August Wilson and Musicology
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about fictionalized music history and its place in musicology. I’m thinking in part about traditional Hollywood bio-pics that take significant dramatic license in the portrayal of their subject, be it Mozart or Edith Piaf. I’m thinking in part about the anecdote-based biographies of most American musicians prior to the rise of Americanist studies following the bicentennial, be it Gershwin or Louis Armstrong. And today I’m thinking about August Wilson (1945-2005), whose music-historical work shares aspects of both.
Wilson, an African American playwright, is best known for his Pittsburgh Cycle–an epic ten-play chronicle of black experience in twentieth-century America. Each of his plays portrays the historic and social currents of a particular decade, ever conscious of slavery and its legacy in America. I’ve been a fan of his work since encountering it as an undergraduate at Colorado College and was fortunate to have Wilson as a commencement speaker when I received my masters from University of Washington.* What makes his work especially interesting to me (and musicology) is the role of music in his shows. More than a simple diegetic/non-diegetic device, music–the blues in particular–functions as a character, influencing and guiding the action on stage.
At the same time, Wilson’s shows provide a narrative history of the blues over the course of the twentieth century. Stanford drama professor Henry Elam notes that for Wilson, the blues “functions as both metaphor and metonym, as vehicles for cultural transmission and re-memberance” (The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson, 29). As such, each installment of the Pittsburgh Cycle offers a socially situated history of the blues via the explication of a specific time and place.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984)–the first play of the cycle to be completed and perhaps its most popular–offers an unambiguous case in point. The show is Wilson’s fictionalized account of the real 1927 recording session at which Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and her band recorded the song from which the play takes its title. It deals with the realities of southern, black musicians as they navigate the northern, white-controlled music industry.
This play provides musicological value in its engagement with the subject herself. In 1976, when Wilson first began writing this show, little, if anything had been written about the music or career of Ma Rainey. Many of her recordings were out of print and due to Bessie Smith’s greater popularity; Rainey’s legacy was quickly fading. Like the Cakewalk in the century before, the Black Bottom was appropriated by the music industry during the 1920s. The “cleaned up” version that was repackaged for consumption by white audiences little resembled the original. In a sense, Wilson’s play is not only an African American reclamation of the dance, but also the song, Ma Rainey, and ultimately the blues.
At the same time, the show presents an ethnography, albeit fictional. There is no actual account of the 1927 recording session that produced “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” All we have as musicologists is the record itself. However, Wilson transforms this three minute and eight second recording and into a two hour and forty-five minute meditation on the African American experience in the popular music industry of the 1920s.
Like the collages of Romare Bearden, August Wilson’s plays are only given full form through the assemblage of the torn voices of his characters. Despite the centrality of the title character in the show and song, the individual musicians of the band provide much of dialogue. Before Rainey’s arrival at the studio, as the band sets up and rehearses, they chat about how to earn a living, argue over performance practice (do they record the blues in Rainey’s traditional, down-tempo, “countrified” way, or, in the modern, up-tempo, “hot” style?), and trade verbal fours over the concept and importance of the blues. Wilson’s carefully constructed conversation–a must read if you are not familiar with his work–revives the memory of this recording session. He provides a frank, gritty, and historically informed account that not only reveals much about the characters and their situations, but maintains their natural flow of conversation.
In Race Music, Guy Ramsey uses “notions of memory and history” embedded in the conversations of his family as the “basis for understanding the creation and the generation of meaning in African American popular music of the contemporary moment” (xii). Might musicologists turn to Wilson’s plays in a similar way? Our natural inclination as historians is to discount, if not completely disregard fictionalized musical-historical accounts. The 2006 film Copying Beethoven, with its 26% Tomatometer rating, is one recent example. However, the anecdotal biography that emerges from Wilson’s show involves little more “fabrication” than that of many other popular musicians and events memorialized long after the fact by non-musicologists. At the heart of this pseudo-ethnography are a set of concerns and observations ultimately voiced by the very real August Wilson. Wilson’s re-presentations not only capture a past for which we might not otherwise have a narrative, the style in which they are written provides a sense of the creative atmosphere in which the musical work emerged. These “fake” narratives surely enhance our conception of the “real” music created by these and many other otherwise voiceless artists from the time period.
* It was just after the start of the Iraq war and I will never forget how brazenly Wilson declared: “The Emperor has no clothes.”