In 2007, blues-rock singer, songwriter, and guitarist Jack White told the New York Times, “Everything from your haircut to your clothes to the type of instrument you play to the melody of a song to the rhythm—they’re all tricks to get people to pay attention to the story. If you just stood up in a crowd and said your story—‘I came home, and this girl I was dating wasn’t there, and I was wondering where she was’—it’s not interesting. But give it a melody, give it a beat, build it all the way up to a haircut. Now people pay attention.”1
As a member of the White Stripes, White told a story about “this girl” he was not only dating but who he married and divorced, his bandmate Meg White. Onstage, and in interviews, this autobiographical misdirection by White involved encouraging ambiguity about the very nature of his relationship. By referring to his ex-wife as his “big sister,” he engaged rural stereotypes focused on sexual intrigue, family kinship, and transgressive desire that are part of blues mythology and legend. It is this kind of trickery in the realms of autobiographical and biographical narrative that this book explores. Fictional Blues asks readers to pay attention to the kinds of deliberate fabrications that are inherent in traditional autobiographical blues self-invention. These autobiographical falsehoods exist not only in White’s words, sounds, and visuals but also in the lives and works of multiple real-life blues musicians, such as Mance Lipscomb, Bessie Smith, and Peetie Wheatstraw—who famously renamed himself the Devil’s Son-in-Law—as well as in the narratives of fictional blues makers such as Shug Avery and Squeak in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
I introduce this book incongruously with a white blues-rock artist, John Anthony Gillis, who became Jack White after taking his ex-wife Meg White’s last name—his racially-inflected moniker serving as a model of reinvention and a subversion of the heteronormative tradition of the wife taking her husband’s surname. I offer this example to explore autobiographical blues self-fashioning in American literary and musical texts because Fictional Blues engages the aural, spoken, embodied, and written languages and idioms of race, gender, class, and place in the blues, and their fabrications, in varied dimensions. Further, using White as a starting point underscores the ways in which I am contesting racially essentialist notions of blues authenticity, and recasts the blues as a narrative tradition cutting across traditional boundaries of race.
Fictional Blues is the story of how a range of blues artists, both real and imagined, invented their own personas independent of the so-called authentic blues, which is often predicated on the notion that black men and women from poor or working-class backgrounds are more naturally suited to understand, and thus perform, the blues honestly. The familiar story of Delta Blues musician Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in exchange for his guitar virtuosity, like the violent, black bad man of the early twentieth-century American imagination—represented by the mythical figure Stagolee, who murdered a man over a Stetson hat—undergird persistent racial myths surrounding “authentic” blues expression that are beloved by many blues fans and critics. As this opening example featuring Jack White briefly suggests, far from having ready-made racial and cultural identities, these blues makers have instead fashioned worlds through their own fictionalized autobiographical and biographical storytelling and self-made personas.
In Fictional Blues, when the real-life contemporary blues performers, or the fictive blues narrators and characters, tell stories—songs, musical performances, and interviews are all examples too—about their familial lineages, childhood memories, past experiences, and even the origins of their names, they use literary devices, such as description or dialogue, to define their lives and personalities. Of course, for blues artists such as Gary Clark Jr. and Jack White, there is an expectation that they will engage in these types of storytelling—they share autobiographical narratives about themselves through song lyrics, onstage banter between songs, social media, and in print, online, and video interviews. Blues musicians within their fictive worlds do the same, and the stories told by narrators and characters in these realms that are created by real-life authors can be read as second-level stories, or embedded narratives. Fictional Blues’ definition of narrative is grounded in Mieke Bal’s understanding of it as “a text in which an agent or subject conveys to an addressee (‘tells’ the reader, viewer, or listener) a story in a medium, such as language, imagery, sound, buildings, or a combination thereof.”2 This capacious definition allows for a multidisciplinary approach to narrative in which words, sounds, and embodied performances can all tell a story, offering an expansive way of engaging autobiographical blues self-fashioning across different platforms.
My approach to engaging embedded narratives owes a debt to the work of Gérard Genette, with updates by Bal, William Nelles, and John Barth.3 In what Barth refers to as “frametale literature” we encounter “the phenomenon of framed tales—that is, of stories within stories, which always to some degree imply stories about stories and even stories about storytelling.”4 These narratives offer multiple levels of storytelling in which it is possible for the characters within a fictive world to tell a new story, introducing a new set of characters who in turn might tell further stories.5 The concept of the embedded narrative is rooted in structuralist narratological theory; therefore, the author of a literary work does not serve a role in the criticism of a text. My primary interest is in the structure and function of the narratives through which fictional and nonfictional blues figures invent and reinvent themselves, but I am also interested in examples—such as the womanist philosophy that connects Alice Walker to characters in The Color Purple—in which the circumstances of an author shed light on those of a character or vice versa. But these authorial circumstances will not be primary here. Rather than focusing, for example, on Walker’s intentions for her characters, or using her biography to interpret Shug Avery’s rendering as a blueswoman, Fictional Blues instead considers Celie’s autobiographical self-fashioning, and her biographical invention of others through her diary entries. This approach allows for a productive reading on another narrative level when, for instance, Celie describes a moment when Shug tells her own account of the early days of Shug’s relationship with Albert. These embedded narratives, or “stories within stories,” constitute complete autobiographical or biographical works, even if they are not long-form or generically marked as conventional life writing forms.6 And rather than viewing embedded narratives as Bal does, when she suggests that “when the embedded text is kept to a minimum, its importance for the primary story diminishes,” Fictional Blues argues that these stories, by literary and real-life narrators and characters, no matter how long or short, are not only important modes of autobiographical and biographical expression for the tellers but are also inextricable from the “primary story” of the narrative blues tradition in which informal autobiographical utterances fuel the blues musicians’ reclamation of their power and agency.7 Fictional Blues is indeed a book about “storytelling.”8
Fictional Blues questions racial, sociocultural, temporal, and gendered blues tropes by shifting blues expression from an innate, racially naturalized skill to a storytelling art form, which is one way through which its makers invent themselves. This book also allows for a new, interdisciplinary approach to autobiographical and biographical expression. I reframe traditional ideas of what autobiography, biography, and even narrative itself are in order to shift ideas about how blues music and blues people are made. Fictional Blues expands the variety of texts that constitute the blues, allowing for a wider group of people to participate in the tradition. By focusing on blues performers’ paramusical narratives—literary depictions, lyrics, interviews, and more—in addition to music and musical performances, I demonstrate that it is storytelling in varied dimensions that undergirds the blues. This book tells an important new story: that the contemporary, multiracial, literary and musical characters who participate in so-called authentic blues expression actually create a fiction on top of a fiction. That is, they create their own literary, musical, or artistic visions, through autobiographical fictionality and persona building, within the works in which they appear, and they are autonomous in this creation, just like the early twentieth-century blues makers. While their expressive autonomy does not free them from oppressive forces based on their race, gender, or class, it does allow them to fully participate in the fictionalized, narrative blues tradition. And, of course, this claim to power and agency is most urgent for the black blues figures in my book, with the blueswomen carrying the heaviest load as they fight to make their voices heard. Using examples culled from literature and contemporary music—close readings of literary passages, historical and contemporary interviews, live concert performances, music videos, and songs—my book shows how fictional and real-life blues artists create these self-made identities in the works of American writers as disparate as Sherman Alexie, Alice Walker, and Walter Mosley, and in the music of modern acts such as Amy Winehouse, Jack White, and Gary Clark Jr.
