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Music Phenom Adam Gussow Brings Music and Wisdom to Campus

Blues Harp Master Offers Students Pointers

Harmonica master Adam Gussow talked about, as well as demonstrated, his life as a bluesman. Photo by Tory Wesnofske
Harmonica master Adam Gussow talked about, as well as demonstrated, his life as a bluesman.

By David Perry

When Adam Gussow visited campus recently, students got something of a triple threat: scholar, author and world-class musician.
The associate professor of English and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi used each persona: during an afternoon chat with music majors; at a scholarly panel discussion, “Me and the Devil: A Conversation about Evil, Sin and Bad Behavior in American Roots Music;” and, finally, during an evening performance at Durgin Hall where he teamed up with guitarist Chris “Stovall” Brown for a crackling live blues concert.

During his afternoon discussion with students, Gussow, best known as half of the blues duo Satan & Adam, enthusiastically offered “tips and lessons distilled from my own experience.” The duo, whose busking turf was a spot on Harlem’s 125th Street in the '80s and '90s, recorded several albums and even showed up briefly in U2’s Rattle & Hum album and documentary.

His lessons gushed forth, laced with the sometimes Zen-like knowledge of American mythologist Joseph Campbell, as well as a level of professorial authority. 

Gussow’s visit was part of the music faculty’s never-ending quest to bring students face to face with those who spend their lives in music. In the past couple of years, students have chatted with Melissa Manchester, Manhattan Transfer and, just last month, country star Phil Vassar. 
“Don’t let anybody tell you that maybe you are not able to do something you are contemplating. That person could be holding you down.” -Bluesman/scholar Adam Gussow
Prof. John Shirley is an accomplished harmonica player who attended one of Gussow’s weekend workshops in Philadelphia four years ago. They stayed in touch, and when Gussow was looking for stops on a book tour, Shirley “jumped at the chance” to bring him to UML to share his “unique, cross-disciplinary experience as an author, scholar and performing musician.”

Gussow, 59, told the students he was there to teach them “what happens outside the walls of the classroom.”

For senior trombone major John Mitchell, it was a peek into the world he’ll soon enter.

“These are things I will need to know. I am trying to make myself a marketable entrepreneur,” Mitchell said.

It all began for Gussow in 1975 when he heard “Whammer Jammer” by the J. Geils Band.
“When I was in elementary school, I took clarinet. I listened to my dad’s record collection. I heard the song ‘Whammer Jammer.’” He picked up a blues harp and played some of it.

While other friends got into mischief, he said, “I just learned the hell out of the harmonica.”

“Here’s a lesson,” he said. “Take that step. Don’t let anybody tell you that maybe you are not able to do something you are contemplating. That person could be holding you down. We all need to fight the internal ‘I can’t.’”

“Associate yourself with people one or two steps beyond you,” he advised. In his junior year as an engineering student at Princeton, Gussow had shifted to guitar and become accomplished.

Then, he met a group of fusion musicians who scoffed at his Muddy Waters licks.
“They were better than me, and they pulled me up to their level,” he said.

He described meeting the great harp legend Nat Riddles, who took him under his wing. It was a turning point.
“There’s a time when it all comes together. When there’s a moment that your life is going to change. When somebody shows up, ready to help you,” he said of Riddles. “Recognize them for who they are.”

During a stint tutoring at a school in the South Bronx, Gussow tried driving a new way to work, across Harlem.
“I saw this guy out there playing guitar, and he was amazing.”

The following day, he came back to ask the man, Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee, if he could sit in. “I won’t embarrass you,” he promised.

As if “possessed,” he busked and toured with his new partner for years, until Magee suffered a nervous breakdown in 1998. 

In 2007, Gussow found success with instructional harmonica videos on YouTube. 

He keeps finding new avenues toward his dreams, he said. He told students to pursue their own passions.
“Listen,” he said, “there’s nothing like fear to get in the way of realizing your dreams.”

A couple questions from students concerned the busking life.

“People really like current pop hits,” advised Gussow.

Some frowned.
“Oh, I know. You want to be artists, right? Well, Robert Johnson said: Learn how to be a human jukebox if you don’t want to be picking cotton out in the fields.”

“I love it,” said sophomore music education major Evan Smith. “I know he knows what he’s talking about from the life he has led. I love the stories and how he told them. There’s real-life experience behind what he says.”