August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Wilson, August. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Plume, 1985.

Summary of Work
The play opens in a recording studio, with two men, Sturdyvant and Irvin, discussing Ma Rainey’s work. Sturdyvant, the owner of the recording studio, thinks that Ma Rainey is a diva, and he’s upset that her last recording didn’t sell as well as he wanted in the North, even though it sold in the South. He wants nothing to do with talking with the black people in the studio, and leaves Irvin to take car of that. He also requests that Levee, the horn player, have more of a role in the music because that is what is the new sound that’s selling. Aftewards, the band sets up for rehearsal. Levee is late because he is buying new shoes. When he arrives, he immediately starts bantering with the other band members: first about the price of his shoes and how Cutler helped him pay for them; then about how to spell the word music, and then about how the songs should be played. Levee wants to add more of a jazz feel to the music, and he doesn’t want to rehearse songs they’ve played numerous times.

They start rehearsing, but are regularly interrupted by arguments between Levee and Toledo, who reads books and has a lot to say about race relations and black entertainment and advancement. Slow Drag, a man who’s as laid back as his name implies, keeps trying to divert discussion so they can get back to rehearsing, but he fails. In the meantime, Ma Rainey has still not shown up, and Irvin is nervous about it. Just as Sturdyvant is getting angry, Ma Rainey, her girlfriend Dussie Mae, and her nephew Sylvester walk into the recording studio, escorted by a policeman. The policeman tells Irvin that she had hit another car with her car and then tried to run away in a cab, and then assaulted the cab driver when he wouldn’t take her. Irvin tells Ma he will handle it, and he slips the police officer some money for him to forget about taking her to the precinct.

Since the production of the record is delayed from the incident, Irvin gets sandwiches for the band, and while eating, they discuss their pasts. Cutler tells about how Slow Drag, dancing in a competition with a woman one evening, nearly got knifed for dancing with her when the woman’s boyfriend saw them. He talked the guy out of knifing him by saying that he was trying to help the girl win the competition so she could buy him a gold watch. After that, all the women wanted to Slow Drag with him, which is how Slow Drag got his name.

Toledo discusses how black people are the “leftovers” (57) in America, and after a brief discussion about race relations, they start to rehearse Levee’s version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Ma hears it from upstairs and confronts Irvin about it, who tries to convince her that it’s the style people want, but she’s not hearing it. She goes downstairs and tells them what they will be playing, and tells them that Sylvester will do the speaking part at the beginning of the song. Afterwards, Levee goes off, and in his anger, tells the story of watching his mother get gang raped by white men, and how he tried to stop them by getting a kitchen knife and cutting them, and they took the knife and sliced his chest open, nearly killing him. Then he tells about his father selling the home to one of the white rapists so they could get out of town.

Act Two opens with Irvin and the band discussing how Sylvester can’t do the part, and Irvin tells them to stick with Levee’s version of the song and he’ll work it out with Ma. Ma goes to record and sees there’s no coke to drink, and she will not record until she gets one. She waits, and tells Cutler that she knows that she doesn’t mean anything but money to these white men. She says that because of that, she’s going to do everything she can to ensure that they treat her how she wants to be treated even if it kills the white men. She talks about how the blues are a more than a form of expression for her, they are a form of survival, a way to understand life. Meanwhile Levee starts seriously flirting with Dussie Mae.

When they finally get to recording, they first have problems with Sylvester getting the line right. When he finally does, they don’t get it recorded due to technical difficulties with the sound equipment. Ma threatens to leave, and Irvin hurries to get the issues fixed. While they are waiting, the other men in the band tell Levee to lay off Ma’s girl, and try to tell him the problems that it will bring him to meddle with women who are involved already. They also try to tell him that the way he dresses won’t change anything in the eyes of white people, and that they even know black preachers who, very well dressed, were publicly humiliated and harassed by white people. Levee gets angry and says he isn’t an “imitation white man” (94), and he starts in about how he is going to be successful with his music once Sturdyvant lets him record. When Cutler tries again to talk to him about God, he insults Cutler and says that his God, if he is real, can strike him down.