It is through their storytelling, both as fictional narrators and in real-life artists’ song lyrics and constructed public personas—Shug Avery and Big Mama Thornton self-fashion in similar ways—that these artists resist racial, social, economic, and gendered oppression while writing themselves into the blues tradition. From black classic blueswoman Bessie Smith’s persona as a transgressive woman flouting white standards of female respectability—with her frank lyrics about sex, substance abuse, and domestic violence and her openly bisexual lifestyle—to contemporary white blues-rocker White’s use of a highly stylized visual image for the White Stripes and a fabricated autobiographical backstory to sidestep the thorny issue of blues authenticity and whiteness, Fictional Blues is the story of how a varied group of blues makers invent and reinvent themselves through fictional autobiographical and biographical storytelling.9
What Is the Blues?
In Fictional Blues, I define blues music not in strict formal terms but as a musical style encompassing elements of the blues as a musical form and as a narrative autobiographical aesthetic. In The Blues: A Very Short Introduction, Elijah Wald grapples with how to define this musical form and style. Wald stresses the difficulty in trying to nail down one definition, as there are myriad perspectives on the blues. Moreover, in the United States, the blues has long been associated with a state of mind or emotion. When having the blues is equated with sadness or depression, the music becomes a reflection of pain and heartache.10 Scholars such as Wald, Albert Murray, and Ralph Ellison have resisted this limited perspective, especially given the significant number of blues songs classified as comical or dance-oriented. Some scholars contend that the blues is simply a musical form, usually with a standardized twelve-bar chord structure. Wald points out the flaw in that definition, as several other types of blues do not follow the twelve-bar pattern. As Wald states, “There are at least two other common blues chord patterns, the eight- and sixteen-bar blues.” The AAB (with a lyrical structure of “two repeated lines followed by a rhyming third”) has been a feature of numerous blues (and nonblues) songs, but all blues songs do not follow this pattern.11 In Fictional Blues, I engage artists whose works fall within, as well as exist outside of, the normative twelve-bar AAB blues structure.
The blues is often defined as a cultural practice, with only a select few able to render an “authentic” performance. Wald asserts, “Many people consider the blues tradition to be primarily a matter of ethnicity and culture, the musical heritage of the African American South, which can rarely if ever be fully understood by northern, or foreign, or white artists.”12 This particular definition is the site of contentious debates. Many scholars, including Amiri Baraka, Eileen Southern, and Samuel A. Floyd Jr. argue for blues music as a strictly black American art form, evolving out of African musical and cultural practices.13 Alternatively, Wald, Murray, and Ellison offer a more culturally and racially inclusive definition of blues music. For those scholars, blues music, and black American music more generally, is a cross-cultural and cross-racial project.14 The blues exists due to the cross-pollination between African American and European American musical elements and is strengthened by the involvement of black and nonblack artists and audiences. Fictional Blues engages the blues as a music, and a cultural tradition, that is defined by its black origins but continues to be engaged by black and nonblack musicians and fans in the twenty-first century. As such, my book features black and nonblack literary and real-life blues musicians.
In Fictional Blues, the narrators and characters in the contemporary literary and musical texts may work in one of the canonical blues forms (twelve-, eight-, or sixteen-bar blues) or may simply feature blues facets “based on a pentatonic or five-note ‘blues scale’ that is frequently used by West African performers,” including blue notes (“flatted third and seventh notes”) and African-derived rhythms. In Fictional Blues, a western singer who “uses a broad range of microtones and moves between them with . . . freedom and subtlety” can also be deemed a blues or bluesy vocalist.15 In other words, an artist does not have to use strict blues forms exclusively, or play only in a blues style, to be included in Fictional Blues. Rather, my approach allows for the inclusion of a broader range of artists and literary characters.
In the methodology I deploy here, vernacular definitions of blues music as first an emotional state, and second a cultural practice, are continually in conversation. Articulations of feeling in blues are in dialectical relationship with blues as a cultural practice. Although traces of sadness, for example, can be read in blues texts, I argue that expressions of sadness or depression can be found in many styles of music, including folk, rock, country, hip-hop, and so on. Blues music does not have proprietary rights to expressions of grief, longing, pain, or heartache. And the existence of upbeat, party blues songs is well documented.16 As for the cultural practice argument, it is clear that early twentieth-century American blues music was able to flourish due to regional and sociological factors, including black Americans’ proximity to the legacy of slavery, relentless racial oppression expressed through repressive Jim Crow laws, economic hardship, and political and social limitations. However, blues music need not rely on these factors, nor is the experience of these conditions necessary, for an artist to produce “authentic” blues. Such requirements collapse the importance of racial and cultural interchange in the growth and development of blues music. Moreover, projections of authenticity directed at black blues musicians, in particular, tend to overshadow their accomplishments as professionals in control of their work and their personas who are striving for commercial success. Also lost in the purely cultural argument is the blues musicians’ personal agency through narrative self-invention.
