Riffing on Memory and Playing through the Break: Blues in Lewis Nordan's Music of the Swamp and Wolf Whistle

By Baker, Barbara A. | Southern Quarterly, April 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Riffing on Memory and Playing through the Break: Blues in Lewis Nordan's Music of the Swamp and Wolf Whistle


Baker, Barbara A., Southern Quarterly


WHILE THE INFLUENCE OF BLUES MUSIC on the fiction and poetry of writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Langsten Hughes, and Sterling Brown is widely recognized, the aesthetic strategies associated with blues music continue to exert a considerable force on contemporary writers of the American South. Lewis Nordan's short story cycle Music of the Swamp and his subsequent novel Wolf Whistle are two excellent examples of the blues aesthetic at work in fiction by a non-African American southern writer. In Nordan's case, the blues is one element in his heritage that helped shape an aesthetic sensibility that is not only distinctly southern, but also uniquely American. According to Nordan, the southern literary tradition is "becoming more of an American literature" a regional literature that is transformed through "universal themes" that come from "the whole heart" (qtd. in Ingram and Ledbetter 89). For Nordan, writing from the whole heart means drawing together the pieces of his painful past to create a salvation from suffering through laughter and hope. He achieves redemption through aesthetic strategies that strongly resemble the blues music he absorbed as a child in the Mississippi Delta.

Born in Forest and raised in Itta Bena, Mississippi, Nordan writes fiction that illustrates the way that blues music, and what he later would call the "tragic limitations of a society informed by racial hatred" and social class distinctions, shaped his own developing consciousness, and subsequently, his art ("Growing" 1). In the musical language of the blues, Nordan tells stories that speak to (what for the purposes of this discussion I will call) an interracial consciousness underlying the American aesthetic as expressed in both the music and literature of the United States. This interracial consciousness is manifested in art, like Nordan's fiction, that examines and questions the relationship between blackness and whiteness.

To begin with, Nordan makes his readers aware of the interracial implications of the American aesthetic through his frequent references to cultural icons, such as Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, and Elvis Presley, who are associated with blues music and whose impact on American music brings to mind questions about the racial heritage of the music. Smith, the Empress of the Blues, became a martyr in the cause for desegregation when she allegedly bled to death outside a white-only hospital. She was the internationally known American blues queen who inspired, among others, Janis Joplin. Robert Johnson was the King of the Blues whose songs have recently been re-recorded verbatim and made popular in current mainstream rock-and-roll by Eric Clapton. And Presley, of course, was the King of Rock and Roll, who initially gained fame by mimicking the "phrasing note for note" of the black singer and songwriter Otis Blackwell (Breon B7).

In "Music of the Swamp," the first story in the short story cycle by the same name, Nordan refers to Bessie Smith and the legend of her fatal car crash near Clarksdale, Mississippi. The myth that she lost a leg (some say an arm) in the crash and that she died because a white-only Mississippi hospital refused to admit her informs the developing consciousness of the story's main character-young, white Sugar Mecklin. In the story, Sugar comes to a realization about himself and his Mississippi home as his drunk father's hallucination about the one-legged Smith enters Sugar's consciousness (23). Smith, and all that her legend means to the history of southern segregation and the blues, resonates poignantly as the short story cycle progresses and evolves into Nordan's next novel, Wolf Whistle.

Historically, Smith is as important for what she symbolizes in relation to the struggle for racial equality as she is in her role as the Empress of the Blues. For instance, while it is true that Bessie Smith died as a result of injuries sustained in a car crash outside of Clarksdale, the details of the accident, such as whether or not she lost any limbs, were obscured by her producer John Hammond, who published an article in Down Beat magazine in which he embellished the details to increase intrigue among her fans. …

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