Hero Sings the Blues: Music and Transformation in Black American Literature

by Mike Austin

The blues isn’t about feeling better.
It’s about feeling worse. And makin’ a few
bucks while you’re at it.
—Bleeding Gums, The Simpsons

The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching con­sciousness to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiograph­ical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.

Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act

In his essay “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” Ralph Ellison attempts to answer the question “What are the archetypes of African-American fiction?” Acknowledging the inevitability that “archetypes, like taxes, seem doomed to be with us always,” Ellison criticizes those whose purposeless archetype hunting leads to a “critical game that ignores the specificity of literary works” (Shadow 46). Instead, he attempts to find a larger cultural pattern that both defines and gives meaning to mythological patterns in black fiction. After examining several elements that have been proposed as basic black hero types—such as the blackfaced “darkie” and the “Nigger Jim” figures—and rejecting them as images springing from a white conception of blackness, Ellison turns to music, and more specifically to the blues, as a source of myth and archetype in both black culture and fiction.

Ellison is not alone in seeing the blues as an important literary device. Dozens of major black writers have directly applied blues motifs in their writings, and critics have found less obvious elements of jazz and blues music in hundreds of other works. Some scholars, such as Larry Neal and Houston Baker, see the blues as a context for nearly all black literature written since the Civil War.

This undeniable literary presence is evidence that the blues has adopted a cultural significance that elevates it far beyond the usual station of popular music. Part of the cultural phenomenon comes from a sense of accomplishment: the blues—and its closest relative, jazz—has become not only an important part of our own country’s culture, but the only musical contribution to the world that can really be called “American.” Even more importantly, though, the intense cultural concentration found in blues music makes it both a spiritual phenomenon for those within the black community and a source of redemption for African-Americans who have been alienated from their heritage.

The Genealogy of the Blues

The unique position of blues music in contemporary black culture is chiefly a result of its genealogy: blues is the direct descendent of both the work songs and the spirituals of American Negro slaves, both of which, in turn, descended from the ritual music of ancient African tribes. The first generation of American slaves continued the same rituals—including music—that they had performed in Africa. However, when the slaves began to learn English and when “pagan” rituals were outlawed by Christian slave owners, black music changed to fit the new reality (Jones 62). Yet, the basic ritual component of the music survived translation into American, giving the slaves what Houston Baker has referred to as “ancestrally legitimate instances of an African spirit at work . . . everywhere infused with the quotidian rituals of Afro-American life on New World shores” (158).

As the music and the religion of the slaves adopted increas­ingly American conventions, the old culture was forced deeper beneath the surface; however, it never left entirely. Music became an important transitional element in the Negro’s ability to cope with the changes of the New World. The old ritual songs became work songs and spirituals—songs that accepted the helplessness of slavery and consoled the Negro with the hope of a better life hereafter—a chariot “coming for to carry me home.”

When the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation gave Negro slaves a hope, however slight, of a better life, the blues was born. Though the “better life” offered was usually no more than a token promise, it was enough to create a dream. The blues, then, bridged the gap between this dream and the reality. These early post–Civil War forms gave rise to all con­temporary forms of blues, jazz, dixieland, and ragtime. The cultural weight of this ancestry makes the blues, in Baker’s words, “the singly legitimate expressive form of Afro-American culture. [The blues] are God-given, God-bearing resonances that survived the Middle Passage and provided coherence for Black experience in the New World” (157).

The Blues Is . . . 

Perhaps the only accurate definition of “the blues” is the one Louis Armstrong gave when he was asked what jazz was: “Man, if you gotta ask, it ain’t jazz.” However, with the status now being accorded studies in black literature, scholars and critics have been increasingly concerned with determining what “the blues” means. All agree that blues offers “more than the twelve-bar structure, the three chord progression, the three-line stanza, which are generally termed the ‘traditional blues'” (Oliver 2), but there has been little agreement on a cultural context for the musical experience.

One group of blues critics emphasizes the power of the blues as an individual coping device. Critics such as Ralph Ellison, who stress the importance of blues as equipment for living, note the tendency of the blues to make reality bearable by combining lyrics that acknowledge the harsh reality of life with “the kind of marching bass that seems to say, ‘in spite of fate, bad luck, these blues themselves, I’m going on'” (Shaw 45).

Other analysts focus, not on the individual, but on the cultural significance of the blues. These critics note that the blues contains “the whole tragedy of the Negro race” (Oliver 44). Because of this, they say the blues can bind African-Americans together despite the fact that the original culture, Africa, is no longer accessible or desirable. In Blues People, LeRoi Jones, later known as poet and playwright Imamu Amari Baraka, concludes that early blues formed a “psychological correlative that obscured the most extreme ideas of assimilation for most Negroes and made any notion of the complete abandonment of Black culture an unrealizable possibility” (142).

