Gather round and let me tell you the legend of a man they call Peetie Wheatstraw.
Peter (often Peetie or Petey) Wheatstraw is a legendary figure in African-American folklore with roots in slavery-era folktales and protest hymns. The character-type can be traced back further to African trickster gods such as the Yoruba god Eshu. Trickster gods often approached travelers on roads, usually at a crossroads, and offered them a choice between the two paths, one containing what can be best described as order, the other chaos. The trickster spirit would try to tempt the traveller to take the path of chaos, but not always for mischievous purposes. The experience with chaos often led the traveller to self-awareness and maturation. In America, as slaves were Christianized, the legend became Christianized as well. The trickster god took on the form of the devil, or more specifically Peter Wheatstraw--the devil's son-in-law, and the crossroads offered a choice between not the order and chaos, but good and evil.
Several early blues artists weaved into their personal history the story of meeting this devil at the crossroads, where they would sell their soul for the ability to play guitar better than anyone alive. The most famous artist associated with this legend is Robert Johnson, but the story has also been connected to Tommy Johnson (who was the basis for the character in the Cohen Brother's 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and William Bunch, who actually adopted the name Peetie Wheatstraw; on his early 1930 recordings The Devil's Son-In-Law and The High Sheriff of Hell. Writer Ralph Ellison also draws upon the legend in Invisble Man, having his narrator meet a perplexing character named Peter Wheatstraw during his journey.
So why the cultural mythology lesson in a music birthday feature? Jonny Lang was born on January 29, 1981. By the age of 15, he independently released the blues album Smokin and was getting international recognition as a blues guitar prodigy. His 1997 release Lie to Me went multi-platinum and 1998's Wander This World earned a grammy nomination. This all occurred when I was discovering the blues myself, and witnessing this young artist's prolific start, I was sure I'd be hearing from the sure-to-be blues legend Jonny Lang for many years to come. However, this wasn't the case. In fact, when I saw today was his thirtieth birthday, I immediately wondered what happened to him.
It turns out that Jonny Lang had somewhat of a reversed crossroads experience. It seems that with his early success, drinking and marijuana became part of his daily routine. By 1998, Lang took what went on to be a five year break from recording and touring, and in that time discovered Christianity. No longer drinking or smoking pot, his releases in 2003, 2006, and 2009 contain a tamer, more gospel-influenced sound. Regarding 2006's Turn Around, he said:
"With this album I want to focus, more than ever before, on my purpose in life. I've been so incredibly blessed. My wife and I just had our fifth anniversary. I get to do what I love for a living. But it wasn't so long ago that I was spiraling downward in a lot of ways, until God touched my life and set me on the right track. I feel a huge debt to give glory back to Him for everything He has done for me."
I can't help but wonder how much this change in Lang's life impacted his music. I will readily admit not knowing much about his latest work--in fact I am checking it out right now. His music still receives praise from gospel-music critics, even if his sales don't reach the numbers of the earlier blues records. Lang obviously made a lifestyle change that has given him happiness and most likely a longer life to make music for people to enjoy, and I commend him for that. That said, allow me to play the trickster god and ask you to consider Neil Young's famous lyric, "It's better to burn out, than fade away" and how it relates to artistic creation. Does music lose some of it's edge when artists aren't forging their craft from some sort of chaos?
Many musicians have struggled between the sacred and the secular in their careers. Ray Charles received a lot of harsh criticism for putting secular lyrics over what sounded a lot like the gospel music he was raised on. He was not alone. Early R&B and rock & roll was seen as "the devil's music" for that same reason, secularizing--and often sexualizing--something that was supposed to be sacred and spiritual. Even before then, Son House and Reverend Gary Davis spent careers alternating between vocations of bluesman and preacher, unable to ever reconcile the two as one whole. And as this kind of music evolved, its connection with evil (or as seen in the African tradition, chaos) continued: Beatles records burned when John Lennon claimed they were "bigger than Jesus", satanic messages supposedly found on Led Zeppelin albums when played in reverse, ex-Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off of a bat onstage, and so on.
But Jonny Lang has taken a different course, perhaps opting to reverse the path he chose that a trickster spirit offered him so early in life. Or maybe after taking that path of chaos, he emerged with better self-awareness and maturity. Regardless of the impact that decision has made on his music, I have to give the man respect on his thirtieth birthday for not becoming another "brilliant but tortured musician" cliche.
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