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"Preachin' the Blues": Bessie Smith's secular religion and Alice Walker's 'The Color Purple.'

A blues singer known as "Shug" Avery sweeps through Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple, bestowing her favors and her scorn capriciously, giving voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and money to the poor. She transforms the life of Celie, the novel's protagonist, through a "blues conversion" of the type advocated by Bessie Smith in her song "Preachin' the Blues." Shug, like Bessie Smith, forges a strong bond with her audiences and gives voice to the "spirit of the blues" in order to bring relief to less articulate sufferers. But more importantly, she encourages Celie and other opporessed women in the novel to express themselves and stand up for their rights. Shug Avery also crosses the social boundaries that often restricted the women of her society, making possible the gender role reversals that bring about the book's happy ending. Just as Bessie Smith did in "Preachin' the Blues," Shug Avery promises her followers a new relationship between the individual and the world, one based on an understanding of the holiness of all living things and the spiritual power of the spoken word.

Considering Shug Avery in the context of West African beliefs as they are expressed in the blues of Bessie Smith will shed new light on Celie's metamorphosis from a passive victim to a confident woman. Understandably, most critics have focused on Celie's metamorphosis and have discussed Shug's role as a "catalyst" who causes a powerful reaction.(1) Those who consider the novel a "fairy tale" describe Shug as a "fairy godmother" who arrives disguised as a "wicked witch" (Walsh 94). Although "fairy-tale" readings are more convincing than those given by critics who try to force the novel into a "realistic" mold and then complain when it won't fit, these readings, by stressing the European form of the story, tend to divert attention from its African-American content.(2) Some psychoanalytic critics refer to Shug as a "nurse" and a "mother-imago" (Ross 76, 79), or a "mother surrogate" for Celie (Proudfit 24), and others suggest that Shug functions as a role-model (e.g., Kelly, Water-Dawson). Delores Williams, as part of her project to use "the works of black women writers ... to assess the theological and ethical significance of black women's social and religious experience," cites Shug as an example of the "catalyst and moral-agent model" (88). All of these approaches illuminate important aspects of Shug's role in the novel, but even Williams and Kelly, who are interested in Celie's religious transformation, do not consider the African origins of Shug's theology. Both Bessie Smith and Shug Avery can be considered "children," or followers, of Legba, a West African spirit closely associated with musicians, who opens the door to the spiritual world and provides opportunities for the social and psychological growth of the individual.(3)

Although it is relatively easy to identify the African features which survive in African-American music, it is more difficult to trace the influence of African beliefs about the spiritual power of music. However, the controversy over the supposedly evil influence of blues and jazz suggests that African beliefs remained strong even after most African Ameircans had adopted Christianity. Since the white man's religion confined the spiritual power of music to the churches and regarded secular music as dangerous and often sinful, the spiritual power of African-derived secular music was condemned as the work of the devil. If we keep African beliefs about music in mind as we consider the statements of musicians and the lyrics of their songs, we should better understand how blues and jazz came to be considered evil by some and holy by others.

Underneath the borrowed English phrases, the blues sustains a fundamentally African world view. When Bessie Smith sang, "Good morning Blues, Blues how do you do?" she was describing an encounter with an orisha in human form, and her song is meant to amplify the power of her personal nommo, or word, to meet the challenge posed by this force.(4) This is not to say that Bessie Smith, or other blues singers, were consciously aware of the connections between their battle with the blues and the struggle of West Africans with the orishas; nevertheless the sometimes bewildering lyrics of many blues songs can be understood more fully in the context of West African philosophy, which views the cosmos as an intricate network of spiritual and physical forces in which intelligent beings, or Muntu, exert their power over lower forms of life through nommo. The ancient orishas, such as Legba and Shango, are the most powerful of the Muntu, but the spirits of the ancestors and living humans can influence the world through nommo to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the power of their magara, or life force (Jahn, Muntu 114-16).