Finally, the issues are fixed, and they finish recording. Afterward, Ma confronts Levee about his playing and tells him that he is to play his horn in a way that fits her music style for the band. When he gets upset at Ma, she fires him. Figuring he doesn’t need the job anyway, he goes to talk to Sturdyvant about his music, and he finds out that Sturdyvant will buy his songs for a few dollars, but won’t let him record. With no job and no prospects, he is upset, and as the band is getting ready to leave, Toledo accidentally steps on Levee’s shoes. Levee, in a rage, stabs and kills Toledo.

Brief Note on Themes
This play is the only one of Wilson’s Century Cycle plays to be based on a historical figure, although he insisted that Ma Rainey was not a researched character. The play itself deals with how the music and entertainment industry treated its black artists, who sold very well and yet were terribly treated and underpaid. Issues of segregation, how popular music is marketed, race relations, economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and black rage brought on by systemic injustice and oppression feature throughout the play. One distinct example is the altercation with the police, where only a white man can pay off the white police officer to keep Rainey out of jail. Still, the power black entertainers held was more than the average black person: Rainey describes being able to be forceful and get what she wants from white men in the business when otherwise she has no power to command respect, or if not respect, then decent treatment.

Music plays a big part of this play, the first of Wilson’s Century Cycle. The purpose of the blues is a theme running through the work. Blues is one of Wilson’s main influences for his work (he stated this many times in interviews during his lifetime). While Rainey outright states how she feels about it, the blues also feature as each of the characters tell their stories of sadness, travel, and life experience. Recording technologies are explored, as glitches occur throughout the process (a known problem for Paramount, since their recordings were regularly poor quality). The recorded and unrecorded blues songs can stand in as a form of cultural memory, music that passes on important information from one generation of listeners to the next.

John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel

Dos Passos, John. The 42nd Parallel. Houghton Mifflin Co, 2000.

Summary of Work
This novel follows six characters through their lives in the first two decades of the twentieth century, ending just as World War I breaks out. The novel is structured with these different narratives stopping, starting, and intertwining with other characters’ narratives, even if they do not come in direct contact with one another. The novel is also broken up by newsreels, which are headlines and bits of news stories pulled from the Chicago Tribune during those years. The other section type is camera eye, which are autobiographical shots of Dos Passos’ life. The newsreels and camera eye sections do not follow any particular chronological order, and the stories of the lives of the characters also do not follow strict chronological time. Because of this, I am structuring this summary entry around the six characters rather than trying to chronologically summarize.

Mac, also known as Fainy McCreary, is from an immigrant family and is trained to work a printing press. He is a wanderer who won’t stick with one job for long, particularly because he is attracted to the ideologies of the Industrial Workers of the World and their leader, Big Bill Haywood. When he is in California and meets a woman and marries her, he settles down for a time and has two kids, but he feels like he is suffocating under the weight of poverty, work, and family responsibilities. When he hears about opportunities to help with the revolution in Mexico, he abandons his family and moves to Mexico to help where he can.

Janey Williams is from a poor working class family, and though she does well in school, she struggles in the working world as a secretary. She keeps trying to date different men to find love and finding that she dates rather terrible men. The firm that she finally gets a decent job at is pro-German, and although the pay is good, she cannot stand their anti-American statements and beliefs, so she quits the firm. Looking for work, she heads to New York City, and with some help she slips into what is first a temporary job to be a stenographer to J. Ward Moorehouse, and she does such a good job that she becomes his secretary. She takes trips with him all over the country, even down to Mexico.

Joe Williams, Janey’s brother, is a dropout and a fighter. He wanders from place to place intent on going to see new things around the world. He joins the Navy hoping to accomplish this goal further, and he sends Janey occasional letters and gifts from his travels. The Navy doesn’t work out so well for Joe, however, and he goes AWOL and goes back to his fighting, drifting ways.

