<h3>Excerpt</h3> <div><div> <h2>CHAPTER 1</h2> <p>Lord, It Just Won't Stop!</p> <p><i>Work and Blues in the Industrial Delta</i></p> <br> <p>In the opening scene of Richard Wright's 1940 novel <i>Native Son</i>, the Thomas family wakes to find that a hungry rat has invaded their dingy one-room apartment. Mother and sister pick up their skirts, screaming, while eldest son Bigger grabs a skillet and takes aim at the beast. The rat is ultimately bested, but the battle leads to a heated dispute about money troubles and Bigger's ability to support his family. The rent's due, jobs are scarce, and the Relief 's about to cut them all off. Mother tells her son, "We wouldn't have to live in this garbage dump if you had any manhood in you." Hot and complex feelings trouble the characters long after the argument ends, causing them to retreat to separate corners of their cramped living space. Wright's interest here lies not only in the economic conditions that produce these emotions, but also in the often scanty personal means by which they are addressed. First, he describes Bigger's response, which—in its restless incoherence—drives the entire tragic arc of the novel:</p> <p>He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. So he held toward them an attitude of iron reserve; he lived with them, but behind a wall, and toward himself he was ever more exacting. He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else. So he denied himself and acted tough.</p> <br> <p>Bigger's response consists of both an excess of emotion and a refusal to acknowledge that emotion. His identity is troubled on both ends: feeling is experienced not as an expression of selfhood, but as a loss of control, while its suppression becomes a deadly pose, fatal to self and others. In contrast, Bigger's mother retreats behind one of the flimsy curtains that partition the apartment and begins to cook breakfast. We can hear her voice, and she is singing:</p> <p>    Life is like a mountain railroad<br>     With an engineer that's brave<br>     We must make the run successful<br>     From the cradle to the grave<br></p> <br> <p>The mother's response is also oddly doubled, caught between the personal and the impersonal. Intense feelings are juxtaposed against the formalism of both chore and song. But, here, emotion finds a certain shape, a comforting groove in the nearly mechanical work of hand and voice. Neither activity seems particularly expressive. The details of the song—a spiritual scrap with a modern locomotive twist—only dimly relate to her immediate context and need. But the act of singing joins the practical and the purposeless, bringing together feeling and form in a single, moving whole, granting her a certain presence and, we'll find, agency. If Bigger shows his emotions too easily, but cannot control them, his mother falls into a satisfying sonic pattern and so regains control of her small world—her blues is the one we want to hear.</p> <p>As some readers might know, Wright's <i>Native Son</i> ultimately indicts not just the blues, but all popular song, as a kind of ruse or cultural opiate. As Bigger heroically maintains, even in the face of arrest and probable death, popular music is nothing more than a form of "surrender, resignation," a sonic palliative for "whipped folks" (254, 356). But even if Wright's leftist commitments led him to reject song as a distraction from more direct political action, we should not ignore its power to accompany, and even transform, the troubled lives of his era. In typically modernist fashion, Bigger can only ironically assert the possibility of community as he heads toward the electric chair. Meanwhile, his mother proves both survivor and provider, and it is precisely the cheap music of the age, rather than its avant-garde fiction, that offered something like a satisfying presence for the black lower classes. As I show throughout this book, the most engaging songs of the day fused everyday feeling and form, and so provided listeners with a viable stance or attitude, a stylish manner, for confronting the world. The blues, though, perhaps more than any other music of the time, dramatizes this process, juxtaposing the hot emotional tumult of the body against a series of cool, abstract forms. As heard from Delta shacks to Chicago tenements to Harlem cabarets, the blues proved—despite its pained origins—a remarkably flexible medium and a new arena for the shaping of identity and community.</p> <p>In other words, Bigger's mother is an <i>everyday</i> modernist, and her songmaking serves to stitch together the fragments of an increasingly incoherent world. Like all those other desperate creations of the age—Pound's <i>Cantos</i>, Eliot's <i>The Waste Land</i>, Woolf 's <i>To the Lighthouse</i>—her song strives to produce a certain coherence through aesthetic form. The moderns saw their art as a way of healing the "dissociation of sensibility" brought about by modern life; they turned to the poetic image as a kind of creative restitution, "an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." Similarly, Bigger's mother confronts a world in which words and things no longer match up, a world in which the cunning language of landlord, boss, and the law fails to address her specific circumstances; her song presents itself as a discourse of another sort, and it offers, however briefly, the consolation of form. For Bigger's mother, though, such art is part of her daily routine, and it would be impossible to pinpoint where