My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Saturday, November 18, 2023

November 18-19, 2023: Sandra Hamilton’s Guest Post on the Blues in American Culture

[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 happiness.”

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.”

[Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think?]

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