Having for the most part forgotten the old names of the orishas, African Americans adopted an English word, blues, to invoke the source of all their afflictions. The term has been traced back to seventeenth-century England, where malevolent spirits were called "blue devils" (Murray, Stomping 64). These "blue devils" provided the closest available analog in English for the West African concept of orishas, suggesting that Africans carefully chose certain elements of European culture that helped them preserve their African world view. Yet the two concepts are not equivalent, since devils are unremittingly evil, while orishas are less predictable and may bring good or bad fortune depending on the circumstances. This distinction will become important later when we consider why most Christians condemned the blues, but the connection between blue devils and orishas suggests that certain blues songs may be better understood in the context of West African belief.

Often the blues singer addresses "the Blues," or "Mr. Blues," directly, just as an afflicted person in West Africa would address the orisha he or she suspected of causing the difficulty. Often the singer greets "Mr. Blues" like an old acquaintance whose unanticipated return brings misery rather than pleasure:

Howdy, Mister Blues,

where have you been so long? (twice)

I've been telling everybody

that you were long gone.

Tell me, Mister Blues,

how long did you come to stay? (twice)

Please go right now,

you gonna drive my baby away.(5)

A survey of Michael Taft's three-volume Blues Lyric Poetry: A Concordance reveals fifteen songs that appeal directly to "the Blues" for relief, including examples from Mississippi Delta bluesmen such as Son House and Robert Johnson, as well as "Classic" blues singers Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, and Bessie Smith (360-68). These songs, and many others, create an image of the blues as an active character with human traits. The blues is often described as "walking like a man." Kokomo Arnold and several other singers use similar words to recount the unnerving experience of having "the blues come down the alley, headed up to my back door." All of these references suggest that the blues is much more than just a feeling of depression. The blues is a supernatural force that can take on human characteristics and possess its victims, just like a West African orisha. Arthur Petties described the situation in terms identical to those used in Africa for spirit-possession: "Heart full of sorrow now: blues are all riding you."(6)

Secular singers frequently trespassed in spiritual areas that orthodox Christians held to be sacrosanct. For example, Bessie Smith pointed out the connections between religious ritual and singing the blues in a 1927 recording called "Preachin' the Blues." Like most blues, the lyrics are in the first person, but in the middle of the song the point of view shifts from an avid listener to the singer of the song. The listener welcomes the blues as an expression of her own disappointment in love, and her exhortation to "Moan them blues! Holler them blues!" is answered by the blues singer.

Down in Atlanta, G. A.,

Under the viaduct every day,

Drinkin' corn and hollerin' "hooray,"

Piano's playin' till the break of day.

But as I turn my head,

I loudly said:

Preach them blues!

Sing them blues!

They certainly sound good to me.

I been in love for the last six months,

And ain't done worryin' yet.

Moan them blues!

Holler them blues!

Let me convert your soul.

Just a little spirit of the blues tonight,

Let me tell you girls if your man ain't

treatin' you right.(7)

It has often been noted that, when a blues singer refers to her own troubles, these personal difficulties resonate for members of the audience who have had similar experiences, so that personal expression becomes collective expression.(8) But "Preachin' the Blues" makes the connection between singer and audience more explicit. In the first eleven lines, Bessie Smith describes herself as a woman who is "worryin'" about a mistreating man. She has taken refuge in a dive that offers two popular forms of solace--alcohol and music--and she cries out for a song to express her mood. These lines place Bessie in the audience and establish her as the victim of an all-toocommon misfortune. Before her audience has had an opportunity to identify with her, she has identified herself with them and established her right to sing the blues. The following lines remain in the first person, but now Bessie Smith adopts the persona of the singer/conjurer who can evoke the "spirit of the blues" and "convert your soul." This sudden shift in point of view stresses the essential links between Bessie and her audience: She is one of them, and their troubles are her troubles.

Like an African priestess, Bessie Smith links her followers to spiritual power.(9) She also provides sage advice on earthly matters:

Let me tell you, I don't mean no wrong.