The Cult of Authenticity: “A Thicket of Expectations and Valuations”
Notions of racialized blues authenticity began in the 1950s, when young white American folk revivalists became enamored with acoustic country blues music to the exclusion of electric blues.17 For these largely middle-class collectors, rural bluesmen Son House, Charley Patton, and Robert Johnson were more authentic than amplified blues players such as B. B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland. Here I am defining “rural bluesmen” as men who perform in a Delta blues style, though the term “bluesmen,” more generally, includes men who perform in a blues style or form of music, and/or participate in a narrative autobiographical blues aesthetic. Most of these fans tended to conflate the real blues with particular class, regional, temporal, and, of course, racial experiences. For them, a so-called authentic blues musician was black, poor, rural, and, most importantly, unsullied by modernity. As Wald suggests, “White urbanites, for obvious reasons, are fascinated by a creation myth in which genius blossomed, wild and untamed, from the Delta mud, and are less interested in the unromantic picture of Muddy Waters sitting by the radio and listening to Fats Waller, or a sharecropper singing Broadway show tunes as he followed his mule along the levee.”18 The concept of blues authenticity is also gendered, with many predominantly white and male blues scholars, critics, and fans viewing the mostly male country blues artists as prototypes of the authentic blues figure, while determining the women, as a result of both their popularity and their financial remuneration, to be inauthentic. While blueswomen—women who perform in a blues style or form of music and/or participate in a narrative autobiographical blues aesthetic—with southern performance roots such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were considered to be legitimate blueswomen, others such as Mamie Smith were not. It is important to note that there was a sizable black audience for urban blues—rural blues transported to the city with the aid of amplification—during the 1940s and into the 1950s.19 While black feminist scholars such as Angela Davis and Hazel Carby have long championed female classic blues artists, since the 1960s they have been comparatively marginalized even though they recorded records for race labels such as Paramount and OKeh before the Delta blues artists did, and enjoyed significant commercial success. Fictional Blues will build on the work of Davis, Carby, and others to help recenter black women’s blues as robust sites of narrative self-creation.
A majority of the seminal early blues studies affirm ideas about blues authenticity rooted in race. LeRoi Jones’s Blues People (1963) claims blues music as black when he states that blues music “is a native American music, the product of the black man in this country.”20 In Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature (1984), Houston Baker also argues for black people’s sociological experience creating a distinct cultural expression. According to Baker, “Black folk expression is a product of impoverishment of blacks in America.”21 Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues (1981) similarly privileges particular racial and geographical experiences in the development of authentic Delta blues expression. According to Palmer, “Delta blues is a refined, extremely subtle, and ingeniously systematic musical language. Playing and especially singing it right involve some exceptionally fine points that only a few white guitarists, virtually no white singers, and not too many black musicians who learned to play and sing anywhere other than the Delta have been able to grasp.”22 And, in the twenty-first century, Living Blues magazine continues to situate the blues within an exclusively black American experience, articulating its mission as being to “document and preserve the African American [emphasis added] blues tradition.”23 There is also a twenty-first-century body of revisionist blues literature that moves beyond limiting ideas of authentic blues legitimacy. Elijah Wald, Patricia Schroeder, Paige McGinley, and Marybeth Hamilton are scholars from varied disciplines who interrogate the romance and mythology inherent in the blues tradition.24 Despite these scholarly interventions, some contemporary critics, fans, and even American roots musicians themselves continue to perpetuate notions of authentic black musical expression. Fictional Blues also contests outdated notions of blues authenticity in a general sense, determining that compelling blues storytellers can be found in varied races, genders, classes, geographical areas, and temporal spaces.
The concept of authenticity is foregrounded in certain genres of music more than others. Here I am borrowing musicologist Allan Moore’s definition of “authenticity.” Moore advances a tripartite system wherein a musical performance exhibits “first person authenticity,” “third person authenticity, or “second person authenticity.” As Moore states, “Authenticity of expression, or what I also term ‘ﬁrst person authenticity’, arises when an originator (composer, performer) succeeds in conveying the impression that his/her utterance is one of integrity, that it represents an attempt to communicate in an unmediated form with an audience.” This is the type of authenticity that most music critics and fans seek in popular music artists. Within this model, critics and fans of rock music, for example, want to believe that the sentiments and stories expressed by the artists musically, as well as in performance and even offstage, are honest and true. Yet in rock there is some room for the idea that an artist might, from time to time, use a persona onstage, on a record, or even in an interview. Critics and fans of rock music yearn for “authenticity of expression” but are willing to sometimes accept performative artifice—the late David Bowie’s early 1970s Ziggy Stardust character is one such example.25 But musical styles situated within American roots traditions, particularly blues, attract fans, critics, and even practitioners, across races and generations, who hold tight to the idea that the blues is a racially naturalized style of music in which one has to have had a certain set of economic experiences, or be in a particular racialized body, in order to perform the music authentically.
