Up Jumped the Devil

by

edited from Adriana C. Rissetto (http://xroads.virginia.edu):

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.

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.

The metaphor of the blues like “consumption/killing [the speaker] by degrees” is the most chilling of all the disease imagery that Robert Johnson employs in “Preaching Blues.”  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.

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