Blues music in American history and identity



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The title of Sherman Alexie’s first novel, Reservation Blues, sums up the two central themes that reverberate throughout the story: reservation life and the particular, peculiar status of blues music in American history and identity. The novel follows the story of a Native American blues rock band based near Spokane, Washington, whose rise and fall is dictated, at least partially, by the cursed guitar of blues legend Robert Johnson. However, Alexie’s use of the blues is not as strictly literal, because he uses the particular rhythms and identities of the blues in order to explore contemporary Native American life. By comparing and contrasting Alexie’s presentation of the Native American history and culture with his use of the blues, it is possible to see how the novel argues for a kind of hybrid identity that is based in a pre-American culture but which nevertheless reconstitutes itself through distinctly American forms of representation and meaning. In particular, this analysis helps reveal how the novel uses its discussion of the Native American experience and the blues in order to simultaneously explore the symmetry between the Native American and African-American experience while highlighting the contrast between the Native American conception of place and history and those spaces and histories defined by a dominant, white America.


Before getting into the novel in detail, it will helpful to outline the primary metaphorical relationships that exist in the novel between three different ideas of culture, identity, and space. Reservation Blues can be seen as a study of the American melting pot, but one that specifically focuses on the categories of Native American or Indian, black, and white (there are further divisions between Native American tribes, but these distinctions are less relevant to the specific focus of this study). These categories are in flux throughout the novel, and the interactions and intersections are what make up the bulk of the story’s deeper content.


On the one hand there is a natural convergence between the Native American and African-American experience, because in both instances a distinctly white, European culture and history have dictated the scope and content of that experience through colonial domination even as both Native American and African-American subjectivities are informed by histories that extend back well beyond the colonization of America. This is arguably the most obvious cultural relationship in the novel, because there are simply obvious “similarities between the social and economic conditions of African-Americans and American Indians” (Andrews 137). At the same time, however, there is contrast set up between Native American and white American culture, because the experience of the story’s African-American character serves as a kind of mutually-shared node wherein Native American and white American influence is felt and expressed. As a result, an analysis of the novel’s use of the blues in its depiction of a contemporary Native American experience means looking at the way these cross-linked cultural and historical relationships are rendered and explored.


These categories are helpfully elucidated in the essay “The Cycle of Removal and Return: A Symbolic Geography of Indigenous Literature,” which talks about “the Symbolic Reservation” in the same sense as “the Symbolic South and the Symbolic North” (Teuton 48). In the essay, Christopher Teuton notes that “just as the Symbolic South and the Symbolic North are mutually defined by their relationship to the history of African-American slavery, the Symbolic Reservation and the Symbolic City exist in a dialectical relationship shaped by the impact of Western colonialism in North America” (Teuton 48). While one could easily conduct a reading of Reservation Blues focused on the Symbolic Reservation and the Symbolic City, what is most interesting for this study is the parallel that emerges between the reservation and the South, because it is here that the novel does its most interesting work by cross-referencing concepts and categories that would otherwise have existed in their own dichotomies, i.e. South v. North or Reservation v. City.


The novel essentially takes what has frequently been conceived of as two distinct relationships (black-white and Indian-white) and demonstrates how these relationships are actually two points in a larger, triangular interaction between all three categories, an interaction that defines the American experience as a whole. By reframing these relationships, the novel is able to simultaneously demonstrate the extent to which Native and African-American experiences have been controlled and constrained by white America while revealing the hidden interactions across categories. In turn, this confrontation with historical constraint and cultural cross-pollination reveals a shared language that can help redefine a new kind of hybrid Native American identity for the contemporary world.


Even though Reservation Blues is Sherman Alexie’s first novel, it is actually the second time he has written about the Spokane Indian Reservation, with the first being his collection of short stories entitled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Kraztert & Richey 5). The novel mostly takes place in the small reservation town of Wellpinit, and the setting is an important part of the novel’s blending of Native American subjectivity and the blues because the blues themselves are so deeply tied to a specific geographic location, namely, the American South. As will be seen, the town of Wellpinit is both unique to the reservation and a kind of reconstitution of the South, because although the exact same racial and cultural issues experienced by black blues musicians in the South are not directly transplanted to the reservation, the residents of Wellpinit nevertheless experience their own form of segregation and discrimination.