the daily struggle ends and the poetic act begins. Emotion and art here cannot but fall into each other—in the kitchen, in the factory, on the subway—and no matter how fraught or ironic the result, her song moves apace with the reality of her situation. So, when she finishes her stove-side performance, she calmly returns to the breakfast table with a plan of action: Bigger <i>is</i> taking the job, she <i>will</i> clean the house—here's the carfare, let's move on. In this, her scrappy song becomes something like a tiny affective motor, providing her with not only a unity of being, but also a certain purpose. In other words, by singing "<i>We must make the run successful</i>," Bigger's mother is not simply "expressing" the weary optimism of her race, but creating a space and time in which such optimism becomes a reality—of course, Bigger takes the job.</p> <p>As I'll show here, though, the blues—as it sounded from the plantations in the South to the factories and tenements in the North, and all the juke joints and tent shows in between—corresponds to a very specific kind of modernity. This music was both embedded in and detached from the sites and routines it addressed, and in this it provided not just criticism, but a rich and poignant negotiation of the various dimensions of its moment: labor relations, the debtor system, transportation, and commodity culture. As is well known, such music was originally and persistently work music. It emerged from the field hollers and work songs of the past, and continued to provide, throughout the twentieth century, sustenance and uplift for a proletarian community. But, also, in the modern era, this music was increasingly individualized, increasingly alienated, particularly from the communal traditions of the African American past. Over time, its forms grew fragmented, more abstract and repetitive, revealing not only a dissociation of identity, but also—I believe—an alternative mode of being. In other words, as I show here, the very abstraction of modern industry and the marketplace became, in the shifting fragments of the blues song, a means of self-invention. The terms of labor and art everywhere overlap and diverge: the blues mobilizes the very excess of modern life—its extreme feelings, its stark formalism—for its own ends, and, in its only very slight abstraction from the habits and routines of everyday life, negotiates another course through history.</p> <p>This is an agency of another sort. Just as the blues seems to mix categories such as "feeling" and "form," it also resists any simple designation of "worker" or even "self." As I'll show below, the freed slave entered public life only under threat of having his or her promised selfhood (as possession, as right) destroyed. Liberation was immediately overwhelmed by both the vast sensorium of modern life—railroads, riverboats, telephones, juke joints—and the more direct threats of the new southern economy: industrial labor, the chain gang, and lynching. This world seemed much stranger and more complex than anything promised by Emancipation, and the new terms of modern life raised deep ambivalences, proving to be sources of deep pain as well as pleasure. The freed slave was often forced to shift jobs, jump trains, and leave family members and loved ones against his or her will, but—at the same time—this ceaseless dissociation entailed its own forms of release. We should be careful when describing the agency of this figure and his or her music. Not only were blues performers systematically denied the rights of selfhood and self-determination, but their lives and music everywhere suggest suspicion and, at times, outright rejection of these categories. That said, the blues performer was neither a passive victim nor a heroic agent of his or her fate. The blues song suggests neither a simple acceptance nor a flat-out rejection of the modern condition, but a cunning ability to maneuver within its shifting terms, to exploit the new indifference and flexibility of the industrial order for both gain and satisfaction.</p> <p>I've divided this chapter into three overlapping sections—work, song, and technology. Each tackles this dynamic of self-negation and self-persistence in a different way, as both an everyday experience and an aesthetic strategy, and thereby locates the critical power of the blues as a vernacular modernism. The first section cuts through the swampy romance of the Delta to trace the region's development as a kind a rural factory, as the scene of intense modernization, constant mobility, and hyperproduction. The Delta blues, I argue, emerges out of the unnerving flux of a rural modernity, generating both anxiety and excitement as the plantation system and its workers succumbed to the manic energy and abstract forms of the new economy. By way of example, in the second section, I focus on Charley Patton and the blues ballads that made him famous, particularly as the latter provided a shifting and ultimately open template for both personal and regional identity. Here, I will explore how singer and song inhabit the various contexts of Delta life—the countryside, the highway, the lover's shack, the railroad station; the blues voice, specifically, proves as dislocated and dissociated as the modernity it seeks to address, at times restless and fretful, but also thrilling in its mobility and plasticity. The third section shifts from the technology of blues production to the technology of blues consumption, focusing on the blues as a <i>recorded</i> form. In general, the blues, with its repetitive stanza form, its recycled lyricism, and its obsessive re-creation of past violence, suggests an endless effort to master some prior wound or loss—a pain at once racial, sexual, and economic. Here, though, the recorded form of the blues—rather than merely replaying such traumas—points toward a more progressive theory of repetition and mimicry, one that, even as it conjures up seemingly primitive forms of African American magic, opens up history for both musicians and audiences. The reproductive power of the phonograph links the "primitive" and "progressive" dimensions of the blues and forces us to reconsider not just the modernity of African American culture, but the cultural possibilities of techno-modernity at large.