Disease Imagery in Johnson's Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)

by: Adriana C. Rissetto

In Robert Johnson's song, Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil) the speaker personifies the blues as "walkin' like a man." Even though the blues are an intimate product of the speaker's creativity as a musician, this line reveals that he still feels alienated from them, as if they are an external force acting on him. The speaker reinforces this theme of alienation by using rich disease imagery to illustrate his relationship to blues as an art form: he compares the blues to a "low-down shakin' chill," an "achin' old heart disease", and consumption which kills him "by degrees."

Just as a disease is often perceived as something which has attacked patients' immune systems instead of a bodily process instigated by certain conditions, so for the speaker the blues is an unsettling process which he cannot curb or control. Moreover, the disease imagery is made all the more poignant by the paradoxical synthesis of the "shakin' chill," referring to the dangerous immediacy of a fever, combined with the surreptitious fatality of heart disease and excruciating longevity of consumption.

When the speaker asserts that "the blues/is a low-down shakin chill/.../You ain't never had them, I/hope you never will" he describes the blues using the same rhetoric as one who has caught a nasty virus, saying, "I sure hope you don't get it." Except here, this a virus unique to the speaker, an experience which only he has felt. In The Body in Pain1, Elaine Scarry asserts that "intense pain is world destroying"; if this is the case, then the speaker is in a constant state of world destroying and rebuilding, meaning that not only is his life unstable, but also his psychological state (29). Many lines in the song support this reading, such as, "Blues fell mama's child/ and it tore me all upside down."

After the lines, "the blues/is an achin' old heart disease" the speaker says, "Do it now. You gon' do it? Tell me all about it." Although these lines probably refer to Johnson's guitar playing, the line "tell me all about it" is intriguing in light of Scarry's assertion that pain is unsharable through its resistance to language. She states, "physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned" (4). Therefore, when the speaker wants to "tell" about the blues being like a heart disease, he ironically relies on the guitar, the same instrument which is a medium for the blues to act on him, to convey his pain. The guitar wailing here could also be read as the speaker's attempt to approximate this primal "state anterior to language."

The metaphor of the blues like "consumption/killing [the speaker] by degrees" is the most chilling of all the disease imagery that Johnson employs in this song. At first, it seems superfluous to include this image, as the shakin' chill and heart disease create a nice binary opposition. However, consumption differs from both of these by combining the intense pain of the shakin' chill with the longevity of the heart disease. When one had consumption in 1930's America, one was cognizant of a mortality slowly creeping closer with each hacking cough. Here the speaker is intensely aware of what the blues is doing to him in minute detail, and how it forces his lifestyle that ends in abrupt and brutal fatality.

The speaker acknowledges the potency of the disease imagery in the song's last stanza, in which he states that he can "study rain/oh, oh, drive, oh, oh, drive my blues" in the same way that a scientist would scrutinize a bacteria culture in order to ascertain a cure to the disease. Here the rain resembles a vaccination in which a small amount of the virus is introduced into the patient's blood in order to build up an immunity; the speaker studies the rain, a symbol of depression, to build up "an immunity" to the effect of the blues on him. However, eventually he rejects this in favor of the distillery, a quick and easy pain killer which offers immediate, albeit temporary, relief.

1 Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.