[Sandra Hamilton is one of our star Senior English Studies Majors at Fitchburg State, getting ready to move into the next stages of her professional writing career. I’ve had the chance to work with her in this semester’s English Studies Capstone course, and am beyond excited to share her Guest Post in response and addition to this week’s BluesStudying blog series!]
On the topic of the Blues, I am reminded of the 2006 film, Black
Snake Moan, with Samuel L Jackson and Christina Ricci, music by the late
90’s bluesman, Bill Withers and then the songs referenced by Frederick Douglass
in his narrative published in 1845.
The film Black Snake Moan opens with a blues musician
discussing the blues as “[being between] two people, supposed to be in love,
when one or the other deceives the other through their love.” He said he wrote
lyrics saying, “love hides all fault and make you do things you don’t wanna do.
Love sometimes will leave you feeling sad and blue.”
The plot for the film is about a woman with an overwhelming
addiction and a religious ex-bluesman who attempts to cure her. Within five
minutes of the film, the audience knows both characters have been left by their
partners. One has just gone off to war, and the other to be with another man. Within
the plot are beautiful sentiments, dominated by music that captures the emotion
and moves the audience from one scene to the next.
Samuel L Jackson sings in the film. One such song has lyrics
that ring out, “Just a bird without a feather” by the American blues singer and
songwriter R.L. Burnside, leaving the audience with a sense of longing. “You
know I’m lost without your love”.
The sentiment behind these songs reminded me of the Narrative
of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Frederick was born into slavery in the
early 1800’s and after running away, he spoke towards anti-slavery and wrote
prolifically on the subject.
On page 7 of his narrative, Fredrick talks about the Great
House Farm, and how the slaves often favored being assigned to this house over
any others. “Few privileges were esteemed higher, by the slaves of the
out-farms, than that of being selected to do errands at the Great House Farm.
It was associated in their minds with greatness.”
On the next two pages, Frederick talks about the slaves
chosen for the Great House Farm and the songs they would make up along the way.
Listen to Frederick describe them.
“The slaves selected to go to the Great House Farm, for the
monthly allowance for themselves and their fellow-slaves, were peculiarly
enthusiastic. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for
miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest
joy and the deepest sadness.”
In the next few paragraphs Frederick talks about the lyrics
of the songs.
“I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of
those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so
that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear.”
“They told a tale of woe…”
“Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to
God for deliverance from chains.”
In the film Black Snake Moan, Samuel L Jackson’s character
literally has Christina Ricci’s character locked in his house with a chain
around her waist.
Still on page 8, Frederick goes on. “The hearing of those
wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I
have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them. The mere recurrence
to those songs, even now, afflicts me…”
The memory of the songs is enough to bring Frederick to
tears. But why?
“To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of
the dehumanizing character of slavery.” He said.
“Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.” He adds, “The
songs of the slave represent the sorrow of his heart; and he is relieved by
them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my
experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my
The songs give movement and expression to the lives of the
slaves, just like the songs in the film add to the plot and move it along. Does
Samuel L Jackson’s character feel like a bird without a feather? Or is he
trying to reach Christina Ricci’s character, empathizing that she is a slave to
her substance. A slave to an idea. Maybe these songs enable Samuel L Jackson’s
character to meet her where she is at. Maybe that can be more powerful than throwing
down a ladder for someone to climb out of the darkness alone.
A quick film reference is Disney Pixar’s, Inside-out.
Have you seen it? It’s hilarious but one scene in particular emphasizes that
sometimes all you need is a good cry.
Back to Samuel L Jackson, towards the end of the film, he
unbottles his anger and is playing the blues again while Christina Ricci dances
with a newfound freedom.
Maybe it’s in the differences between, “Ain’t no sunshine
when she’s gone” and “Lovely day”. Two songs by bluesman Bill Withers and both
an expression of emotion.
Standing in the kitchen, Samuel L Jackson tugs on the chain,
“Come here”. Christina Ricci walks over and he puts a key into the lock. The
chains are rattling. “It ain’t on me to change your life or nobody else’s.
Shit, people gunna do what the hell they wanna do anyway.” Christina’s
character stays silent as she watches the chains fall to the ground and with eyes
wide-open, lifts her gaze to meet Samuel L Jackson’s. “You ain’t got but one
life. Ya’ll live it the way you want.”
series starts Monday,
do you think?]