I will learn you something if you listen

to this song.

I ain't here to try to save your soul,

Just want to teach you how to save

your good jelly roll.

The line "I ain't here to try to save your soul" may seem like a nonsensical contradiction, since it follows "Let me convert your soul," but taken in context it points to a distinction between the spiritual domain of the blues and conventional Christian preaching. Bessie Smith's "blues conversion" is a profound transformation of the individual, but unlike a Christian conversion, which begins a new accord between the individual and God, the "blues conversion" begins a new relationship between the individual and the world. Bessie's preaching promises that the change in attitude resulting from the "blues conversion" will bring earthly rewards, like a "good jelly roll" (sex). This notion of spiritual power as a force that can be harnessed to improve the lives of individuals is closer to the African concepts of nommo and magara than it is to conventional Christian doctrine. With this distinction in mind, the apparent contradiction between "Let me convert your soul" and "I ain't here to try to save your soul" becomes clear. Bessie Smith is preaching a fundamentally African doctrine of redemption through the power of nommo.

Although the distinction between the African and Christian world views is vital to an understanding of this song, so are the connections between singing the blues and preaching. Some of the advice that Bessie Smith dispenses is conventional and would be considered appropriate in a sermon: "Taking other women's men you are doing a sin." But the deeper connection between Bessie's blues and preaching springs from the power they share to move the human spirit. The song ends with these two lines which sum up the connections in a memorable image:

Oh, one old sister, by the name of Sister


Jumped up and done a shimmy

like you ain't never seen.

The use of the epithet sister and the lady's age suggest that this scene takes place in a church, but the "shimmy" was a notorious dance, actually outlawed in some areas, that caused scandals in the early nineteen twenties.(10) The rest of the song provides no clues about whether Sister Green was responding to a lively sermon or a stirring blues performance. The point is that it doesn't matter, for the result is the same--spiritual ecstasy expressed in dance. By juxtaposing the language of the church and the dance hall, Bessie Smith extends the realm of the sacred to include blues singing, sexual relations, and dancing, in a manner more consistent with West African religions than with Christianity.

Observers often noted that Bessie Smith's performances had all the fervor of a revival meeting. As Danny Barker recalled:

If you had any church background, like people who came from the South as I did, you would recognize a similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists from there did, and how they moved people.... She, in a sense, was like people like Billy Graham are today. Bessie was in a class with those people. She could bring about mass hypnotism. (Shapiro and Hentoff 243)

Bessie's biographer, Chris Albertson, reminds us that she grew up in "a religious household," and he quotes drummer Zutty Singleton, who met Bessie while he was with the house band at the Lyric Theater in New Orleans: "She was real close to God, very religious.... That's why her blues seemed almost like hymns" (130).

Like Bessie Smith, the blues singer Shug Avery in The Color Purple crosses the boundaries which usually separate the sacred and the profane by bringing the spiritual power of music to her ostensibly secular performances. Through the sheer force of her personality she transforms the life of Celie, the novel's protagonist, bringing about a "blues conversion" that allows her to take charge of her own destiny.

Brutally raped at age fourteen by the man she believes to be her father, Celie reveals the horrors of her life with remarkable economy and power in a series of letters addressed to God, because she has been forbidden to tell her story to anyone else. Her mother died "screaming and cussing," tormented by suspicions that her husband was the father of Celie's child. Shortly after her child is born, "it" disappears, and Celie believes that the man she calls "Pa" has killed the child "out there in the woods" (4). Celie is soon pregnant again, and her second child, "a boy this time," also disappears, but Celie suspects that Pa has sold him "to a man an his wife over Monticello" (5). Pa already has his eyes on Celie's younger sister Nettie, who is also being pursued by a widower referred to as Mr. _____. At first Celie opposes the marriage, hoping that her sister can escape the trap that claimed their mother, but with the threat from Pa's unrestrained lust increasing every day, she soon decides that it would be better for her sister to marry, escape Pa, and "try to have one good year out [her] life. After that, I know she be big" (7). But Pa has other ideas, and in the world Celie describes in these first few letters, men make decisions and women make adjustments. Pa wants Mr. _____ to marry Celie, and to sweeten the deal he is willing to throw in a cow, but Mr. _____ takes months to make up his mind because his heart is set on the more attractive Nettie.

