JANUARY 4, 2021
IT IS A MIRACLE, if you think about it. Millions of people are taken forcibly from their homeland and brought to a strange new place. Their native languages are forbidden and, over time, lost. But some traditions remain, unrecognized by most, unnamed perhaps even by those who carry them forward. Some are musical. In the unpaid work the people are made to perform, musical shouts and hollers lighten the load, sometimes even contain coded messages about escape. Given nominal freedom, some of these people, over time, acquire instruments, often guitars, accompanying themselves as they refine the hollers into songs, songs with structure and a growing tradition. The people sing about what is on their minds, often their troubles, which have to do with money, the difficulty of getting through life, romance — especially romance. Their voices make them sound like plain, ordinary people talking about their lives. That is part of the miracle. Another is that, in this strange new place, no longer so new, while the people themselves are despised, their music is seminal.
Myths spring up around this music, which comes to be called the blues. One of the myths stems from how plain the singers appear to be. Appearance is taken for reality, and the blues comes to be equated with the actual. The singers — like those key Delta blues figures Robert Johnson, with his strange high voice, and Son House, with his strong mournful one — are confused with the people they sing about; the singers are seen not as performing but simply being, and the legends that attach to them are taken as fact, as are, often, the lyrics they sing. This all combines to form a notion of authenticity, one that is shot through with racial essentialism; this authenticity is inseparable in many people’s minds from the blues tradition, and whatever departs from that tradition is unacceptable, or, anyway, not the blues. This is understandable, to a degree. Tradition is a crucial part of human life, a way for us to make sense of our existence. The question becomes: How does one carry on a tradition, in the face of changing realities, without being stifled by it?
That could be said to be the question at the heart of Kimberly Mack’s illuminating, thought-provoking, refreshingly broad-minded new book, Fictional Blues: Narrative Self-Invention from Bessie Smith to Jack White. The answer, in part, is that it was never thus: as the book’s subtitle suggests, the blues from its beginnings was not an artless projection of the self but a creation, or re-creation, of that self; it was a form of fiction with elements of autobiography, or vice versa, and it was, above all, on and off the stage, a performance — one whose aim is autonomy for the performer. In re-creating the self, and in seeking autonomy of expression, contemporary blues figures — some of whom, in Mack’s inclusive vision, are fictional, some of whom are not even musicians — do not abandon tradition but carry it on. Mack, an assistant professor of African American literature at the University of Toledo, eschews accusations of that supposed high crime of cultural appropriation in favor of the recognition that art is not a respecter of boundaries; thus, for Mack, modern figures who exemplify blues self-invention include Jack White and the late Amy Winehouse, both Caucasian.
Fictional Blues contains five chapters. The first discusses the origin of the blues tradition, the building of legends through what Mack calls “autobiographical fictions.” Much of this chapter focuses on the semi-mythical figure Stagolee, the original “bad black man” of blues lore. The myth grew from a real-life incident that took place in a saloon on Christmas night in 1895, in St. Louis. Lee Shelton, also known as Stack Lee, apparently following an argument about politics, shot and killed a man named William Lyons. When Lyons was on the floor, Stack Lee took a hat from the hands of the dying man and then, according to a contemporary newspaper account, “coolly walked away.” In retellings and songs, “Stack Lee” became Stagolee, Stagalee, Stack-o-lee, and other variations; and as singers and storytellers filled the holes in the story with inventions and bits of autobiography, the figure of Stagolee came to inform black culture and music for generations, becoming a quintessential example of how the blues was powered by an inseparable mix of the real and the artful. This mix, which allows artists to tell their own stories as they see fit, forms the lens for Chapter One, which considers the careers of foundational blues artists such as Robert Johnson, Mance Lipscomb, Lead Belly, and the female powerhouses Ma Rainey (who recorded “Stack O’Lee Blues” in 1926) and Bessie Smith.
Women in the blues — real and fictional — are the focus of Chapter Two. Among the real is Big Mama Thornton, who felt that the song “Hound Dog” — written for her by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and recorded in 1952 — had effectively been taken from her by Elvis Presley’s version. That is emblematic of a larger erasure of women from blues history, and the chapter reflects on the way these women “talk back to their limiting representations through autobiographical self-expression” that includes both musical and extra-musical means. Another example is Amy Winehouse, an artist who was “English of Jewish extraction” and who fought back against “sexist and misogynistic mass-media representations of her life,” in part by “striv[ing] to perform an amalgam of soul, blues, jazz, and pop music that works as so-called authentically black.” Fictional examples of “talking back” include the characters in Alice Walker’s celebrated 1982 novel The Color Purple, such as the protagonist, Celie, whose journal entries, or “unlicensed autobiographical narrative,” allow her to take power denied her in the normal course of her life. A blueswoman, Mack writes, “becomes a blueswoman because she takes control of telling her story, and she reclaims her name.”
Robert Johnson is the central figure in Chapter Three. Johnson might be said to be the ghost who haunts Fictional Blues. He is representative of both the legends that attach to the music — one of the most famous stories in all of the blues is about Johnson’s making a pact with the devil in order to learn to master the guitar — and the standard to which subsequent blues artists have been held or have held themselves. Johnson’s “womanizing, restless spirit, and guitar” represent the “authenticity” at whose altar others worship, never mind that it is largely composed of myth. The chapter looks at fictional works by Sherman Alexie, Walter Mosley, and others in which Johnson’s “migration and narrative legend serve as vehicles for the agentive autobiographical blues self-fashioning of other characters.” It also considers Johnson’s influence on such prominent real-life figures as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan.
My one criticism of Fictional Blues is that much of it is, so to speak, one-note, exploring (if with a great variety of examples) how artists have claimed their own narratives. The fourth chapter, about Jack White, continues this idea. But things open out in Chapter Five, which looks at how blues music is learned and passed down. The subjects in this chapter include two contemporary African American musicians: Gary Clark Jr., who has had the “authentic” label hung on him and rebelled against it (one of his hits is a remake of the Beatles’ song “Come Together”); and Rhiannon Giddens, whose work draws on a myriad of influences, black and white. “Rather than Clark’s attraction and simultaneous resistance to playing the blues,” Mack writes, “Giddens sees herself as existing in the middle between oppositional forces. She is not resisting anything. She is instead introducing seemingly incongruous ideas and sounds, and challenging the audience to come to the conclusion that no bridge [between races or musical genres] is needed.” Mack wisely brings in the novelist Ralph Ellison to drive the point home, quoting a passage from his 1964 essay collection Shadow and Act:
It must […] be pointed out that due to the close links which Negro Americans have with the rest of the nation these cultural expressions are constantly influencing the larger body of American culture and are in turn influenced by them. Nor should the existence of a specifically “Negro” idiom in any way be confused with the vague, racist terms “white culture” or “black culture”; rather it is a matter of diversity within unity.
Mack adds, “This classic Ellisonian idea, of blacks and whites embracing their shared American experience, which he has referred to alternatively as ‘diversity within unity’ and as ‘the complexity of American Experience,’ is one that is still difficult to imagine for some.”
Difficult, but necessary, if we are to remember, in these divisive times, what we all have in common. Or we may find ourselves singing that old Robert Johnson line: “Well I got up this morning / all I had was gone.”
Clifford Thompson is the author of Twin of Blackness: A Memoir, Love for Sale and Other Essays, and a novel, Signifying Nothing. His book What It is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues was published in 2019.