The purpose of my essay is to propose a synthesis between these two main schools of blues criticism—the first seeing blues as an individual coping device and the second seeing blues as a force for cultural adhesion. To do so, I will examine the blues as a method of transcending cultural alienation. The problem of alienation was especially prominent during the latter part of the 20th century when increased opportunities gave individual advancement to African-Americans who were willing to reject their culture. In 1962, Howard University sociologist E. Franklin Frazier analyzed the rising black middle class in his work Black Bourgeoisie. In this controversial study, Frazier con­fronts the bicultural alienation that the black people in this situation often face:

          The black bourgeoisie has been uprooted from its "racial"
          tradi­tion and as a consequence has no cultural roots in either
          the Negro or the white world. In seeking to conform to
          bourgeois ideals and standards of behavior, this class in the
          Negro com­munity has sloughed off the genteel tradition of
          the small upper class which had its roots among the Negroes
          who were free before the Civil War. But more important still,
          the black bourgeoisie has rejected the folk culture of the
          Negro masses. (98)

In contemporary black fiction, the protagonists are often faced with this alienation from both black and white cultures. This dual rejection of culture spawns both the comic odyssey of the narrator in Invisible Man and the tragic killing spree of Bigger Thomas in Native Son, two of the most influential black novels of the century. One of the most poignant examples of bicultural alienation can be found in James Baldwin’s short story “Previous Condition,” in which the black narrator, after having thoroughly rejected first his black heritage and then his white lover, returns to the black community in search of identity:

          I longed for some opening, some sign, something to make me
          a part of the life around me. . . . A white outsider coming in
          would have seen a young Negro drinking in a Negro bar,
          perfectly in his element, in his place, as the saying goes. But
          the people here knew differently, as I did. I didn't seem to
          have a place. (84)

Baldwin’s narrator, like anybody who rejects one culture and fails to assimilate into another, stands temporarily outside of culture looking for a way back in.

In a mythological sense the alienated individual can tran­scend this alienation only by a mystical encounter with enough power to restore the lost cultural ties. In a 1978 interview, Larry Neal suggested that the blues itself can act in the role of deity, proposing the “blues god” as “an attempt to isolate the blues element as . . . the major ancestral force of the Afro-American” (157). By offering a lifeline to the black culture, the blues provides alienated African-Americans with the opportuni­ty to reestablish their cultural ties. Usually, however, cultural regeneration through blues music occurs when the alienated individual comes in contact with the blues musician, a hero figure who forms “the living symbol of alienation from self and the rhythmical link with the mysterious ancestral past” (Williams 145–46). The blues hero is one who has seen the face of the blues god and can translate his experience, not into the idle words of consolation and philosophy, but into the blues.

“Sonny’s Blues”: The Blues as Elixir

“Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin’s most famous short work, depicts a core-to-core conflict between two brothers: the narrator, a member of the black middle class, and Sonny, a part-time jazz musician who battles heroin addiction. (For a complete treat­ment of the blues theme in “Sonny’s Blues,” see Williams, Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-black Literature). Both the narrator and Sonny have encountered and attempted to answer the central question, “How can a black, inner-city dweller escape the poverty and despair of Harlem without rejecting the culture which gives him purpose?” The first half of the story takes the shape of the narrator’s meditations on Sonny, trying in vain to understand his brother’s lifestyle and the reasons that he has been put in jail. In the course of his meditations, the narrator reveals that both he and Sonny have alienated themselves from their culture by trying to escape the “low ceiling” of inner-city life:

          Some escaped the trap, most didn't. Those who got out always
          left something of themselves behind, as some animals
          am­putate a leg and leave it in the trap. It might be said,
          perhaps, that I had escaped, after all, I was a school teacher; or
          that Sonny had, he hadn't lived in Harlem for years. . . . It
          came to me that what we both were seeking through our
          separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had
          been left behind. (95)

That which is left behind is a cultural tie—a common bond with one’s own heritage that makes accessible the values and mythologies needed to make sense out of the world.