Almost immediately the novel draws a connection between the reservation and the American South with Robert Johnson’s arrival in Wellpinit. Specifically, the novel details how Johnson “strolled to the crossroads near the softball diamond, with its solitary grave hidden in deep center field” (Alexie 3). This line is important for the novel’s treatment of location and setting because Johnson himself is famous in American folklore for having sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in the South, supposedly in return for his seemingly supernatural guitar ability (Ford 198). This image is repeated again when Thomas first meets Johnson and asks him if he knows where he is, to which Johnson replies that he is “at the crossroad,” and “his words sounded like stones in his mouth and coals in his stomach” (Alexie 5). Johnson has come to Wellpinit to reclaim his soul, and thus the crossroads represent both a mirror of the original crossroads of legend as well as a new point of departure.


In his essay “Sherman Alexie’s indigenous blues,” Douglas Ford notes the recurrence of crossroads throughout Reservation Blues and identifies them as “a crossroads similar to those in the blues, a juncture where we can see an indigenous Native American oral tradition still at work, but now in a hybrid form, informed by the other discursive forms that have crossed its path” (Ford 198). While Ford’s observation is astute in that he recognizes how the novel constitutes these crossroads as distinctly Native American crossroads, it is nevertheless insufficient because it ignores the symmetry the novel relies on by suggesting that these crossroads are strictly points of interaction between histories. In reality, these crossroads serve as both a point of interaction and hybridity between Native American and black experiences and identities and a point of contrast between Native American and white spaces and meaning.


Specifically, even though the novel is mostly about Thomas and the Coyote Springs, it nevertheless begins, like Robert Johnson’s original legend, with Johnson standing at a crossroads. This is an important detail because it marks Johnson, rather than a Native American character, as the figure precipitating the changes that reverberate through the reservation, even as it is the reservation and its people that are able to change Johnson’s fate. In doing so, the novel suggests that these Wellpinit crossroads should be taken as a commentary on the original crossroads themselves in addition to being seen as a point of interaction between Johnson and the Native American population. In this way, the crossroads simultaneously represent a cross between African-American and Native American culture in the sense of a meeting or blending as well as a cross between Native American and white American culture in the sense of a perpendicular divergence.


Thus, the crossroads of Wellpinit are not merely Native American crossroads existing in a vacuum, but rather represent a kind of native crossroad that offers the potential for genuine freedom, rather than the false promise of white America presented to Johnson at the legend’s original crossroads. The novel implicitly contrasts the crossroads of the American South, deep in the country ruled by white Americans, with the crossroads of the American Northwest that lie in the heart of the Native American’s little remaining territory. Instead of meeting the devil at the crossroads of Wellpinit, Johnson meets Thomas Builds-the-Fire, and instead of losing his soul, he is given the opportunity to get it back. All at once the crossroads of the Native American reservation offer a point of meeting between Native American and African-American history and a point of divergence between Native American and white American influence.


That the novel presents the crossroads of Wellpinit as a potentially hopeful point in space that offer a chance at redemption instead of damnation is important, because for the most part, life on the reservation is neither hopeful nor redemptive. The space of the reservation is a space where “death, alcohol, poverty, book-burning, and child abuse find their place,” and everyday life is not conducive to hope or the possibility of change due to the centuries-long legacy of colonialism (Meredith 446; Evans 52). This too serves as both a contrast between the American South and Native American space while highlighting a convergence between Native American and African-American experiences, because although the bleak life of the reservation and the experience of a black man in the South are both the result of a dominant white culture, the novel nevertheless suggests that the space of the reservation still retains some kind of autonomy of spirit that never truly existed for blacks living in the South.


Even though the American South includes a large African-American population, and the blues legacy that Johnson represents in the novel is a distinctly African-American invention, blacks in the South nevertheless have always existed in a space entirely determined by white culture and suffused with white history. This is why Johnson’s original crossroads lead him to lose his soul; he is at a crossroads in the country of colonized America, where the only options available are those that cost far too much. In contrast, because the space of the reservation is a space dictated by a culture that precedes the colonization of continent, it is able to offer something more hopeful. Even though the limits of the reservation were decided by white Americans, and even though the social and economic problems facing the reservation are ultimately the result of policies decided by white Americans, the space of the reservation nevertheless represents a connection to a history and a past that extends “for thousands of years,” well before the arrival of any European (Alexie 5).


It makes perfect sense, then, that the central character of the story is Thomas Builds-the-Fire, because Thomas represents a link to this earlier past more than any other character except Big Mom, who seems to represent the wellspring of history and knowledge from which Thomas draws his stories. Having “counseled, healed, and taught music to the biggest names of rock ‘n’ roll,” as well as lived on a hill above Wellpinit for longer than anyone knows, Big Mom functions as the unrestrained history of both the Spokane people and American music in general, while Thomas serves as the channel by which this history is expressed to the contemporary world (Andrews 142). In a sense, then, Thomas himself represents a kind of narrative crossroad, where the history of African-American blues meets the legacy of Native American spirituality and community.