During the humiliating negotiations between Pa and Mr. _____, Celie overhears Pa ask, "... What about all this stuff ... bout Shug Avery?" The name fascinates Celie, but at first she doesn't even realize that it belongs to a woman: "What it is? I ast." When Pa's new wife shows Celie a picture of the blues singer, her fascination deepens:

Shug Avery was a woman. The most beautiful woman I ever saw. She more pretty then my mama. She bout ten thousand times more prettier then me. I see her there in furs. Her face rouge. Her hair like somethin tail. She grinning with her foot up on somebody motorcar. Her eyes serious tho. Sad some. (8)

Celie mentions that this is the first picture of "a real person I ever seen," and Shug's beauty and wealth open her eyes to possibilities that her life thus far has given her little chance to contemplate. Although the women seem to inhabit different worlds, the expression of melancholy determination in the singer's eyes connects them and gives Celie the strength to endure as Pa and Mr. _____ haggle over her like a used-up piece of liverstock: "I take out the picture of Shug Avery. I look into her eyes. Her eyes say Yeah, it bees that way sometime" (10). On their wedding night, as Celie lies passively beneath Mr. _____, her thoughts again turn to Shug Avery: "I know what he doing to me he done to Shug Avery and maybe she like it. I put my arm around him" (13).

The photo on the pink posters announcing Shug's arrival reveals the singer in her public role: "Her mouth open showing all her teef and don't nothing seem to be troubling her mind." Like some early photos of Bessie Smith, this image of Shug has the singer posed, "standing upside a piano, elbow crook, hand on her hip. She wearing a hat like Indian Chiefs" (24).(11) Shug's elaborate headpiece reminds Celie of an Indian Chief, but in West Africa Legba is often depicted with a feather on his head, symbolizing his power to connect heaven and earth (Thompson 28). Shug shares Legba's powers, and she uses them to transform every aspect of Celie's life. Shug's public persona, summed up by the honorific title "The Queen Honeybee," recalls the many "queens" of the blues who reigned in the twenties and thirties, but the title also calls attention to her role in the novel. This blues "queen" is also a "honeybee" who dreams of living in a round house. Always the center of attention, she finally manages to bring about hive-like order at the end of the story, with both male and female characters peacefully engaged in traditionally female pursuits.

Both photographs portray Shug as a wealthy woman who feels secure about her place in the world. Even during her illness, when the church folk condemn her, she retains her regal bearing, and soon after she returns to her singing career, she is making "so much money she don't know what to do with it." Like a true child of Legba, she spreads the wealth around, buying her new husband Grady "anything he think he want" (95). For Celie, Shug's wealth is one of her least important attributes, but her money makes it possible for them to leave Mr. _____ and establish a new life in Memphis. Shug helps Celie to recognize that her talent for making pants could be turned into a business, showing her the way to financial independence.

Statues of Legba often feature a prominent, erect phallus and female breasts to symbolize the orisha's role in uniting all things, including the two sexes (Thompson 28). Shug's exuberant bisexuality and her disregard for traditional gender roles mark her as a quintessential child of Legba. She awakens Celie's sexual desire for the first time, transforming her from a passive object of the abusive lust of men into an active and joyful participant in the sexual act. Even before the two women meet, Celie feels a strong current of attraction drawing her to the singer, created by the photographs she treasures. Anticipating Shug's appearance at a local jook joint, Celie describes her wish to attend in terms that suggest the first stirrings of desire: "Lord, I wants to go so bad. Not to dance. Not to drink. Not to play card. Not even to hear Shug Avery sing. I just be thankful to lay eyes on her" (25). The desire to see her heroine is strong, but the phrase "lay eyes on her" also suggests an unarticulated desire for physical contact.

