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The Fictional Black Blues Figure: Blues Music and the Art of Narrative Self-Invention

  • Author(s): Mack, Kimberly
  • Advisor(s): Yarborough, Richard A
  • et al.

The Fictional Black Blues Figure: Blues Music and the Art of Narrative Self-Invention, Kimberly Mack

My dissertation examines representations of black American blues musicians in contemporary American fiction, drama, and popular music, and it argues that blues music can be examined as a narrative art rooted in the tradition of fictionalized autobiographical self-fashioning. I contend that the contemporary, multi-racial, literary and musical characters in my project who participate in so-called “authentic” blues expression create, sometimes consciously and sometimes unwittingly, a fiction on top of a fiction. This project questions the belief held by many blues scholars, critics, and fans that blues music is a racially essentialized form instead of a narrative tradition made possible through carefully constructed autobiographical and biographical fictions.

My project makes two important interventions into traditional discussions of blues production and the representations of blues figures in 20th- and 21st-century American literature. First, it destabilizes racial, socio-cultural, temporal, and gendered blues tropes by shifting blues expression from an innate skill to a storytelling art form through which its makers invent themselves. Second, this study allows for a different, interdisciplinary approach to autobiographical and biographical expression. In this project, I excavate literary and musical texts in order to identify moments of autobiographical and biographical articulation. Rather than relying on texts that are generically marked as autobiography or biography, my project teases out the autobiographical and biographical utterances in a wider variety of literary and musical texts. When narrators or characters tell their stories (in my project, songs, musical performances, and interviews with real-life musicians are stories too), they use formal structures, like description or dialogue, to define their lives and personalities. These mini-narratives constitute autobiographies or biographies, even if they are not formal ones.

In my opening chapter, literary texts that include iconic American bluesman Robert Johnson as a character, such as Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie and RL’s Dream by Walter Mosley, juxtapose Johnson, the character, with his historical, mythologized, biographical representation, allowing him to subvert or support his depiction through fictionalized autobiographical expression. Other chapters focus on the self-fashioning of female blues musicians, on the blues apprenticeship, and on blues rocker Jack White’s autobiographical self-invention.

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