Even though it is Victor who gets Johnson’s guitar and thus seemingly inherits his demonic skill and the meteoric rise it brings, it is Thomas who actually brings the band together, and it is Thomas who is responsible for their lyrics (Alexie 296). Thomas is the heart and soul of the band, even if Victor is the flair and ostensible skill. This is an important detail because it suggests that the true importance of the blues comes not from the technical skill of the guitar, but rather the history and identity revealed through the individual’s emotional investment in a story-telling song.


Because Thomas is channeling this emotional investment, he is the one who ultimately serves as the locus of the novel, as he is the one who sees past the appeal of the guitar and actually understands why the blues are important as form of collective relief. The guitar, while ostensibly responsible for both Johnson and Victor’s success, actually serves to hinder expression and recollection. For example, the novel relates how there are “sings that [Johnson] loved but could not sing” because of the curse associated with the guitar, and the only hope for hearing these songs again is a reconnection with a truer, older history that predates the introduction of white colonization and domination (Alexie 7). The hopeful power of the blues lies not in the form’s blistering technical requirements, which are rendered in the novel as literally burning fingers, but rather in the blues’ ability to voice “the personal catastrophes [the] characters experience collectively,” such that they can express “a tragic history shared by many at once” (Ford 199). Paradoxically, then, the blues are able to serve as a positive, uplifting force precisely because they express tragedy, but a tragedy whose weight falls not on the individual, but rather the collective.


This is why the novel’s ending, though undoubtedly tragic, could not truly be called sad or hopeless. Junior dies, the Coyote Springs break up, and the Native American band is dismissed in favor of a white appropriation and commodification of their history and culture. Nevertheless, the novel offers some small bit of hope, because the history of Native and African-Americans is recalled and reinforced through the performative release of music. Even if this music cannot ultimately find a place within white culture, by incorporating the blues into the native history of the reservation, Thomas is able to provide his community with a new language for expressing their collective experience in an augmented, hybrid form that simultaneously celebrates their exclusive experience while drawing on the common experiences of disadvantaged peoples.


Thus, the return to the reservation that occurs after the band’s failure in New York, while ultimately tragic and bittersweet, is not a return to the past, but rather a recontextualization of that past within a contemporary, hybrid experience. By the end of the novel, while the remaining members of Coyote Springs have failed to achieve the kind of success they might have hoped for initially, they nevertheless have been forced to reconsider their own identities and histories within the complex interplay of cultures that dictate their lives. This process is especially crucial for Thomas, because as a storyteller he cannot help but consider the intersection between individual narrative and collective history. Ultimately, the novel suggests that what truly matters are stories, and particularly the stories that make up the shared experiences of a people or culture.


Reservation Blues is first and foremost a novel about identity, and how individual identity is the unique, personal story made up from pieces of the collective story created and shared by a community. In the novel, Sherman Alexie uses the lore of African-American blues music in order to explore both the experiences common to Native and African-Americans as well as the stark differences between what is offered or imposed by a white American culture and the older, more essentially community provided by Native American recollection. By reconstituting what had heretofore been considered strictly binary relationships between racial and ethnic categories, the novel is able to paint a much more complex picture of contemporary Native American life and experience than has previously been possible within American culture. The history of the blues provides a shared musical and metaphorical language that can help express the collective experiences of Native Americans, and the rise and fall of the Coyote Springs allow the main characters to internalize and understand that shared language in a way previously made impossible by the legacy of white oppression.


Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. Reservation Blues. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005.

Andrews, Scott. “A New Road and a Dead End in Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues.” The Arizona Quarterly 63.2 (2007): 137-53.

Evans, Stephen F. “Open Containers”: Sherman Alexie’s Drunken Indians.” American Indian Quarterly 25.1 (2001): 46-72.

Ford, Douglas. “Sherman Alexie’s Indigenous Blues.” MELUS 27.3 (2002): 197-215.

Kratzert, Mona, and Debora Richey. “Native American Literature: Expanding the Canon.” Collection Building 17.1 (1998): 4-15.

Meredith, Howard. “Native American — Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie.” World Literature Today 70.2 (1996): 446-.

Teuton, Christopher B. “The Cycle of Removal and Return: A Symbolic Geography of Indigenous Literature.” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies 29.1 (2009): 45-64.

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