Robert Love Taylor, |
Blind Singer Joe's Blues
(Southern Methodist University Press, 2007)
In the early part of the 20th century, Bristol, Virginia (or Tennessee, if you prefer -- the town spreads out over the border of the two states), was a mecca for country music and blues. Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, even Louie Armstrong came there to record, and when Ralph Peer went south on his music scouting trips, he went to Bristol.
That's the setting for this novel. Music pours through Blind Singer Joe's Blues the way blood flows through the body. Yet to read this as a book about music is to set yourself up for disappointment. Sure, the major characters are musicians and, yes, the plot involves music, but the novel is about family, betrayal and questions of trust.
Blind Singer Joe isn't even the major protagonist. We meet him in the frame story: A street musician playing the blues in Bristol, where he is ostracized because he is a white man living and working in an African-American neighborhood, Joe meets a fiddle player named Pink Miracle in the prologue who tells him two things that are going to turn Joe's life around. One, he has a brother and a sister that he has never known, and, two, a fellow's got to make his piece.
Then we jump into an extended flashback in which his mother, a poor girl named Hannah Ruth Bayless, turns out to be the real protagonist of the novel. Hannah Ruth, whose only resources in life are her beauty and her wonderful voice, follows in the footsteps of so many heroines of southern fiction and marries a no-good man, Douglas Crider, who spends his time burglarizing the houses of the rich and drinking. He is gone more than he is present, but he does leave her something to remember him by: her son, Joe, who is born blind.
Hannah Ruth works as a maid for a rich family, the Holts, whose troubled son Emmett rapes her, gets her pregnant and then has nothing to do with her. The Holt's daughter, Amelia, is very taken with Hannah's talent and raises the baby as her own.
Hannah now has two children, one being raised by her mother, the other by her friend and patron. She passively accepts this situation, as she has nearly everything that has happened to her. With these developments, Blind Singer Joe's Blues moves into its real themes: the consequences of abandonment and the longing for connection, and Robert Love Taylor skillfully moves each character toward the epiphanies and the fates that await them.
Blind Singer Joe's Blues is the real thing. It's a book that goes deep and continues to send back reverberations.
by Michael Scott Cain