November 2013

Colleen Mondor


Play Pretty Blues by Snowden Wright

Blues singer and musician Robert Johnson is the source of the most powerful and prevailing legend in American music: the Crossroads deal with the Devil. Out of a poor childhood in Mississippi, born in 1911, Johnson grew up to romance many women, play many bars, record only twenty-nine songs, and die at age twenty-seven under mysterious circumstances. Lauded by everyone from Keith Richards to Eric Clapton, who refers to him as the "most important blues singer who ever lived" and recorded a CD called Me and Mr. Johnson, Johnson was elected to the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame in its inaugural ballot; his contribution to American music continues to resonate and the power of his legacy (mythic and otherwise) shows no sign of abating.

But this review isn't about any of that.

In Play Pretty Blues, Mississippi native Snowden Wright tells the story of Robert Johnson's life using an unorthodox narrative style that manages to convey the rhythm of the blues in a novel's form. The facts of Johnson's life are here, from the extramarital affair that led to his birth to the tragic death of his first wife in childbirth. But Wright uses a Greek chorus of other women, namely six wives, to lead readers through the book and comment on events as they occur. From Claudette, who serves as the group's archivist, to the despondent and alcoholic Betty, these women observe and endure while revealing Johnson's story, always searching for the truth and mindful of just how much they have been left out of his official biographies. The only way these women could honestly exist is through the forgiveness of fiction. But what Snowden does with them is stunning. Consider this introductory passage to the group, written from the point of view of the unnamed, unknown sixth wife:

Since his death our lives have been guided not merely by our search for the truth but also by our desire for retribution. We have lived in the shadow of a ghost. In the first few years after his demise, some of us migrated north to St. Louis and Chicago, some of us west to Texas and Oklahoma, all in trace of the path taken by his posthumous musical influence. Claudette collected a dossier of evidence of his life and death, including fingerprints, oral accounts, facial sketches, Mason jars of sampled soil, photographs and lithographs and phonographs, vials, beakers, bottles, locks of hair hermetically sealed in Tupperware and Glad-Lock. Mary-Sue, the oldest of us, seduced every headliner she heard cover a Robert Johnson song. Tabitha, the youngest, spent years harassing his murderer's family with coins glued to their porch's floorboards, caps twisted loose on their salt shakers, and staples removed from their Swingline. Betty sought solace in the bottle. Helena, who never forgave herself for not bearing our mutual husband an heir, eventually married a writer of crossword puzzles and gave birth to three boys name anagrams of "Robert Johnson."

The wives become real through such paragraphs, each of them unique individuals bonded solely through their love and devotion to a man none can forget nor ever really knew. They embrace their mutual loss through years of trying to understand him and seek not the limelight but rather a collective easing of unbearable pain. Wright's careful crafting of each "widow" brings Johnson the man to life in an unexpected and deeply human way. The cumulative effect is a broad and emotional epic that possesses the imagination. There is nothing casual or "pop" about this novel and it serves to show just how evocative our cultural touchstones can be.

Clearly, Wright respects Johnson very much, but just as importantly he respects the blues, and he has written a novel that embraces both, something few authors have managed to do. (One notable exception is Michael Ondaatje's gorgeous rendering of jazz great Buddy Bolton's life in Coming Through Slaughter.)

Throughout Play Pretty Blues, Wright weaves together fact and fiction, referencing and quoting from noted books on his subject while slyly shifting names and introducing invented episodes into Johnson's biography. The wives themselves are an unknown quantity but Johnson's reputation of romantic entanglements is not. It is easy to believe this man had six wives, none of which knew about the others. Wright has thus sifted through the scant facts and read between the lines to give readers what might have been. The book is clearly fiction, but it is also steeped in history and all of it -- every last word -- brings readers deeper into the world of the blues that Johnson, and his devil, created.

Play Pretty Blues by Snowden Wright
Engine Books
ISBN 978-1938126109
200 pages