J. Ward Moorehouse ties nearly all the characters in the story together in some way or another, even if it is just the other characters being in the same area. He is from a middle class family and well educated, but he aspires to be much more than a middle class working man. A writer, while he is working he meets and marries into a wealthy American family (the girl is pregnant), but upon his honeymoon trip to Paris, he realizes that she wants nothing to do with regular family life. She gets an abortion, and he quickly separates from her. He does make some contacts in Paris, and when he returns to the US, he begins a journalism career in Pittsburgh. From there, he marries again and starts his own public relations business with capital from his wife’s family.

Eleanor Stoddard is from Georgetown and part of a successful upper middle class family. She has artistic talent, particularly as an interior designer. She and her friend Eveline Hutchins, who have lived and worked together, quit their jobs and start up a decorator business of their own. They have the opportunity to do a costuming and design job for a play in New York, and eventually Eleanor decides to move there. She starts up her business there again, and J. Ward Moorehouse becomes one of her biggest clients. She also starts to become very close friends with Moorehouse, which even though a non-sexual relationship, angers Mrs. Moorehouse.

The final character introduced is Charley Anderson. He is a boy in Minnesota who ends up in Minneapolis as a mechanic. He falls in love with a girl about his age, and he has dreams of settling down to domestic life with her. However, when his best friend gets her pregnant, he is disenchanted with his dreams of domesticity and decides to leave and wander the nation to find something new to want. He gets stranded down in New Orleans and is lucky to not be beaten or killed from his terrible instrument playing, and he meets Doc William H Rogers, who buys the instrument off of him. They end up going to New York together on a ship and enlist in the ambulance corps for World War I. They are heading out to the front when the novel ends.

Brief Note on Themes
This work is unique in the way it deals with chronology and period representation through a mix of historical record and fiction. The book, as part of the USA Trilogy, is meant to give a picture or representation of the US during the early part of the twentieth century. The work itself deals heavily with attitudes about economics and racism during the time period, with racist sentiments abounding about Asians, African Americans, and Mexicans as well as immigrants. The narrative contains a lot of travel within it, ranging from the East Coast to the South to the Midwest to California and the West, all the way back down to Mexico. The idea of the American Dream seems embodied in the character of J. Ward Moorehouse.

Questions

  1. From Fainian making disastrous decisions time and time again to join in the communist movement and leave decent-paying jobs to Moorhouse’s consistent attempts to succeed through capitalism which leave him in debt or full of worry over risk, John Dos Passos’s work holds a healthy skepticism for both economic situations and economic “solutions.” Is there any indication in his work that he has a way out of the vicious cycle of economic ruin he illustrates throughout the novel?
  2. How does text placement and stylization affect the way we read the newsreel portions of this text? For example:

    TITANIC LARGEST SHIP IN THE WORLD SINKING
    Personally I am not sure that the twelvehour day is bad for employees
    especially when they insist on working that long in order to make more
    money

    Still all my song shall be
    Nearer My God to thee
    Nearer to thee
    (118)

    Those who know that the band on the Titanic played the song “Nearer My God to Thee” as the ship sunk can pull the importance of the connection to the music there, both for time period and beliefs. The text in between headline and song is almost like text from a different article out of the newspaper on the same day or the same year. When looked at in this way, is sound being captured in the sense that we’re getting the “noise” from the time period?

Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Picador, 1968.

Summary of Work

Tom Wolfe documents the lives of the Merry Pranksters, the group of acid-tripping hippies who drove around the nation in a Day-Glo covered bus with Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The group forms around Kesey as they start using LSD to have transcendent experiences, a drug he had on hand from volunteering as a test subject in a study at a college and from working at the mental hospital for a time while he wrote his first book. However, upon the announcement of the destruction of the neighborhood he is living in, he moves to La Honda, California, where a group of people, later known as the Merry Pranksters, follow him. They all live in the same home, spread out on the land and in the woods, and each work on their own projects. But two things bring them together: LSD and sound. Taking after William Burroughs’ ideas, they decide to wire everything up with both microphones and speakers and record all of it. They play back the sound by splicing it and speaking over it, as well as gathering any and all sound they can. When they decide that they’d also like to make a grand movie to cover their experiences on LSD, they take it one step further. Kesey buys a bus, which they paint in various Day-Glo colors. They completely gut the bus and remodel it to be a road-trip vehicle for them, and they wire it for sound inside and out so that they can play music, broadcast sound, and record while they are on their trip. Neal Cassady is the driver of the bus, and they take off across the country, doing acid at various points along the way and filming the acid trips.