</p> <br> <p>One—The Rural Factory and the Modern Blues</p> <p>How do you picture the Mississippi Delta? What images come to mind? A muddy river? A dusty highway? The dark outline of a man in natty suit and hat, guitar case in hand, waiting for a ride? This mythic iconography works to establish—on record covers and book jackets, in movies and documentaries and television shows—the rootsiness, the rawness, the gritty authenticity of both the region and its song. Think dirt, think poverty, think loneliness—the somber outlines of the region seem to con- firm the truth of its music—its "real" pain, its "real" joy—as if a troubled life could only be experienced directly, earnestly, objectively. Yet, at the same time, these popular images only ever present the music, for all its presumed immediacy, in hazy, mystical terms—the region at once appears and vanishes; the singer's identity is both asserted and denied. Such iconography—insofar as it derives from the work of the early blues archivists and the blues revivalists of the 1960s—raises a mist of romance and thereby obscures the material dimensions of the blues. We are led to believe that the blues is unfathomable and its origins obscure, buried deeply in the individual soul, or, further back, in the alluvial plane of the Delta or, even further, the tribal mysteries of Africa.</p> <p>Take Martin Scorsese's celebrated blues documentary <i>Feel Like Going Home</i>. Largely a work of heavy editing, the film consists of a series of down-home blues tracks played over stark archival imagery of lone plowmen, yellow floods, beaten shacks, and angry dogs. The flow of blues voices seems ghostly, disembodied, as if their owners only ever existed in some muddy limbo, ceaselessly haunting their own lives, while the visuals are all perfectly grainy, perfectly beaten, making the entire region seem like its own lost home movie. "Hell Hound on My Trail" drifts onto the soundtrack, and then the ghostly image of Robert Johnson's head fills the screen, superimposed over a tracking shot of a dusty Delta highway. The camera follows the white lines in the road, then cuts to a spinning disc on a phonograph player, and finally closes in on Johnson's death certificate. Over these cagey markers of authenticity, Scorsese whispers, "A high haunting voice, pitched on the razor's edge between joy and pain. Dead at twenty-seven, twenty-nine songs, and just two known photographs. We'll never have more than just a few scattered memories and details about the life of Robert Johnson." <i>What joy? What pain? What happened in those twenty-nine years? Why mention the death, the photographs—at all—if not to shroud them both in some shady mystery?</i></p> <p>Something solid must exist between this region and its song, something that shapes one to the other and explains their joint meaning. But it is <i>work</i> and mostly <i>work</i>, the one thing resistant to all blues mythologizing. Not <i>slavery</i>, mind you, but the crappy, anti-romantic work typical of modern life—pained, repetitive, meaningless, uncertain. Of course, work and workers appear throughout accounts such as <i>Feel Like Going Home</i>. Men and women are seen toiling away on the land—digging, cutting, plowing—but only in isolation, only as individuals, as if their one restriction, their one adversary, was nature itself: stubborn trees, fitful rivers, pesky insects. Work appears here as a basic human liability, a God-given chore, and, even, at times, part of an agrarian ideal. Its terms and conditions are obscured by the rural setting in which it occurs; the specificity of the plantation system is replaced by a near-biblical language of size and scale. In this, we lose sight of the one reality that makes sense of the blues as a historical form: the capitalist network of investments and rewards, and all the complex technologies, architectures, and routines that constituted the modern plantation system. Ultimately, this swamp needs to be dredged of its romantic ooze. We need to think clearly about how the region, and its racial hierarchies, evolved through the process of industrialization. By situating the blues fully within the context of the Delta as a "rural factory," we can better understand not just certain blues lyrics, but also the blues itself as a product of that factory, as a thoroughly modern art that helped worker and community relate to industrial modernity at large. </div></div><br/> <i>(Continues...)</i> <!-- Copyright Notice --> <div><blockquote><hr noshade size="1"><font size="-2">Excerpted from <b>Sweet Air</b> by <b>EDWARD P. COMENTALE</b>. Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. 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