Sonny is the first of the two to strike out on a quest for the part of himself that was caught in the trap, and he becomes a blues hero by returning with the elixir. By the time that Sonny leaves prison and is introduced into the story’s time frame, he has already undertaken the journey and undergone a type of apotheosis, reintegrating himself into the culture by experiencing the blues at its heart. When Sonny first begins to live with his brother, he attempts to recount part of the journey:

          "Don't worry. I'm all right now and I think I'll be all right. But I 
           can't forget—where I've been. I don't mean just the physical
           place I've been, I mean where I've been. And what I've been. . . .
           I've been something I didn't recognize, didn't know I could
           be. Didn't know anyone could be. . . . I'm not talking about it
           now because I feel guilty or anything like that. . . . Anyway, I
           really can't talk about it. Not to you, not to anybody." (116)

Sonny’s experience with the blues god, like any mythological experience of the same magnitude, cannot be communicated through ordinary means. As a blues hero, Sonny is charged with the elixir that can help his brother regain his cultural ties and find the part of himself left behind in the trap.

Before partaking of Sonny’s elixir, the narrator notes that living with Sonny is like living with a pure, unintelligible sound, “as though Sonny were some sort of god, or monster” (107). Sonny’s sound is unintelligible to the narrator and his family because they are separated from their roots. The narrator has placed such an emphasis on moving up that he cannot see himself, or anything else, in the music that his brother plays. When the narrator first enters the club with his brother, he realizes that Sonny’s music (not merely “sound”) is responsible for the godlike quality that he had seen earlier. “I had never before thought,” he muses, “of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it . . . with the breath of life, his own” (120).

Playing the piano, we are told, is essential to Sonny’s very life (107). In inviting the narrator to a blues session, Sonny is extending this will to live to another and helping others to avoid cultural annihilation. The relationship is symbiotic: Sonny must play and his brother must listen, or neither one of them will survive. When the narrator first begins to experience the blues in its own context, he sees Sonny once more as a sort of deity. This time, however, he extends the frame of reference from “a god” to “our god” and acknowledges that his own salvation is at stake in the actions of the blues hero:

          The man who the creates music is hearing something else, is dealing with
          the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. 
          What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it
          has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph,
          when he triumphs, is ours. (119)

At this point, Sonny’s brother begins to understand the real nature of the blues, both for the individual and for the culture. Recalling the earlier comment about the “two darknesses,” he understands that in Sonny’s blues lies “the only light we’ve got in all this darkness” (121).

The narrator’s epiphany reintegrates him into his own black culture. He accepts the link between Sonny, himself, and all other members of the culture, noting that Sonny “could help us to be free if we would listen, [and] that he would never be free until we did” (122). The narrator’s use of the word “we” is critical—it is the first time in the story that he recognizes his part in a greater social unit. “Sonny’s brother begins to understand,” writes Sherley Williams, “his past, his history, his traditions and that part of himself which he has in common with Sonny and the long line of people who have gone before him” (122).

The Invisible Man: Incest, Alienation, and the Blues

Though the blues theme is less pronounced in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, it is no less important. The entire novel, in fact, can be seen as set in a blues framework. In the prologue, as the Invisible Man explains that the only reality is invisibility, he begins to contemplate life in the lyrics of Louis Armstrong’s “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue.” He states that he loves Armstrong “because he’s made poetry out of being invisible” (8). While listening to the song (and enjoying the influence of a certain illegal, mid-oriental herb), the narrator reports that “I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well. I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths” (9). Both time and space become relative and the only absolute in the universe is the blues. The rest of the novel, then, becomes an attempt to answer Armstrong’s question, “What did I do to be so blue?”

The second chapter of the novel presents a second important mythological theme: incest. This chapter tells the story of Jim Trueblood, a poor sharecropper who commits incest with his daughter. Before the crime, Trueblood had represented a part of black culture that the educated blacks, including the narrator, wanted to ignore: the musician. The narrator reports that he and his college-educated friends “were embarrassed by . . . the crude, high, plaintively animal sounds Jim Trueblood made as he led the quartet” (47). Though he is rejected by the black bourgeoisie, Jim Trueblood is a musician-hero within the blues culture and, as such, possesses the equipment necessary to transcend alienation.

The Invisible Man first hears the story of Trueblood’s incest when giving Mr. Norton, a white trustee of the black college, a tour of the black side of town. Mr. Norton takes a bizarre interest in Trueblood’s story and forces the man to relate all of the circumstances behind his act. Trueblood relates that he and his wife and daughter had to sleep in the same bed because of the cold weather and their own abject poverty. One night, Trueblood wakes up from an erotic dream only to see that he is about to violate the most sacred trust of his culture:

          "Then I'm pullin' away and shushing her to be quiet so's not to wake her
          ma, when she grabs holt to me and holds me tight. She didn't want me to
          go then—and to tell the honest-­to-God truth I found out that I didn't
          want to go neither." (60)

The literal incest of Jim Trueblood is significant because, in committing it, he does what he himself considers “the worse thing a man can do in his own family”; however, he never suffers the ostracism that is generally imposed by a culture on those who violate its taboos (Freud 832). Trueblood actually comes out of the experience able to say “I’m better off than I’ve ever been before” (67). The only ones who reject him are the “nigguhs up at the school,” who are themselves alienated from the black culture that Trueblood, as a blues musician, represents.