When Roger Gatchet, for example, conducted a series of oral histories in the 2000s with African American blues musicians in the Austin blues scene, he discovered that “all four musicians articulate[d] blues authenticity as a quality that one can only access through a combination of racial and class identification, in addition to the lived experiences that are common to those identity categories.” Henry “Bluesboy” Hubbard, a blues pianist and guitarist from La Grange, Texas, who served as a master to white apprentice blues players such as Clifford Antone, owner of the legendary Austin blues club Antone’s, and blues-rock multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, and producer Johnny Winter, asserts that, “Black guys has more soul, more feeling, when they play and white guys don’t automatically have that. . . . If a white guy’s playing a guitar and a black guy’s playing, and they can be in a room, and you say, ‘Hubbard, this guy’s going to run some notes, and this guy going to run them, now you tell me which one is white and which one is black.’ And I can pretty much tell you, you know. It’s just that much difference.”26 This speaks directly to Jennifer Stoever’s theorizing of the sonic color line that “enables listeners to construct and discern racial identities based on voices, sounds, and particular soundscapes.”27
Not only does the race of the musician affect the quality of the blues performance, but racial difference can be transmitted through exclusively aural means. This idea echoes in E. Patrick Johnson’s discussion about his interactions with an a capella gospel choir in Australia: “Although I thought they had a great sound and, to some extent, had mastered the gospel idiom, I nevertheless felt that something was missing. I realize now what I did not then: that I was waiting to hear [emphasis added] an ‘authentic’ voice in their music.”28 And Corey Harris, a contemporary African American blues performer who is more than a generation younger than Hubbard, also hears race in the music itself. In a provocative 2015 blog post titled “Can White People Play the Blues?” Harris answered the question this way: “Of course we are all free to play whatever styles we enjoy playing. Music is truly universal in the sense that all human beings respond to its language. But saying music is universal does not mean that all people feel the same piece of music in the same way. It doesn’t mean that all music is the same. Neither does it mean that anyone can play it in the same way as those who have a blood connection to the culture.”29 The privileging of “first person authenticity” persists in the contemporary blues scene to such an extent that Moore’s concept of “third person authenticity” is useful here. According to Moore, “authenticity of execution, or . . .‘third person authenticity’. . . arises when a performer succeeds in conveying the impression of accurately representing the ideas of another, embedded within a tradition of performance.” In this case, it is not the artist who is imbued with authenticity but the artist’s appropriation of some other authentic music that provides the authentication. For contemporary blues fans and critics, as well as for other Americana enthusiasts, Moore’s discussion of the “authenticity of execution” serves as the next best thing for American roots performers whose personal experiences might fall outside of the parameters of so-called first-person authenticity. While Fictional Blues contests essentialist notions of racialized blues authenticity, I recognize that the fictional and real-life blues musicians in this book enjoy or aspire to “first person authenticity,” or instead rely on “third person authenticity,” which allows them to convincingly appropriate a blues performance style.30
The Blues Storytelling Tradition
Fictional Blues is primarily a book about storytelling. To be more precise, it is about the ways in which blues artists use fictionalized autobiographical narratives to create personas while effectively joining the long black folk tradition in which dramatic real-life events come together with tall tales on the way to becoming folk ballads and blues songs—allowing these artists to write themselves into the blues storytelling tradition. Fictional Blues is interested in the ways in which blues musicians fictionalize their narratives about how their lives came to be. These fictions are disseminated through song lyrics; recorded musical performances; live stage performances, including onstage banter between the musician and the audience; interviews; and representational literary works about blues musicians. All of these media are vehicles for the dissemination of these autobiographical narratives. In Fictional Blues, these autobiographical fictions are expressed in myriad ways, including lies, telling tall tales, creating personas, and the idea that even in a story that purports to be objectively true, every good storyteller makes decisions about which moments to include and which to excise lest the listener become bored. In this way, even an autobiographical story that is based on objective verifiable truths is constructed and therefore fictional.
In Fictional Blues I demonstrate the centrality of storytelling as a means to both invent and reinvent a blues persona. When blues people tell stories through those mediums, and as they construct their autobiographical and biographical fictions, they create a self (or persona)—a different self from the singer or musician at the beginning of the tale. They create a new self through making decisions about which details of their life stories to include and which to leave out, deciding how to tell the story based on audience feedback—for black blues people during the 1950–60s blues revival this sometimes hinged on white male audience expectations about blues authenticity. When I consider invention and reinvention, I look at them through an autobiographical lens—autobiography scholars John Paul Eakin, Timothy Dow Adams, Herbert Leibowitz, Sidonie Smith, and Julia Watson, who see autobiographical narrative as a necessarily “fictive structure,” come to mind here.31 I also see this invention arising through the African American folk tradition in which autobiographical and biographical stories exist in an indeterminate place between truth and fiction—a place where the objective facts of a tale are less important than the quality of the telling and the resonances the story has for an audience. This book focuses on blues people becoming so by telling their life stories and the life stories of other blues people, through fictional autobiographical and biographical narrative. Fictional autobiographical narratives exist in myriad forms, including oral autobiographical and biographical storytelling vis-à-vis “as told to” autobiographical works, interviews in publications, interviews in documentaries and television programs, and impromptu autobiographical storytelling onstage. They also occur in written autobiographical and biographical storytelling such as autobiographical narratives and letters, editorials, and articles in newspapers, and in performances such as live concerts, music videos, and participation in long-form music documentaries. And finally, they occur in musical forms through lyrics, musical call and response and repetition, and vocal performance, as well as in blues musicians’ participation in record company / concert promoters’ ideas about blues authenticity. All of these are featured in Fictional Blues.
Some of these stories contain fictions as a necessary corrective, while others contain fictions because doing so is an important part of the professionalizing process. Twentieth-century bluesman Tommy Johnson, for example, carried around a rabbit’s foot at all times to increase his local celebrity, perhaps in the hope of giving people something to talk about or increasing the number of audience members for his country dances.32 Similarly, Johnson’s brother LeDell told David Evans that Tommy became an exceptional guitar player because he went to a Mississippi crossroads and sold his soul to the devil. Even though potential audience members likely did not believe this story, they just might have appreciated the extra work that went into the creation of Tommy’s exciting blues persona. And, of course, as our twenty-first-century example Jack White reminds us, the intrigue of not knowing the true relationship between the two members of the White Stripes compelled music journalists and fans to want to know more about them. These fictions helped build audiences and sell records at the beginning of the twentieth century—and classic blues queens such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Ethel Waters, with their reputations as transgressive bad women, were some of the biggest selling blues recording artists—as well as in our contemporary moment.