Mr. _____ won't allow Celie to attend Shug's performance, but when he brings the siling singer home, Celie's affection finds an outlet in the tender care she gives Shug. When Celie first catches sight of Shug's naked body as she prepares for a bath, she feels as though she "ha[s] turned into a man" (45). In Celie's experience, arousal is a male quality, so the desire to hold a woman makes her feel like a man. With Shug around the house, Celie has her first opportunity to discuss sex openly, and when she admits that she has never felt pleasure in the act, Shug begins an education program designed to make Celie feel more comfortable about her body. She has Celie look at her genitalia in a mirror, and she points out the "button" essential to sexual satisfaction (69-70). Shug helps Celie break through the accumulated pain of her previous sexual experiences by encouraging her to talk about them and by offering the unconditional love that Celie has not experienced since her sister Nettie went away. When the two women make love for the first time, Celie describes the act in terms that show it to be a return to lost innocence: "Then I feels something real soft and wet on my breast, feel like one of my little lost babies mouth. Way after while, I act like a little lost baby too" (97).

While Celie is undergoing a spiritual crisis brought on by the discovery that Mr. _____ has been concealing her sister Nettie's letters, Shug helps Celie to negotiate a new relationship with the world. Shug explains that, although church people consider her a sinner, she has "got religion" too. Celie feels that she has been consistently betrayed by God, whom she imagines as a "big and old and tall and graybearded" white man (165), but Shug teaches her to think of God in a new way, as a force that all people carry inside them, but few recognize. For Shug, "God is everything.... Everything that is or ever was or ever will be" (167), and to discover God, one must look inward. Usually this sort of introspection is prompted by "trouble" and "sorrow"--in other words, the blues--which force the individual to seek new answers to the problems of living in the world. Celie certainly has the blues at this point in the novel, as she recognizes the utter heartlessness of Mr. _____. Shug, like Bessie Smith in her song "Preachin' the Blues," accomplishes a blues conversion by changing Celie's concept of God from a stern white man who demands sacrifice and devotion to an all-encompassing "It" who strives to please people by creating beauty for them to enjoy.

Shug describes her own blues conversion this way:

...My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: the feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all round the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can't miss it. It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh. (167)

For Celie, Shug's equation of spiritual awakening with sexual arousal is shocking. The blues singer's religion includes many ways of praising God that more conventional theologians consider sinful, yet all are in keeping with her basic idea that God wants people to appreciate the good things of the world, including sexual pleasure, music and dancing, the wonders of nature, and "the color purple in a field" (167). Like Bessie Smith, Shug extends the realm of the sacred to include all of creation, and she provides Celie with a bridge to a new spirituality free from the domination of an angry, white, male God.

As part of the blues conversion, Shug introduces Celie to the power of the spoken word. She encourages Celie to talk about the abuse she has suffered at the hands of "Pa" and Mr. _____, and then she demonstrates the benefits of speaking up by demanding that Mr. _____ stop beating Celie. But the real change in their relationship must be made by Celie herself. After she discovers that Mr. _____ has been hiding Nettie's letters, she makes up her mind to go back to Memphis with Shug, who announces the decision to the shocked gathering around the dinner table. Mr. _____ tries to stop Celie from going by saying that if she leaves it will be "over [his] dead body." Celie's pent-up resentment comes flowing out in a stream of words which reveal the thoroughness of the blues conversion brought about by Shug: "You a lowdown dog.... It's time to leave you and enter into the Creation. And your dead body just the welcome mat I need" (170). As they prepare to leave, Mr. _____ tries to stop Celie again by undermining her self-confidence, telling her, "You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam ... you nothing at all." Celie responds like a conjure woman, cursing Mr. _____ with strong words that "seem to come to [her] from the trees."(12) Walker describes Celie as a woman who has gone into a trance to align herself with the powers of nature, which take the form of a "dust devil" arising suddenly on the porch to prevent Mr. _____ from striking her. Shug once again functions as an intermediary. With "one look" at Celie she recognizes that her friend is possessed and that her words carry supernatural force. She warns Mr. _____ to stop provoking Celie, and then she helps Celie to "come to [her]self" (176).

