Seems Like Murder Here Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition
by Adam Gussow
University of Chicago Press, 2002
Cloth: 978-0-226-31097-8 | Paper: 978-0-226-31098-5 | Electronic: 978-0-226-31100-5
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

Winner of the 2004 C. Hugh Holman Award from the Society for the Study of Southern Literature.

Seems Like Murder Here offers a revealing new account of the blues tradition. Far from mere laments about lost loves and hard times, the blues emerge in this provocative study as vital responses to spectacle lynchings and the violent realities of African American life in the Jim Crow South. With brilliant interpretations of both classic songs and literary works, from the autobiographies of W. C. Handy, David Honeyboy Edwards, and B. B. King to the poetry of Langston Hughes and the novels of Zora Neale Hurston, Seems Like Murder Here will transform our understanding of the blues and its enduring power.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Adam Gussow is an assistant professor of English and southern studies at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Mister Satan's Apprentice: A Blues Memoir and has been a professional blues harmonica player for many years, touring widely in the 1990s as part of the Harlem-based duo Satan and Adam.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Preface

- Adah Cussow
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226311005.003.0001
[blues music, South, black music, lynching, intimate violence, blues culture, interracial violence, blues musicians]
This chapter introduces the blues tradition. It begins in the South of the 1890s because blues music began to emerge as a folk form during that decade, coalescing out of a welter of extant black music but extending them all in the direction of pained, restless, sometimes euphoric subjectivity. Lynching has recently emerged as a vital subject within the larger field of blues literature. The intimate violence of blues culture could be rage-filled. An overview of the chapters included in this book is given. The first four chapters are concerned almost entirely with interracial violence as it registers in the blues textual tradition: white disciplinary violence against black folk, black resistance and reprisal against white folk. The last two chapters address violence, one traditionally associated with blues music and blues culture: the knives, razors, “chibs,” ice picks, and guns that have taken the lives of a number of blues musicians. (pages 1 - 16)
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- Adah Cussow
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226311005.003.0002
[lynching, blues lyric, blues autobiographical tradition, blues song, blues lyricism, joking, blues music, Sammy Price, Henry Ragtime Thomas, Charley Patton]
This chapter examines the lynching's inflicted terror in both the blues lyric and blues autobiographical tradition. It also addresses the linkage between southern lynching and blues song. Any given blues song is not necessarily always a direct report of the bluesman's lived experience. Blues lyricism finds salvation in mourned unwantedness. Joking was a significant way in which blues musicians extracted pleasure-in-repetition from the “sentence of death” under which lynching had placed them. The era of spectacle lynching was more than twenty-five years old in 1916; Sammy Price's generation, the second to come of age within its confines, found a kind of salvation in blues music. If anything, the terrors lynching engendered in Price and his contemporaries were exceeded by the terrors wrought on the previous generation, a blues-originating cohort that included Henry “Ragtime” Thomas at one end and Charley Patton at the other. (pages 17 - 65)
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- Adah Cussow
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226311005.003.0003
[southern violence, blues song, William Christopher Handy, Father of the Blues, entrepreneurial freedom, white racist violence, Beale Street, Mississippi, Memphis]
This chapter explores the links between southern violence and blues' emergence during the 1890s from a slightly different perspective, concentrating on William Christopher Handy. For Handy, blues song offered an answer to the paradox proposed to the turn-of-the-century black southern imagination by the coexistence of seemingly unlimited geographical mobility and entrepreneurial freedom and increasingly virulent white racist violence. Handy's career was shadowed by lack of originality and immoderate profit. Father of the Blues was his attempt to act as a central clearing house for tales of blues grief. Mississippi had not previously played any role in Handy's imaginative life. Beale Street, the scene of Handy's brief but epochal flowering as a blues songwriter, was also a place he eventually fled in fear and disgust. Handy would also revisit Memphis a number of times but he would never again make the city his home. (pages 66 - 119)
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- Adah Cussow
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226311005.003.0004
[abject, redress, lynching, Roberta Rubenstein, Lucas Bodeen, Another Good Loving Blues, B. B. King, Larry Neal, blues literature, blues music]