As they start to become noticed across the country (LSD was not yet illegal), Kesey becomes a main face of the counterculture movement, and they start to come in contact with people such as the Grateful Dead and Hells Angels, and the relationships and associations help all groups they come in contact with gain more prominence. Kesey writes one more novel but then gives up writing and focuses on making acid tests catch on for the public. He and the Merry Pranksters host many different acid tests in California, fooling the cops along the way. They even attend a Beatles concert ridiculously high on LSD and don’t get caught for it. They watch the crowd and see how enthralled they are by the Beatles and the control the Beatles have over the crowd but do not use for anything outside of the music or money-making business itself, and Kesey and the group leave back to their bus to make noise on their microphones and tapes. They host a big party for the Beatles, who never show up.

When they do finally get in trouble for something, it is for possession and use of marijuana. The first time the sentencing is lighter, but the next time Kesey is caught with it, he knows that it will be a prison sentence. So he runs away to Mexico, becoming more and more paranoid that the cops are after him and he is going to be extradited. The Pranksters make their way down to Mexico and stay with him for a time, and then help him get back across the border, where he spends some time in California before he is caught and thrown in jail. He avoids sentencing by saying that he would like to tell people that they need to go “beyond acid.” The authorities, thinking that he means that he will tell everyone to stop doing acid and talk about the dangers of it, give him a light sentence and ask him to go on public television to make his statement. But when he goes public with his statement, he never outright declares acid to be a bad influence or as having negatives. He simply says that once you go through the door that acid opens up, you have to take more steps rather than just keep opening and closing the same door.

Kesey and the Pranksters host one more “Acid Graduation” event, where they show that the next step is trying to achieve the transcendence they experience on LSD without the mind-altering drugs. Many news crews, journalists, and others show up to document the event, but leave before it ends, unable to understand what is going on.

The Pranksters themselves aren’t sure that they understand what Kesey’s new goals and direction are, and eventually, one by one, the group members go their own separate ways. Kesey serves his time in work camps in California while his family lives in Oregon. The movie never gets finished, although during the whole time the Pranksters are active people are cutting it and editing it and shooting more film. The film, writings, and sound recordings that are in the Prankster archive are what Wolfe used to piece together the biographical, very subjective narrative that is the book.

 

Brief Note on Themes

This work is a prime example of New Journalism, and it is considered a great representation of the counterculture of the Beat Generation in the 1950s and 1960s. Sound and music plays a large part in this book, making it great for sound studies considerations. Pseudo-religious activity is also a major part of the work, as the Pranksters nearly worship Kesey as the new Messiah, with the Pranksters as the apostles, and they utilize LSD trips to have essentially religious experiences. Drug use is a major theme, particularly acid use. Intersubjectivity is prominent in the work, and focuses on the idea that people can enter into a space where they know what it’s like to be someone else and achieve the ability to think and act as a group. For counterculture, the work focuses on the differences between what others were doing at that time, which was largely unknown, and what the Pranksters were doing, which was bringing the alternate lifestyle to the public eye rather than keeping it underground.

 

