"You Just Can't Keep a Good Woman Down": Alice Walker sings the blues

"You Just Can't Keep a Good Woman Down": Alice Walker sings the blues
Maria V. Johnson
African American Review

Oh - Just can't keep a real good woman down

If you throw me down here Papa, I rise up in some other town (Miller)

Alice Walker has been profoundly influenced and inspired both by African American music and musicians and by writers whose work is grounded in music and in the expressive folk traditions of African Americans. Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and the blues music of blues women like Bessie Smith rank among Walker's most significant musical/literary influences.(1) In her words,

Music is the art I most envy... musicians [are] at one with their cultures and their historical subconscious. I am trying to arrive at that place where Black music already is; to arrive at that unself-conscious sense of collective oneness; that naturalness, that (even when anguished) grace. (In Search 259, 264)
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Zora Neale Hurston, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith form a sort of unholy trinity. Zora belongs in the tradition of black women singers, rather than among "the literati" .... Like Billie and Bessie she followed her own road, believed in her own gods, pursued her own dreams, and refused to separate herself from the "common" people. (In Search 91)

These influences are most clearly seen in works like the short story "Nineteen Fifty-five," from her 1981 collection You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down, and in her novel The Color Purple. In "Nineteen Fifty-five" and The Color Purple, Walker "talks back" to blues musicians and writers, signifying extensively on Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God as well as on specific musical pieces of several singer/composers. In signifying, following Henry Louis Gates's usage, Walker "repeats with a difference" (xxii-xxiii, xxvii) traditional material, revising and personalizing it, giving, in the words of Sherley Anne Williams, "a traditional statement about a traditional situation a new response" (37). In "Nineteen Fifty-five" Walker begins to explore the significance of the female blues singer and the blues she sings - for creative artists like herself, for others in the community, and for the society as a whole. This exploration is continued in The Color Purple, where Walker probes in more detail the role of the blues woman as a model and catalyst for change in her community.

In "Nineteen Fifty-five" and The Color Purple, Walker employs the character, language, structure, and perspective of the blues to celebrate the lives and works of blues women, to articulate the complexity of their struggles, and to expose and confront the oppressive forces facing Black women in America. In her portraits of blues women, Walker shows us the vitality, resiliency, creativity, and spirituality of African American women, illuminating the core aesthetic concepts which have been crucial to their survival in a society that has largely used and abused them for its own purposes. Indeed, in Walker's works, African American women performers and their performances symbolize vitality and aliveness, and the will and spirit not only to endure but potentially to flourish. The blues woman, whose song is true to her own experience and rooted in the values and beliefs of the community, empowers those who love her and effects change in those around her. Her outer struggles and inner conflicts reflect issues of oppression in society as they have been internalized within the community.

In addition to blues characters, Walker employs blues forms, themes, images, and linguistic techniques. Her forms - letters and diary entries - are like blues stanzas in their rich compactness and self-containedness; like blues pieces, her works take shape from the repetition and variation of these core units. Walker's focus on the complexities and many-sidedness of love and relationship repeats the subject of many blues. As in Their Eyes and the blues, paradox and contradiction are explored in the context of relationships, projected via responses to the "traditional situations" of these relationships and articulated using contrast and oppositional structures. The blues women's motto "You can't keep a good woman down," which is at the heart of "Nineteen Fifty-five," also resonates the struggles and triumphs of many women in The Color Purple. In both "Nineteen Fifty-five" and The Color Purple, Walker repeats and varies many of the core oppositions, blues images, and linguistic techniques Hurston employs in Their Eyes. Finally, Walker uses singing and laughter as metaphors for voice, and uses core songs both to encapsulate primary themes and to mark significant points in the structure and thematic development of these pieces. In this essay, I explore Alice Walker's use of the blues in the short story "Nineteen Fifty-five," leaving a detailed examination of the blues in The Color Purple for a forthcoming article.

In her title, dedication, and epigraph to You Can't Keep A Good Woman Down (1981), Walker both encapsulates the essence of the theme which unites the stories in the volume and alludes to the signifyin(g) relationship of her work, particularly the story "Nineteen Fifty-five," to the lives and work of several others from the past. Walker's reference to "Mamie Smith and Perry (You Can't Keep A Good Man Down) Bradford" in her dedication is particularly important for several reasons. First, it alludes to an historical event that was especially significant in both African American and American music history. Mamie Smith's recording of "You Can't Keep A Good Man Down," coupled with "This Thing Called Love," made on February 14, 1920, is the first documented recording of a Black woman singer (Southern 365). Perry Bradford was the composer and Smith's manager as well. The immediate and overwhelming commercial success of this recording led directly to more recordings by Mamie Smith, along with the recording of numerous other African American women singers, thereby ushering in the era of the so-called "classic" blues. Second, Walker's allusion evokes the ironic story behind this recording, celebrating the remarkable feat of Bradford himself. It was due to the determination and unflagging persistence of African American song writer and entrepreneur Perry Bradford (whose nickname was "Mule") that this historic recording happened. The white managers at Okeh Records, after finally agreeing to record his songs, opposed Bradford's choice of a Black singer; they urged him to have the popular white singer and imitator of African American styles, Sophie Tucker, sing his songs. Fortunately, at the last minute Sophie Tucker could not be there; Mamie Smith was called in and history was made (Lieb 20, Albertson 34; see also Bradford).
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