This chapter explores in detail three novels, an autobiography, and a lyric poem that dramatize the encounter of the black male blues subject with the legacy of spectacle lynching. Roberta Rubenstein addressed the “involuntary separations, violations, and traumatic personal losses” incurred over the course of African American history. Lynching faced the blues subject with a uniquely traumatizing variation on the “ordinary” dialectic of threatened witnessing subject and threatening abject. Lucas Bodeen won redress against lynching by covering the ensouled body of his female lover in Another Good Loving Blues and singing the “good loving” blues song it provokes in him. B. B. King also achieved redress over time with the help of blues music. Larry Neal's poem showed the successful struggle of black male bluesmen to embrace the lynching abject. Blues literature proposes women as heroic models. (pages 120 - 158)
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- Adah Cussow
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226311005.003.0005
[Mamie Smith, Crazy Blues, Perry Bradford, abandonment blues, Robert Charles, cultural haunting, cultural mourning, badwoman vengeance, retributive violence]
This chapter considers retributive violence as imaged in Mamie Smith's recording of Perry Bradford's “Crazy Blues” (1920). It also reports a new theory of what is called “abandonment blues.” Breathless advertising in black periodicals played a role in Smith's success. Mamie's precursors in southern song and myth were the badmen. Robert Charles was linked in folk memory, white and black, with drug-inspired, gun-enabled cop-killing, and that the pertinent couplet Bradford inserted into “Crazy Blues” directly engaged this folk memory. The word “crazy” seemed to play a role in the public discussion surrounding Charles' one-man rebellion. “Crazy Blues” is a song of cultural haunting and cultural mourning that ends with fantasized vengeance. Thus, it is projected an image of badwoman vengeance that offered those who consumed it a way of sustaining themselves in the face of harsh realities. (pages 159 - 194)
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- Adah Cussow
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226311005.003.0006
[blues weapons, Zora Neale Hurston, blues culture, intimate violence, I'll Be Your .44, Polk County jooks, reprisal, honor, vengeance]
This chapter argues that blues weapons were instruments of self-making rather than random mayhem. It also examines the predicament of blues culture as Zora Neale Hurston came to know it: that the culture's astonishing expressive vitality was inseparable from the bodily pain that blues people regularly inflicted, or threatened to inflict, on each other. Intimate violence was a way of saving face in a panracial southern culture of honor and vengeance where self-respect could be preserved through swift, brutal, hands-on reprisal. “I'll Be Your .44” worked a metaphorical terrain employed by both gangsta rap and its Jamaican equivalent. Weapons served as a phallic totem and may be utilized as a stylus, often as a way of making visible one's own emotional wounds. As Hurston had discovered in the Polk County jooks, women claimed by the blues could be every bit as jealous, possessive, and murderous as their male peers. (pages 195 - 232)
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- Adah Cussow
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226311005.003.0007
[intimate blues violence, Zora Neale Hurston, Big Sweet, Tea Cake, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Mules and Men, blues culture]
This chapter applies the theory of intimate blues violence to a fresh reading of Zora Neale Hurston and Big Sweet and Tea Cake. It also describes Their Eyes Were Watching God and Mules and Men. Hurston's journey into the symbolic South of Polk County is figured in Mules and Men as both a spatial and class descent. In her great blues novel, Hurston acted out a purgative revenge on the jook by killing off the loving but dangerous exemplar of its multiple violences. In Mules and Men, Hurston showed the dialectic of blues culture in its full glory, then flees as a jealous, possessive, and murderous blueswoman chases her out of the jook. In Their Eyes, she employed in a kind of cultural splitting: the jealous, possessive, and murderous side of the blues culture's dialectic is exaggerated and then rejected, ultimately, as the “mad dog” snarling through helpless Tea Cake. (pages 233 - 272)
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- Adah Cussow
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226311005.003.0008
[blues music, blues culture, blues literary tradition, racial healing, jook, Jim Crow South]
The emergence of a mass white audience for blues has been accompanied by what might be called a sanitizing of the jook. It is commonly shown that the spectacle of blues music is a force for racial healing. Like blues culture, it seems inevitable that the blues literary tradition will continue to evolve over the coming decades. African American texts will inevitably remain at the center of an emerging canon, but it appears equally clear that space will need to be found for an increasing number of non-African American blues texts. Whatever the provenance of blues literature in the future, it may be said with some confidence that the benchmark for “real” blues will remain working-class African American experience in the Jim Crow South, with secondary offshoots in the northern urban ghettos of the mid-twentieth century, the Promised Land that sadly failed the sons and daughters of the Great Migration. (pages 273 - 280)
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- Adah Cussow
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226311005.003.0009
This chapter is available at:
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Notes

Bibliography

Index