Questions about the Work

  1. In this book, we see clearly the obsession that the Pranksters have with mixed media content in conjunction with their acid trips. Claire, a young and naive girl who shows up to an Acid Test event in Watts, states in her account that before she, unawares, dosed herself with LSD, she didn’t understand what was going on: “This may explain why a lot of people were digging the film, laughing, and also why a lot of people were there . . . I’m sure that I was one of a minority who had no idea what to expect. The word must have been passed, but didn’t get to me” (272). After ingesting the LSD, Claire’s perspective of the film and sounds changes from simply odd nonsense to an otherworldly environment. This got me wondering, what is it about sound, lag, and reverb that create situations that seem otherworldly or out of place? What is the purpose of the acid trips and the sound and image manipulation beyond the vague notion of expanding understanding or knowledge?
  2. Tom Wolfe describes his process as one that tries to encompass the full Prankster experience: the drugs, the pranks, the adventures, and the recordings. He states, “The Pranksters recorded much of their own history in the Prankster Archives in the form of tapes, diaries, letters, photographs and the 40-hour movie of the bus trip” (415). How does having so many recordings of people change the way we approach writing a nonfiction work, and when is it useful to stray away from transcription and become more subjective, as Wolfe suggests that he does throughout the work?
  3. Geographically speaking, the many of the acid tests are done in largely black communities (see the houses they rent/use, geographical areas like Compton). What is problematic about the image the Pranksters and other whites have created around these black communities?

 

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. Vintage Books, 1995.

Summary of Work
The unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s story begins his narrative in a basement space full of lights listening to Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue.” He tells of his invisibility and how he is just now learning about how to deal with invisibility in his life, and goes on to tell his story from his college days to the present. At the end of high school, he writes a prize-winning essay, and is rewarded with a scholarship if he reads the paper to the powerful businessmen in town. However, instead of getting to read his paper, he is directed with other black boys to the front of a stage in front of a naked dancing woman, and after being humiliated in that manner, forced to strip down and fight blindfolded in a boxing ring at the front of the room. He ends up fighting one on one with one of the boys, and he loses. Afterward, in order to get paid, they have to pick up money, which turns out to not even be real money, off of an electric rug. After all of that, the narrator gets to give his speech, and with one minor slipup in wording about equality (at this time he is so bloodied up that it is hard for him to speak), he is given a briefcase and a scholarship.

While at an unnamed college that heavily resembles Tuskegee Institute, he aspires to be a great figure in the black academic community. He is assigned to drive Mr. Norton, one of the major donors to the college, to the college for meetings, but when he is talking to Mr. Norton, they drive past a poor black family. Upon hearing a little bit about them, Mr. Norton asks for him to stop so he can talk to the man. He leaves upset and ghostly pale and sickly, asking for a drink to help him. In a panic, the narrator takes him the only place he knows that he can get liquor: the Golden Day. It is in a poor side of town, and all the patients from the mental hospital are there. The bartender won’t let him take liquor out to Mr. Norton, so he has to bring him in. This makes the situation worse, and a patient who claims to be a doctor ends up helping Mr. Norton recover enough to get to the college. The incident infuriates the head of the college, Dr. Bledsoe, and after the evening meeting where a blind man gives a rousing speech about the Founder of the college (who is much like Booker T. Washington), the narrator has to go to Bledsoe’s office, and Bledsoe expels him but tells him he will give him letters of recommendation so he may get a job in the North and potentially be able to come back to the college the next year.

He heads to the New York City and tries to get a job using the letters, but is thwarted because the letters contain slander about him that disables him from betting a job. One of the powerful businessmen’s sons informs the narrator about it and offers him advice on employment, which the narrator initially rejects but then checks out. He attempts to work at a paint company, where he first mixes paint and screws up the job, and then gets sent down to the piping system to help there. The job seems to be going well but then goes South when his boss mistakenly thinks he has gone to a union meeting and they get in a fight, causing them to forget about the pipe pressure, which causes an explosion. The narrator is placed in a hospital, where the doctors perform electrical medical experiments on him and he forgets his name and who he is. When he gets out, he wanders the streets of Harlem until a woman named Mary takes him in. He struggles to find a job, but she doesn’t kick him out for not paying rent.

One day when he is walking the streets, he comes across an eviction and becomes involved in stopping the eviction as he stands up on the stairs of the apartment complex and gives a speech to the people outside watching. They overpower the policemen and the evictors and put all the things back into the house, but more policemen come and someone directs him to the rooftop to get away safely. Very soon after, he is approached by Brother Jack to join the Brotherhood and make speeches to get the masses to move against the unjust working and housing conditions in the city. At first skeptical, he is moved to accept the job when he sees Mary and realizes just how poor she is in her situation and how much she has done for him. He is initiated into the Brotherhood and given a new name and home, and he doesn’t have the gumption to say goodbye to Mary, so he simply leaves her money. At this time he also accidentally breaks a money bank (black man eating coins), and he takes it with him as to hide that from Mary as well.