While incest as an act disappears with the second chapter, incest as a metaphor and central theme surfaces throughout the novel. The most important manifestation of the incest theme comes when Dr. Bledstoe, the black college president, expels the Invisible Man for having taken Mr. Norton to the Golden Day. As the president of the university, Bledstoe is the custo­dian of an important intimate trust, the violation of which constitutes a type of “incest.” In the narrator’s case, Bledstoe’s intimate control is even greater, as the Invisible Man considers Bledstoe “the example of everything I hoped to be” (101).

When the narrator is summoned to the president’s office, however, Bledstoe betrays both his explicit responsibility to be objective and his implicit responsibility to be worthy of imita­tion. During the conversation, Bledstoe calls the narrator “boy” and “nigger,” and tells him that it was foolish of him to be open and honest with Mr. Norton. In this scene, Bledstoe exhibits his true colors as a black who, in order to make it big in a white world, is willing to violate any taboo necessary, inclusive of absolute cultural betrayal:

          "Well, that's the way it is. It's a nasty deal and I don't always like it myself.
          But you listen to me: I didn't make it, and I know I can't change it. But
          I've made my place in it and I'll have every Negro in the country hanging
          on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am." (143)

Bledstoe has not rejected his culture in the sense that Sonny’s brother had before his transformation; the president affects cultural affiliation continually, and the black community looks to him as a role model. However, Bledstoe’s treachery violates a cultural taboo by manipulating and prostituting the intimate ties that are necessary for a culture to exist. His treachery is something that “must be punished or expiated by all the members of society lest it harm them all” (Freud 833). Because of the respect and trust people place in Bledstoe, he is able to violate his own culture in a way that closely parallels Trueblood’s incest.

As the victim of an act of incestlike betrayal, the Invisible Man suffers an even greater alienation than the perpetrator. In Totem and Taboo Freud explains that

          a person may become permanently or temporarily taboo without having
          violated any taboos, for the simple reason that he is in a condition which
          has the property of inciting the for­bidden desires of others and of 
          awakening the ambivalent conflict in them. (832)

The narrator’s only crime is making Bledstoe and other members of the black bourgeoisie face the truth of their betrayal through the blues; however, this is enough. Because of his influence within the culture, Bledstoe is able to impose an alienation on the Invisible Man, sending him to New York with fake letters of introduction and making sure that he is separated from the geographical base of the culture.

This imposed alienation produces a disillusionment that causes the narrator to renounce Bledstoe, the South, and, to some extent his own blackness, contributing to his own alienation. In New York, the Invisible Man has several brief encounters with the blues, but he never experiences it in a way that would allow him a much-needed cultural contact. However, he con­tinues to employ a blues-oriented vernacular, even to describe his alienation, and when he realizes the extent of Bledstoe’s betrayal he consoles himself with the blues lyric “O Well They Picked Poor Robin Clean” (193).

Finally, a series of incestlike betrayals causes the Invisible Man to conclude that he can trust no one other than himself. Furthermore, he entirely rejects the idea of basing his identity in any cultural or societal phenomenon, deciding that the only true identity is invisibility. At the end of the novel, the narrator completely escapes other people by living in a hole on the out­skirts of the ghetto. However, the prologue shows us that, in this hole, he begins to discover the true meaning of the blues. At the conclusion of the novel, the Invisible Man manifests himself as a hero in Joseph Campbell’s sense of “the champion of things becoming, not become” (243). Even though the nar­rator can remain isolated from society, he cannot completely withdraw from culture—it is for this reason that he, in his isolated hole, turns to Louis Armstrong and asks, “What did I do to be so black, and so blue?”

Works Cited

Baker, Houston. Afro-American Poetics: Revisions of the Black Aesthetic. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1988.

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” In Going to Meet the Man. New York: Dell, 1948. 93-122.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1949.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage, 1947.

___  Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1953.

Frazier, E. Franklin. Black Bourgeoisie. London: Collier, 1962. Freud, Sigmund. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud. New York: Random, 1938.

Jones, LeRoi. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: William Morrow, 1963.

Oliver, Paul. Aspects of the Blues Tradition. New York: Oak Publications, 1968.

Shaw, Arnold. The World of Soul: Black America’s Contribution to the Pop Music Scene. New York: Cowles, 1970.

Williams, Sherley Anne. Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-black Literature. New York: Dial, 1972.

Mike Austin, a student in the English graduate program, has been published in both Student Review and Insight.