When I talk about narrative, specifically autobiographical narrative, I am not focused on formalized, generically marked autobiographical works. I am instead interested in blues artists who embody a persona to tell stories about their lives, and the lives of others, and to create characters through their lyrics such as Mamie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Jack White. These personas are extended through their live concert performances; their onstage banter with their audiences; their print, online, and television interviews; and their music videos and other visual cultural productions. These personas can be detected in generically marked autobiographical works as well. And, of course, blues characters in fictional literary works can also create and express themselves through personas.
Scholars across disciplinary fields have engaged the blues person’s use of persona, and have made the argument that the “I” in blues lyrics is not necessarily the person singing the song but that instead the “I” might be a constructed persona or a separate narrative character. In his article “Musical Personae,” performance studies scholar Philip Auslander argues for this when he “posit[s] that in musical performance, this representation of self is the direct object of the verb to perform. What musicians perform first and foremost is not music, but their own identities as musicians, their musical personae.”33 Auslander, McGinley, Jeff Titon, and Dennis Jarrett engage this idea in different ways, but for the most part they pay attention to embodied versions of persona, focusing on the performance of blues music, and music more generally, and lyrics instead of on autobiographical narrative, as I do in Fictional Blues.34 For these scholars, the “I” is unstable, echoing theories about autobiographical narratives by Sidonie Smith, Julia Watson, and others, who argue for distinctions between the “real” or historical “I”—“a flesh-and-blood person located in a particular time and place,” the narrating “I”—“a persona of the historical person who wants to tell, or is coerced into telling, a story about the self,” and the narrated “I”—“the version of the self that the narrating “I” chooses to constitute through recollection for the reader,” demonstrating the ways in which the autobiographical “I” is fluid.35 This unstable “I” allows the fictive characters and real-life blues musicians to work in a continual process of self-invention and reinvention through autobiographical storytelling. Finally, while Fictional Blues is focused on narrative concerns, these stories, particularly those of the black blueswomen, are sometimes told through the body. As such, I am indebted to Daphne Brooks, Stephanie Batiste, and Uri McMillan for their work around black women’s reclamation of their cultural and political power through performance.36
Blues: From the Popular to the Traditional
Fictional Blues first looks to the early architects of blues myths—the black men and women who used fictionalized autobiographical blues expression to take control of their own narratives and reclaim their subjectivity in the face of racism, patriarchy, and poverty. It demonstrates that throughout the twentieth century, and into the present, these authors use storytelling—focusing on a narrative that objectively happened while choosing what details to keep in or take out, or how fantastical to make the “truth” or the lie—to claim their own self-styled identities.
Black American bandleader, composer, and music publisher W. C. Handy is one such author. His 1941 autobiographical narrative Father of the Blues, in which he uses romantic mythmaking and self-promotion to put himself at the center of the story of the blues—a music that existed before he could “discover” it—would later inspire representational literary blues makers in the novels R. L.’s Dream by Walter Mosley and Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie.37 Similarly, during a time when many middle-class black women were trying to make their way into the white-conceived Cult of True Womanhood—where true women demonstrated “piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity”—blueswomen such as Rainey used their lyrics to flout heteronormative women’s roles imposed by the dominant culture.38 In “Prove It On Me Blues,” Rainey self-presents as a sexually confident woman with the freedom to enter into whatever sexual relationships she pleases, demanding,
They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends
They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.39
While Rainey was known to have sexual relationships with women, and in her self-penned song brags about her conquests, she dares the listener to “prove” her indiscretions. This sexual braggadocio, popular in men’s blues songs, helped to create her legend as both fearless and sexually independent. That legacy echoes in the representation of Shug Avery, the blueswoman at the center of The Color Purple.
These myths also influence contemporary white musicians such as English singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse and blues rocker Jack White, who tell stories and construct personas that allow them to participate in the narrative blues tradition. For example, despite her privileged whiteness, Winehouse’s unvarnished song lyrics, engaging sexual freedom and alcoholism, and her public struggles with domestic violence and substance abuse sparked a media backlash unmistakably tied to sexism and misogyny, reminiscent of the gendered mistreatment of transgressive real-life classic blueswomen like Rainey, as well as representational blues performers like Shug Avery.
As my book shows, Handy and Rainey are two examples of the many early African American music makers who worked within the blues tradition of fictional autobiographical self-fashioning and tall-tale telling. And it is in this spirit that contemporary literary blues characters and real-life blues makers engage the mythos fomented by these early artists. The following section serves as an example of the ways in which I will apply my theories about autobiographical blues self-creation to the rest of Fictional Blues.
A Case Study: Mississippi Ham Rider’s Autobiographical Self-Invention
Toni Cade Bambara’s 1964 short story “Mississippi Ham Rider” is about a black blues musician who refuses to be limited by stereotypical ideas about what a black bluesman should be.40 The fictional presentation of Ham foregrounds his autobiographical self-invention, using it to question, historicize, and critique the narratives of authenticity that emerge around the blues. “Mississippi Ham Rider” demonstrates the ways in which contemporary fictional musician characters participate in their own autobiographical self-fashioning while playfully destabilizing racialized myths.
Ham bears a resemblance to the real-life early twentieth-century country bluesman Son House, who enjoyed a successful second act during the 1960s transatlantic blues revival. According to Francis Davis, “By virtue of having survived most of his Delta contemporaries, he became a stand-in for all of them, a living link to the holiest blues tradition. Jesus and Lazarus and the twelve apostles all rolled into one.”41 While “Mississippi Ham Rider” does not include a character named Son House, Ham—due to his age—could have been his contemporary.
“Mississippi Ham Rider” features a young, black, female, New York City–based record label representative named Inez Williams, who, with the help of her white male colleague Neil McLoughlin, attempts to convince Mississippi Ham Rider, an old Southern black bluesman, to travel north to record new blues tracks. The titular character, with help from his family and friends, not only resists the duo’s advances but also consciously asserts his right to create blues music on his own terms rather than conforming to romanticized notions of authentic blues expression. Inez, as the narrator, and Ham, in different ways, both reject the racialized tropes of the so-called authentic bluesman. Their intervention helps to make a pathway for the eventual emergence of Ham’s individual blues identity.
