Blues transformations

Jul 16, 2003 at 12:00 am

The premise of Paul Garon’s short book about the once popular but now relatively obscure blues singer and pianist Peetie Wheatstraw is that although there’s a dearth of biographical facts about the man, much can be divined from the lyrics of his songs, if properly interpreted.

Garon sees Wheatstraw — who was born William Bunch in either 1902 or 1904 and who died in a car crash in 1941 — as a seminal influence in the development of the blues and he presents his case convincingly. First published in 1971 and recently issued in a revised and expanded edition, the book is obviously a labor of love and meant to be something of a corrective; there’s a slightly scolding tone when Garon casts his eyes on his fellow blues chroniclers, those well-meaning scribes who lack his sociological-analytical chops.

Garon’s leftist political perspective is obvious and he finds a lot of implied movement toward liberation in the blues, as in this assessment of Wheatstraw’s chosen persona:


The vitality of spirit that was manifest in his poetic elevation of his own self-image was a tremendously important factor in his popularity. This poetic form of protest was a hundred times more powerful than the “protest songs” which meant very little to the average black worker. To be Peetie Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-In-Law was to be much more than a member of the black working class could be in white capitalist America. (It) was to initiate a poetic motive force in the direction of freedom and liberation that has been all but ignored in current analyses of the blues.


Garon places Wheatstraw in the context of his time and place, describing the 1917 East St. Louis race riot (the worst of the century, he says), the folly of Prohibition and the corrosiveness of the Depression — and sees in the singer’s often aggressively defiant songs a more positive than downtrodden reaction. Garon quotes a lot of lyrics — in fact, if you take away the lyric quotes, the archival photos, the newspaper clippings and the surrealistic illustrations, the already short book would be about a quarter of its present length — and he’s well aware that these quotes are diminished versions of the actual songs. Fortunately, the book comes with an accompanying CD containing 25 choice cuts by Wheatstraw, allowing the reader to experience how often-banal lyrics can be transformed into compelling cries from the heart.

Garon also traces the appropriation of the Devil’s Son-In-law figure by other blues singers, briefly mentions his transformation into a “Superfly-inspired character” in a film by blaxploitation auteur Rudy Ray Moore and discusses in detail Ralph Ellison’s ambiguous depiction of the character in his classic novel Invisible Man. But the point Garon keeps returning to is the blues’ underlying progressive thrust, its wellspring of desire and imagination:


The imagination is one of the most powerful weapons that one can bring into action against the forces of repression. The joy and freedom created by imagination represent a demand for a future reality. (Wheatstraw’s persona) was not only a protest against the drab role which the black man was expected to fill, but also a striking representation of what the future might hold. In the blues, as in life, it is the imagination that has the power to remind insistently what can be. The role of fantasy is a critical one, not a passively escapist one, and, since blues writers have been emphasizing only the latter until now, it is time for a shift in perspective.


And then:


Progress often first appears as evil, wrote Hegel, and I like to think that the oppositional consciousness that inspired so many during the 1960s saw its first bloom in the words of the blues singers.


I’d like to think that too, but first I’d like to think about it a little longer. Certainly the resisting impulse in American society comes from several other sources as well, some of them pre-blues. And while I have no disagreement with Garon’s basic assertions, I don’t think they’re as blues-specific as he says they are — most music with lyrics, certainly most pop music, is also fueled by an imaginative desire for an improved present. That aside, the book is a solid introduction to Wheatstraw and an intriguing blend of fact and speculation.

One thing though: It seems significant that Wheatstraw chose to call himself the Devil’s Son-In-Law rather than the Devil’s Son, the implication being that he married the Devil’s Daughter — which could be seen as much a case of bad luck as of empowerment. But then Garon doesn’t mention her and neither, as far as I know, did Peetie.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].