The work with the Brotherhood initially goes well, but he works his way up in the system and the community so fast that Brother Jack and the white members of the group are upset and worried. The Brotherhood brings up false charges against him when a magazine article comes out that turns out to be more about him than the Brotherhood, and then he is reassigned to “The Woman Question.” He is upset, but chooses to do this rather than lose his employment. A rich, married white woman approaches him and talks him into coming to her house to talk more about the Brotherhood, but she actually wants sex. He is nearly caught with her one night, but he realizes the husband doesn’t care what she is doing. Later on, he is assigned once again to Harlem because Ras the Destroyer, the local agitator in the area, is gaining a fast following while the Brotherhood is losing theirs, and Brother Clifton has gone missing.

Nothing that the narrator does to regain Brotherhood support is working, and the black members of the Brotherhood are largely MIA. He spots Clifton on the streets one day selling Sambo dolls, and as he tries to chase him down, he watches as Clifton gets in a fight with police and gets shot. Devastated, he takes Clifton’s body and hosts a funeral for Clifton that everyone can go to, and he makes a moving speech. The Brotherhood are furious, as the speech and memorial are contrary to their plans for the area. It becomes apparent to the narrator that the Brotherhood are not actually out to help black people and black neighborhoods, but to exploit them and their voices when it is useful, but he decides to try “yessing them to death” and trying to be perfect and say whatever it is that the Brotherhood wants to hear to protect his job. He goes to Brother Hambro for training. However, on his way to Hambro, Ras the Destroyer sees him and is after him, and so he must disguise himself in a zoot suit to hide. Everyone mistakes him for Rinehart, the local preacher, rounder, and illegal businessman, and he realizes further his own invisibility and the dual nature of people in his community.

After he gives reports to the Brotherhood that are complete lies but what they want to hear, he decides to go use the wife of one of the Brotherhood members to get ahead. But it turns out that when he gets there, she actually wants him to do a sexual role play where he rapes her. He gets her drunk enough that she passes out and can’t remember that it never happened, and then he tells her he did as she asked even though he didn’t. When he leaves, she follows him out, and she follows him to Harlem, which is in the middle of an all-out race riot. He gets caught in the fray and helps to burn down an apartment building, and afterward thinks of Mary and tries to find her. In his rush he falls down into a manhole, and he gets blocked in as some men cover it. He burns all of his documents so that he can find a way down the tunnel, and ends up in the coal cellar that he stays in, and where he is telling his story from.

Brief Note on Themes
Invisibility as a black person and what that means is the overarching theme of the narrative. Invisibility means being treated poorly, being denied opportunity, being outright discriminated against, and finding that no matter how hard a person works, they will never be able to rise above their circumstances. The theme of invisibility, therefore, intertwines with institutionalized racism and economic issues as well as issues of justice and segregation. If it’s a black political issue, it’s probably in Invisible Man. Music and sound are other themes, and ones that relate to my dissertation. Blues and jazz music are found in both the language and the plot, as are black vernacular dances: eagle rock, slow drag, dances done with knocking bones—those are the ones I can find so far. The music and dances are also often utilized in ways that either act as a freeing agent or a stereotyping agent. Since the book deals with the issues of stereotyping and limited ideological viewpoints and beliefs quite heavily, looking at those topics through music and sound can be a good entry point to discuss ways to comment on ideology and stereotypes.

Questions

  1. The narrator in Invisible Man states that he “discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well” (9). How do we derive meaning from things that aren’t uttered? How do we derive those meanings out of textual sounds?
  2. How are the sounds of cultural history made pejorative through racism in this work? And can that cultural history of music and dance be reappropriated? If so, how? Do we see that happening anywhere within Invisible Man?
  3. How do we describe the sounds of protest, and are those sounds racialized? Does white protest in America take on a different set of sounds than black protest in America, or only different results and consequences?