Given her race and gender, Inez appears to be the correct choice for a label representative who might hold sway over Ham. Neil even teases Inez about her failure to seduce Ham into traveling north. He asks, “But wasn’t he at least knocked out by your superior charms, not to mention your long, lean gams?” Although Neil’s tone is more playful than sincere, it makes sense that the label representatives would expect that a pretty woman would soften Ham up. Except the opposite occurs. Inez’s presence in the small Southern town highlights her generational and geographical distance from Ham. Inez is a liminal figure: She is an insider and an outsider; she is black, but she is not quite black enough. The story’s references to sit-ins suggest that its time frame is more or less the same as the publishing date. In this context, Inez’s first encounter with Ham is typically unsuccessful, as he is distrustful and uncommunicative with the young Northerner. Inez recounts, “We had talked for nearly an hour—or rather I had talked, he had merely rolled his eyes and stared into his cup as he swirled the watery coffee revealing the grounds.” And when Inez leaves the coffee shop where she has spent the last hour with Ham, the waitress and cook eye her angrily as she walks out the door. Over her shoulder she hears, “So what’s this high-yaller Northern bitch doin’ hittin’ on evil ole Ham?”42 Inez’s unforgivable sins of foreignness and light-skinnedness render her a target of scorn and prevent her from connecting with folks in the town.
Inez is as much of an outsider in the South due to her geographical background as Ham is a curiosity to Northern label executives, who, as Neil puts it, want “him in the flesh to allow the poor folkway-starved sophisticates to, through a outrageous process of osmosis, which in no way should suggest miscegenation, to absorb their native—.”Given that the story takes place during the American country blues revival, it follows that Neil would reference white blues fans who are desperate for authentic black blues expression yet resistant to experiencing proximity to everyday black people. When Neil begins to reel off a list of so-called authentic, and cooperative, bluesmen he has encountered in the past, the descriptions feed into familiar bluesman stereotypes: “They were always pretty easy to find. Mobile, Auburn, just sitting there in a beat-up room in a beat-up town in a beat-up mood, just sitting there waiting for an angel of mercy—me. Doing nothing but a moaning and a hummin’ and a strummin’—.”43 Neil, a white Northern man, represents these musicians as abject creatures who are waiting to be rescued.
At the end of Neil’s reverie, Inez states, “Never mind, let’s go find Mr. Ethnic-Authentic,” revealing her cynicism about their roles as blues revivalists. She is aware that her white bosses in New York are looking for an image as much as a musical talent. Ham’s saleable authenticity is why they are interested. What is compelling about Bambara’s depiction of Inez, however, is that as conscious as she is about her label’s cynical manipulation of the blues record–buying and –collecting public, she too at first falls into the authenticity trap. After Inez and Neil arrive at Mama Teddy’s, a storefront soul food restaurant, to meet Ham, his wife Isabele tells Neil, “The man needs money, mister. He’s been needing for a long time. Now what you gonna do for him?” Inez admits that she immediately sees Ham as a type rather than a person: “The image of the great old artist fallen on bad times, holding up in a stuffy rooming house, drinking bad home brew out of a jelly jar and howling blues out the window appealed to my Grade-B movie-ruined mind.” Her movie reference suggests that she recognizes her own culpability in falling prey to a lazy stereotype, but it is as if she is helpless to resist popular characterizations of the blues figure since those are the ideas that circulate most widely. Inez is a product of her generation, so she is as inclined to see Ham as being “not of these times” as are the middle-class white folkies who push him into a confining bluesman box.44
When Ham finally arrives with his guitar, and Mama Teddy places “big bowls of things onto the table,” he announces, “I don’t sing no cotton songs, sister. . . . And I ain’t never worked in the fields or shucked corn. And I don’t sing no nappy-head church songs neither. And no sad numbers about losing my woman and losing my mind. I ain’t never lost no woman and that’s the truth.” Ham asserts himself in this moment. He is cognizant of the mythology surrounding the black bluesman, so much of it springing from the unjust political and socioeconomic status of black people in the Jim Crow South. His monologue suggests that he recognizes that these experiences are real for some black bluesman, but not for himself. And when Neil asks, “Well, what else is there? . . . I mean just what kind of songs do you sing?” and Ham responds, “My kind,” he underscores his refusal to play the part of the old-timey, real bluesman for the profit of the white-owned Northern record labels that cater largely to white, middle-class youth. If he decides to go to New York, it will be on his terms. While Neil is confounded by Ham’s monologue, Inez simply responds, “Good.” In her narrator voice she claims she uttered the word for “no particular reason,” but I argue that her utterance is a strong gesture in support of Ham’s desire to be seen as a human being with subjectivity and the ability to craft his own blues identity, one that may not conform to the white record labels’ desires, but one that will be personally and artistically fulfilling because it is his own.45 Ham’s moment of defiance helps Inez to see him as himself for the first time—instead of as the embodiment of a cultural myth. At the end of the story, Ham agrees to go to New York. His declaration of all the things he won’t do affirms all the things he is, will become, and can create, including an alternative blues identity.
Ham is a fictional character who constructs his autobiographical narrative a little at a time as the story moves forward. In the beginning, Ham is largely silent, allowing Inez and Neil to fill in the gaps in his biography. However, by the end of the story, Ham reclaims his own autobiographical narrative. Echoes of this work will be found in the chapters outlined below.
Fictional Blues Overview
My opening chapter, “The Narrative Blues Tradition: Tall Tales, Myths, and Black American Folklore,” tells the story of the architects of the blues and the ways in which they invented enduring mythological personas through autobiographical fictions. Beginning with a discussion of Stagolee, the early twentieth-century folk hero whose exploits were memorialized in ballads and blues songs throughout the twentieth-century and beyond, chapter 1 focuses on the ways in which the blurring of fact and fiction aided in the autobiographical invention and reinvention of American blues artists. These narratives helped to create mythical blues figures, such as the bad man, the transgressive (bad) blueswoman, and the bedeviled bluesman. Given that the contemporary writers and musicians in my book are in a conversation with an early to mid-twentieth-century version of American blues expression, a historical and cultural context is helpful. Through the discussion of important foundational cultural artifacts such as the multiple tellings and retellings of the Stagolee story; early interviews with Mamie Smith, whose 1920 “Crazy Blues” became the first recorded blues song by an African American woman; a discussion about the myths about Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith’s relationship; and the first-person accounts of Ethel Waters, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and Mance Lipscomb, I explore the origins of the myths surrounding black blues music that signal blues authenticity and continue to be beloved by fans and critics alike. Through an exploration of these texts, readers will have a better understanding of where these myths come from and how they continue to be shaped in American literature and popular music in the twenty-first century.
