"Preachin' the Blues": Bessie Smith's Secular Religion and Alice Walker's 'The Color Purple.'

Article excerpt

A blues singer known as "Shug" Avery sweeps through Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple, bestowing her favors and her scorn capriciously, giving voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and money to the poor. She transforms the life of Celie, the novel's protagonist, through a "blues conversion" of the type advocated by Bessie Smith in her song "Preachin' the Blues." Shug, like Bessie Smith, forges a strong bond with her audiences and gives voice to the "spirit of the blues" in order to bring relief to less articulate sufferers. But more importantly, she encourages Celie and other opporessed women in the novel to express themselves and stand up for their rights. Shug Avery also crosses the social boundaries that often restricted the women of her society, making possible the gender role reversals that bring about the book's happy ending. Just as Bessie Smith did in "Preachin' the Blues," Shug Avery promises her followers a new relationship between the individual and the world, one based on an understanding of the holiness of all living things and the spiritual power of the spoken word.

Considering Shug Avery in the context of West African beliefs as they are expressed in the blues of Bessie Smith will shed new light on Celie's metamorphosis from a passive victim to a confident woman. Understandably, most critics have focused on Celie's metamorphosis and have discussed Shug's role as a "catalyst" who causes a powerful reaction.(1) Those who consider the novel a "fairy tale" describe Shug as a "fairy godmother" who arrives disguised as a "wicked witch" (Walsh 94). Although "fairy-tale" readings are more convincing than those given by critics who try to force the novel into a "realistic" mold and then complain when it won't fit, these readings, by stressing the European form of the story, tend to divert attention from its African-American content.(2) Some psychoanalytic critics refer to Shug as a "nurse" and a "mother-imago" (Ross 76, 79), or a "mother surrogate" for Celie (Proudfit 24), and others suggest that Shug functions as a role-model (e.g., Kelly, Water-Dawson). Delores Williams, as part of her project to use "the works of black women writers ... to assess the theological and ethical significance of black women's social and religious experience," cites Shug as an example of the "catalyst and moral-agent model" (88). All of these approaches illuminate important aspects of Shug's role in the novel, but even Williams and Kelly, who are interested in Celie's religious transformation, do not consider the African origins of Shug's theology. Both Bessie Smith and Shug Avery can be considered "children," or followers, of Legba, a West African spirit closely associated with musicians, who opens the door to the spiritual world and provides opportunities for the social and psychological growth of the individual.(3)

Although it is relatively easy to identify the African features which survive in African-American music, it is more difficult to trace the influence of African beliefs about the spiritual power of music. However, the controversy over the supposedly evil influence of blues and jazz suggests that African beliefs remained strong even after most African Ameircans had adopted Christianity. Since the white man's religion confined the spiritual power of music to the churches and regarded secular music as dangerous and often sinful, the spiritual power of African-derived secular music was condemned as the work of the devil. If we keep African beliefs about music in mind as we consider the statements of musicians and the lyrics of their songs, we should better understand how blues and jazz came to be considered evil by some and holy by others.

Underneath the borrowed English phrases, the blues sustains a fundamentally African world view. When Bessie Smith sang, "Good morning Blues, Blues how do you do?" she was describing an encounter with an orisha in human form, and her song is meant to amplify the power of her personal nommo, or word, to meet the challenge posed by this force. …