southern folkways, Southern expressive culture,” Gussow said of his principal research interest. “This is just the right place to be right now.”
For 12 years the private blues harmonica instructor performed with Mt. Olive native and blues musician Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee. As co-founder of gifted Harlem juke joint blues duo Satan & Adam, he recorded three CDs and appeared on U2s Rattle and Hum album and concert film. The twosome also played at numerous music festivals and clubs in North America and Europe.
“For some reason, the public has this misconception that English professors are stodgy or elitist. How unfortunate,” said Joseph Urgo, chair of the UM Department of English. “Were thrilled to have him here to teach literature and topical courses based in his research on black and white cultural crossings in American literature and music. Now, in his second career, hes assistant professor in one of the coolest departments on campus — English.”
Mississippi and blues songs are steeped in Gussows doctoral dissertation Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and Blues Texts, 1890-1996. In his treatise, he discusses ways in which violence shapes the blues tradition. He also shows how blues texts often were cathartic responses to the eruption of spectacle lynchings in the South during the 1890s. His revised dissertation will be published by the University of Chicago Press this fall.
“Professor Gussow brings unique training and talents to the position in English and Southern Studies,” said Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the UM Center for the Study of Southern Culture. “He studies African-American literature and knows how central it has been to any understanding of the richness of Southern culture. As a blues performer and student of the music, he promises to augment the centers national lead in studying the blues.”
In addition to its deep south locale, the centers innovative research activities attracted him to UM, Gussow said. Through the centers efforts, UMs J.D. Williams Library has acquired such holdings as the ONeal Living Blues Collection and the B.B. King Record Archive. He also anticipates working closely with Living Blues, the bimonthly magazine of the African-American blues tradition published by the center.
Gussow said he also hopes to promote and participate in discussions about racial reconciliation. “I want to pick up where I left off, studying the origins of the blues and racial antagonism,” Gussow said. “Im now interested in studying the reverse."
He received bachelors and doctoral degrees from Princeton University and a masters from Columbia University. His autobiographical first book, Mister Satans Apprentice: A Blues Memoir, received the 2000 Keeping the Blues Alive Award in Literature from the Blues Foundation in Memphis. He also received the 2002 Darwin T. Turner Award for the article “Make My Getaway: The Blues Lives of Black Minstrels in W. C. Handys Father of Blues,” which recently was published in the African American Review.
His writings about Jack Kerouac, Paule Marshall, John Cheever, Alice Walker, Herman Melville and Edward Said have appeared in Georgia Review, The Literary Review, The Village Voice and other publications.
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