While the opening chapter introduces the women and men who created the blues and their enduring myths, chapter 2, “Shug, Big Mama, and Amy: Autobiographical Fictions and Addictions,” focuses on contemporary fiction and popular cultural works featuring blueswomen in the mold of the classic blues queen. Building on my conversation in chapter 1 about Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Mamie Smith, in this chapter I consider how the female blues persona is gendered. Many of the classic blueswomen subvert notions of acceptable feminine expression within a racist and patriarchal culture. This chapter examines the ways in which fictional and real-life blueswomen who have largely been erased from blues history—and if they are visible, they are deemed transgressive by their predominantly male critics—talk back to their limiting representations through autobiographical self-expression. I focus on blueswoman Shug Avery, and Squeak’s unexpected transformation into a blues singer in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple I then turn to real-life blues singers Big Mama Thornton and Amy Winehouse. In Thornton’s early years, she was dubbed the “New Bessie Smith.” Thornton serves as a bridge between the classic blueswomen and contemporary reimaginings of the blues queen. Through unconventional autobiographical performances onstage and in interviews, she reclaimed ownership of her work as young white performers such as Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin garnered critical accolades and enjoyed tremendous commercial success covering her songs. The lyrics of Amy Winehouse, too, are part of a tradition of American classic blues expression. In songs such as “You Know I’m No Good” and “Wake Up Alone,” Winehouse’s vocals, lyrics, and performance style engage with music traditionally performed by blacks in the United States and create an alternative autobiographical narrative that contests her public persona largely derived from sexist and misogynistic mass-media representations of her life.
Chapter 3, “‘I Was Astounded at What I Heard’: Robert Johnson’s Autobiographical and Biographical Afterlives,” moves from representations of the classic blueswomen to a key country blues figure: Robert Johnson. A foundational blues musician, Johnson’s mythical representation appears in a variety of contemporary cultural spaces. According to the crossroads legend, Johnson sold his soul to the devil in order to become a master guitar player. This obviously apocryphal tale, and Johnson’s violent death, has given blues scholars and fans across generations much to talk about, and it has resulted in Johnson’s commodification vis-à-vis biographies, fictional literary works, films, and ephemera. It has also, unfortunately, resulted in his often simplistic and one-dimensional rendering in fictional literary texts. His womanizing, restless spirit, and guitar are all relegated to mythical signs of an authentic bluesman, and in these works the fictional Johnson has no choice but to confront his limited (and limiting) representations. In sharp contrast to the classic blueswomen, who were all but forgotten by the latter part of the twentieth century, in the 1960s Johnson became the prototype of the authentic bluesman for young, white blues revivalists in the United States and England. In this chapter, I show the influence that the real-life Johnson had on the blues identities of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton of Cream, and Bob Dylan, and the ways in which their romantic discussions about Johnson in their recent autobiographies read like a “memoir” of the 1960s blues revivalists’ version of the blues. In the novels Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie and RL’s Dream by Walter Mosley, and in the short stories “Black Elvis” by Geoffrey Becker and “Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail” by T. C. Boyle, I discuss the ways in which Johnson’s migrations and biographical legend serve as vehicles for the agentive autobiographical blues self-creation of other characters.
In chapter 4, “From John Anthony Gillis to Jack White: A Study in Blues Self-Invention,” I turn to a white musician’s autobiographical blues self-fashioning by focusing on blues-rock singer, songwriter, musician, and producer Jack White, a spiritual descendant of the early Delta blues players. This chapter engages White’s ever-evolving identity: from John Anthony Gillis, a young, self-conscious, white blues disciple determined to stand apart from his contemporaries and the white bluesmen who preceded him, to “Jack White,” a solo artist, producer, and businessman who takes an unapologetically postmodern approach to his work as a musician and as a music industry executive. In the first section of the chapter, I examine the visual presentation White constructed for himself and Meg White during the White Stripes era. In the second section, I analyze sonic aspects of White’s blues self-fashioning through his vocal performance in “Ball and Biscuit” from the 2003 White Stripes album Elephant. And in the third section, I look at postmodern pastiche in White’s solo work, specifically in his 2011 collaboration with Insane Clown Posse on W. A. Mozart’s scatological 1782 vocal canon “Leck mich im Arsch” and in his video for Blunderbuss’ “Freedom at 21.” All of these sections work together to demonstrate the ways in which White considers blues stereotypes and grapples with cultural appropriations in order to forge new approaches to engaging American music and black American impacts on American culture writ large.
In chapter 5, “The Blues Apprenticeship: Racialized Conventions of the Acolyte,” I explore the concept of the blues apprenticeship with origins dating back to Charley Patton’s mentorship of numerous young, aspiring Delta bluesmen, including Chester Burnett, who would later be known as Howlin’ Wolf. I argue that the subjects in this chapter engage the racialized authenticity paradigm that is built into the blues apprenticeship. All of the relationships I consider highlight the symbiotic connections between the young blues acolyte and the willing mentor, and show the ways that fictionalized autobiographical and biographical expression affects the various apprenticeships and vice versa. The chapter begins with a discussion about the racial dynamics in interracial short-term, institutionalized apprenticeships that are connected to state arts commissions and humanities foundations, such as the West Virginia Humanities Council West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program and the Virginia Humanities Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. The chapter will then turn to a discussion about white, Alabama-based blues performer Debbie Bond, who has apprenticed both formally and informally with a number of blues artists, including legendary Alabama-based guitarist and singer Johnny Shines. In the final section, I explore the concept of the conventional and unconventional blues apprenticeship as constructed around Ralph Ellison’s essays about music; Gary Clark Jr., who began his career as the “Next Big Thing” in the blues; and classically trained vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens, a solo artist and member of the Americana group Carolina Chocolate Drops. Ultimately, this chapter interrogates the ways in which blues artists invent and reinvent themselves within and through the apprenticeship paradigm.
