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Howlin Mercy: The Gospel According to John Campbell by Tom Geiger

Photo courtesy of Frank Ockenfels

In this day and age, every snake oil salesman and self-help guru has a religion to sell you. Believe me, I’m not knocking that. To each his own, I say. I’ve spent my life drinking potions, saying prayers, and worrying about my soul. I’ve certainly been to the fair and ridden the roller coaster when it comes to religion. There’s something super soothing about saying a few words, making a declaration, and gaining eternal salvation. I’ve been there and done that – more than once. The hurt doesn’t really go away – and the search isn’t really over – no matter what your new buddies tell you.

Yet, there is an answer. And it may sound silly. But, if you want to get rid of what’s ailing you, find the nearest place that sells hard to find or out of print CDs, search on eBay or look any place where the ingrates cast their jewels before the swine and pick up John Campbell’s spiritual masterpiece Howlin’ Mercy.

The first time I listened to John Campbell, I had no idea what I was in for. It’s my Dad’s fault really. He is the guy who turned me onto John Campbell. You see, my Dad is one of those self-professed lovers of the Blues. How he came across John Campbell – I don’t know. Most blues aficionados are so caught up in the mysteries of the Deep South, old black bluesmen, and scratchy recordings – that I can’t really imagine them digging John Campbell’s vibe. He’s white for one thing. That’s usually a scarlet letter in the heart of the blues purist. Besides, this is not Dust My Broom, folks. Not even close. It’s not Blind Mellon Chitlin singing about slavery or picking cotton, either. Howlin Mercy is blues-rock, but its not Stevie Ray Vaughn, Johnny Winter or even Buddy Guy. Believe me when I tell you its better than that. Campbell’s got an agenda. And he’s got something to say. When Campbell slides on into the Delta – you’re gonna hear a guitar that sounds like the creaking door to hell and voice that cuts like a dull razor. Campbell’s blues squeal and boogie, man. They don’t just lie there like road kill.

I didn’t really get it at first. To be honest, I was scared shitless. Howlin Mercy is not for the faint of heart. I had to confront my own fears before I could deal with the reality that Campbell was singing about. At the time, I was one of those newfound Christians – caught like some shaking vermin – in the trap of my own fears. The good folks at the Carver Center where I went every Sunday for church had me pumped up on biblical steroids. It’s a spiritual war, my friends. But, I was shaking in a foxhole with piss running down my legs.

I was at a spiritual crossroads of sorts and when you find yourself there – you start to see a bogeyman behind every tree, and lord, did John Campbell seem like the bogeyman to me – with a capital B. I really liked the music but I just couldn’t get past the imagery and my own dark fears. IT was as if Campbell had been sent as Satan’s personal envoy to cart my ass straight to hell.

The more I learned about Campbell the more convinced that I became. One small glimpse of his bio was enough. He came from literally nowhere after a lifetime on the road playing the blues in every seedy roadhouse, biker bar and juke joint from Shreveport to Houston. He materialized almost out of the thin air with a recording contract from a major label in hand. I listened to him talk about hellhounds and Robert Johnson and I wondered if Campbell hadn’t made his own deal at the Crossroads. The thoughts kept coming and the prayers quit working, so I shut off the music, rolled myself up in the bible and sweat Campbell loose from my system.

John Campbell was very much alive then. But, he wouldn’t be for long. I wonder what the people said back in Judea when they heard that Jesus had been crucified? How did they feel when they had already bought tickets to see him spout the beatitudes the next day in Central Park? Did they lament? I bet, unless they were holed up somewhere with a hooker, or counting the nickels and dimes in the collection plate. Me? I could have seen the man up close and personal. I could have seen his blistering delta slide. I could have heard him howl his blues from the rooftops. I could have been a disciple. It’s too late now. That train has already left the station.

John Campbell may not have been able to heal the sick or help the blind see or the crippled walk. But, that wasn’t his bag anyway. For most people, that kind of promise is a sucker’s bet. The world is full of devils, and perhaps Campbell knew the biggest devil is the one we keep inside. It’s no wonder a cover of Tom Waits ‘Down in the Hole’ is on Howlin Mercy. It fits Campbell and Howlin Mercy perfectly. The religion that John Campbell is preaching is all about keeping the Devil down in the hole.

When he says on Wiseblood that there “Ain't no salvation - Ain't nobody being saved, the confessionals are empty when the faithful come to pray.” He’s right. There is no salvation that can save you from yourself. Try as you might, its your own demons that are the toughest to kill off. When you go out there dancing in the graveyard, when you pull the knife on the devil, whenever you take any stand of any kind – your own personal demons are there waiting for you. And they need to be faced down. That’s where Campbell was coming from. In this life, you have to carry your own guitar case.

When I tell people I have found a new and better religion. People are interested until I tell them about John Campbell. Not many folks even know about him these days. They think it is a joke – or even worse, the delusional fantasy of some weirdo groupie who has latched onto a dead man’s past. Maybe it is a little bit of both. I can’t really be serious, can I? There isn’t a John Campbell temple. There are no high priests. There is no doctrine to die for, and there certainly are no promises of salvation. Shit, there isn’t even a John Campbell fan club. However, what’s left is all that matters. There is truth and honesty. When John Campbell sings about his “wicked spirit catching a gray hound bus” in Saddle Up My Pony, and later wails that someone has put a “spell down on me” – he could be singing for us all. I feel like that myself at times – deep down inside. I think we all do. Much of the time, life seems pretty damn pointless and cruel, to me. Maybe we’ve all been born under a bad sign.

On Ain’t Afraid of Midnight, Campbell roars, “I taught the hellhounds to sit – cheating Satan playing cards.” That’s some intense imagery. Campbell had balls. He even pulls a knife on the devil when he damns his heart. He has guts, too. But, if you’re living in the real world, you better have both. You can talk about love all you want, but you better keep one hand on a “great big knife.” Down here in the real world, loving your neighbor can get a good man killed. Just ask Robert Johnson.

It would take me a few years to come to a point in life where thoughts of devils, voodoo, and dancing in the graveyard at midnight didn’t make me fear for my immortal soul. In fact, I only recently rediscovered John Campbell. I popped in Howlin Mercy and I realized that I had missed the most important things about this CD. The music is sensational. When you first listen to John Campbell – its like being hit by a freight train. It’s roadhouse boogie, it’s swamp rock, and it’s delta blues, too. If you pay close attention it harbors a more honest and useful truth about yourself than you’ll ever get reading the bible. Sure there’s still that eerie voice and that wicked sounding medicine stick. But, let yourself get past that, if you can.

Howlin Mercy is really a live CD. If you close your eyes – you can imagine Campbell on stage flanked by Zonder Kennedy and Jimmy Pettit cutting heads with Satan himself. Listening to this CD is like sitting in on an exorcism. He may have been literally playing this gig for his own damn soul – that’s how authentic it sounds. And if you relax a bit, you can exorcise a few things, too. Maybe, you can release some of that fear, guilt and pressure you have been feeling. It’s not sexy, but its true. We won’t gather by the river with John Campbell to sing hymns about the old wooden cross. Campbell isn’t singing touchy feely music. But, Howlin Mercy will help you keep the damn devil down in the hole a little longer. And that’s something. When I shut my eyes and listen to Howlin Mercy, I’ve got faith, baby – and that’s what any good religion should give you.

Copyright 2003, Thomas Geiger
Revised: May 10, 2003