Fictional Blues

Narrative Self-Invention from Bessie Smith to Jack White

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Kimberly Mack

The familiar story of Delta blues musician Robert Johnson, who sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in exchange for guitar virtuosity, and the violent stereotypes evoked by legendary blues “bad men” like Stagger Lee undergird the persistent racial myths surrounding “authentic” blues expression. Fictional Blues unpacks the figure of the American blues performer, moving from early singers such as Ma Rainey and Big Mama Thornton to contemporary musicians such as Amy Winehouse, Rhiannon Giddens, and Jack White to reveal that blues makers have long used their songs, performances, interviews, and writings to invent personas that resist racial, social, economic, and gendered oppression.

Using examples of fictional and real-life blues artists culled from popular music and literary works from writers such as Walter Mosley, Alice Walker, and Sherman Alexie, Kimberly Mack demonstrates that the stories blues musicians construct about their lives (however factually slippery) are inextricably linked to the “primary story” of the narrative blues tradition, in which autobiography fuels musicians’ reclamation of power and agency.

Cover design by Kristina Kachele Design, llc
Cover art by Faith Ringgold, Jazz Series: Mama Can Sing #7, 2001–2004. © 2020 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York.


Preface and Acknowledgments


Chapter One
The Narrative Blues Tradition
Tall Tales, Myths, and Black American Folklore

Chapter Two
Shug, Big Mama, and Amy
Autobiographical Fictions and Addictions

Chapter Three
“I Was Astounded at What I Heard”
Robert Johnson’s Autobiographical and Biographical Afterlives

Chapter Four
From John Anthony Gillis to Jack White
A Study in Blues Self-Invention

Chapter Five
The Blues Apprenticeship
Racialized Conventions of the Acolyte