Fictional Blues is the story of how a wide variety of blues artists—women and men, black and nonblack—write themselves into existence through fictionalized autobiographical storytelling. These modes of autobiographical expression are not necessarily book-based or generically marked. Rather they are autobiographical utterances that sometimes reflect the main narrative, and, at other times, exist as embedded ones. No matter how the autobiographical works manifest, the fictive and real-life blues musicians in Fictional Blues demonstrate their agency and reclaim their power as they tell their own stories in their own ways.
1. Alan Light, “True to the Red, White and Black,” New York Times, June 10, 2007, https://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/10/arts/music/10light.html.
2. Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 5.
3. Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980); Bal, Narratology; William Nelles, Frameworks: Narrative Levels and Embedded Narrative (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1997); John Barth, The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984).
4. Barth, Friday Book, 224, 221.
5. Barth, Friday Book, 226–27.
6. Barth, Friday Book, 221.
7. Bal, Narratology, 55.
8. Barth, Friday Book, 221.
9. For additional study about the classic blues and blueswomen, see Daphne Duval Harrison, Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993); and Angela Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998).
10. Elijah Wald, The Blues: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1–2.
11. Wald, Blues, 4–5, 4.
12. Wald, Blues, 6.
13. See Leroi Jones, Blues People: Negro Music in White America and the Music That Developed from It (New York: William Morrow, 1963); Samuel A. Floyd Jr., The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); and Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).
14. See Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (New York: HarperCollins, 2004); Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1973); and Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York: Vintage Books, 1964).
15. Wald, Blues, 5–6, 6.
16. For some examples of blues as dance music, see Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2000); and David Wondrich, Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843–1924 (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 2003).
17. For further conversation about the “cult of authenticity,” see Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). Important books focused on the country/rural blues include William Barlow, Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989); Francis Davis, The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1995); and Jeff Todd Titon, Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural Analysis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
18. Wald, Escaping the Delta, 72.
19. Barlow, Looking Up at Down; Wald, Blues, 63; For an important discussion about blues music and the African American Great Migration, see Farah Jasmine Griffin, “Who Set You Flowin’?”: The African-American Migration Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 52–64.
20. Jones, Blues People, 17.
21. Houston A. Baker Jr., Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 197.
22. Robert Palmer, Deep Blues (New York: Viking Press, 1981), 18.
23. “Living Blues Magazine,” Center for the Study of Southern Culture, southernstudies.olemiss.edu/publications/living-blues/.
24. For further discussion about romance in the blues, see Wald, Escaping the Delta; Patricia Schroeder, Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); Paige A. McGinley, Staging the Blues: From Tent Shows to Tourism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); and Marybeth Hamilton, In Search of the Blues: Black Voices, White Visions (London: Jonathan Cape, 2007).
25. Allan Moore, “Authenticity as Authentication,” Popular Music, 21, no. 2 (2002): 211–20, 214, 214.
26. Roger Davis Gatchet, “‘I’ve Got Some Antique in Me’: The Discourse of Authenticity and Identity in the African American Blues Community in Austin, Texas,” Oral History Review 39, no. 2 (2012): 214–15, 216–17.
27. Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 11.
28. E. Patrick Johnson, Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 163.
29. Corey Harris, “Can White People Play the Blues?” Blues Is Black Music!, May 10, 2015, bluesisblackmusic.blogspot.com/2015/05/can-white-people-play-blues.html.
30. Moore, “Authenticity,” 218, 214–18, 211–18.
31. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have noted in their opening chapter in Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 2, that the term “autobiography” “describes writing being produced at a particular historical juncture, the period prior to the Enlightenment in the West.” In a twentieth-century context, and beyond, it makes better sense to use the term “autobiographical narrative” or “life writing.” However, sometimes I use the term “autobiography” to discuss a non-book-based form of autobiographical expression. In those cases, I leave the word intact. See Paul John Eakin, Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 3; Timothy Dow Adams, Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990); Herbert Leibowitz, Fabricating Lives: Explorations in American Autobiography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989); and Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).
32. In African American folklore, the rabbit’s foot is considered to be a good luck charm.
33. Philip Auslander, “Musical Personae,” TDR: The Drama Review 50, no. 1 (T 189) (Spring 2006): 102.
34. In addition to Auslander’s and McGinley’s work, also see Titon, Early Downhome Blues; and Dennis Jarrett, “The Singer and the Bluesman: Formulations of Personality in the Lyrics of the Blues,” in Write Me a Few of Your Lines: A Blues Reader, ed. Steven C. Tracy (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 195–200.
35. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography, 72–73.
36. See Daphne A. Brooks, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); Stephanie Leigh Batiste, Darkening Mirrors: Imperial Representation in Depression-Era African American Performance (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Uri McMillan, Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance (New York: New York University Press, 2015).
37. W. C. Handy, Father of the Blues: An Autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1941), 78.
38. Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860,” American Quarterly 18, no. 2, part 1 (1966): 152.
39. Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), 139.
40. Toni Cade Bambara, Gorilla, My Love (New York: Random House, 1972). Some sources state that “Mississippi Ham Rider” was originally published in the Massachusetts Review in 1960, and others say 1964. It appears that the 1960 date is an error, however, as a search of the archived Massachusetts Review on JSTOR finds that “Mississippi Ham Rider” was indeed published in 1964.
41. F. Davis, History, 108.
42. Bambara, Gorilla, My Love, 51, 48, 47, 48.
43. Bambara, Gorilla, My Love, 50, 51.
44. Bambara, Gorilla, My Love, 52, 55, 56.
45. Bambara, Gorilla, My Love, 55–56, 56, 56.