Shug also links Celie with her African heritage by discovering letters, hidden by Mr. _____, which were written by her sister Nettie, who has been living in africa as a missionary to the fictional "Olinka" people. Many critics have complained that the stiff, painfully correct style of the letters detracts from the unity of the novel.(13) Sympathetic readers, searching for a reason for these letters, point out that they "show the connection between culture in Africa and culture in the American South" (Hernton 29) and "suggest the universality of oppression" (Byerman 165) even if, ultimately, the seem "extraneous" to the novel (Hernton 29). However, viewed in the context of the African traditions that shug passes on to Celie, the letters assume greater importance.

Although written in a voice that seems alien after more than a hundred pages of Celie's folk idiom, the letters lend authority to Celie's mature voice as it emerges at the end of the novel. In a passage that is generally ignored, even by crtics who comment on the novel's relationship with religion and history, Celie tells Mr. _____ the Olinka's version of the Adam and Eve story:

... they know who Adam is from they own point of view. And for a whole lot longer time ago.... They say everybody before Adam was balck. Then one day some woman they just right away kill, come out with this colorless baby. They thought at first it was something she ate. But then another one had one and also the women start to have twins. So the people start to put the white babies and the twins to death. So really Adam wasn't even the first white man. He was just the first one the people didn't kill. (231)

In this case, Nettie's account of Olinka belief is rendered in Celie's voice, and it reveals a new stage in her religious evolution. Shug has already helped her stop thinking of God as an old white man, and now Africans, her ancestors, are revealed as the first humans and whites are seen as an aberration rather than the norm.

By revealing Nettie's letters, Shug also helps Celie rewrite her own history. In place of the abusive tyrant she thought was her father, Celie finds a tale of a devoted husband, a successful farmer and shopkeeper, who became a martyr in the struggle against white oppression. This story, which reads like a fairy tale from its first words--"Once upon a time" (148)--forces Celie to re-evaluate almost all of her relationships and leaves her confused:

... I feels daze.

My daddy lynch. My mama crazy. All my little half-brothers and sisters no kin to me. My children not my sister and brother. Pa not pa.

You must be sleep. (151)

Shug rouses her from this troubled sleep and gives her courage to face the past, in the person of Pa, in order to free herself to face the future. Disappointed in her attempt to locate the unmarked graves of her parents, Celie turns to Shug and the two improvise a simple ritual to mark this turning point in her life:

Shug pick up a old horseshoe somebody horse lose. Us took that old horseshoe and us turned round and round together until we was dizzy enough to fall out, and where us would have fell us struck the horseshoe in the ground.

Shug say, Us each other's peoples now, and kiss me. (155-56)

Shug fulfills her role as Celie's "personal Legba" by presiding over the important transitions in her life, and just as the orishas sometimes instruct their devotees by punishing them, Shug accomplishes the final phase of Celie's metamorphosis by withdrawing her love.(14) Celie survives the ensuing battle with the blues and emerges on the other side as a strong, self-reliant woman: "If she come, I be happy. If she don't, I be content. And then I figure this the lesson I was suppose to learn" (240).

Shug has a similar liberating effect on Mary Agnes, a quiet, submissive woman, described by Celie as "like me" (73). Harpo, Mr. _____'s son by his first marriage, calls Mary Agnes "Squeak," and he orders her around as if she were his slave. Shortly after Shug's arrival, "Squeak" begins to sing, and Shug encourages her. The two women sing together in the evenings, and eventually Shug suggests that "Squeak" try singing in public, even though she doesn't have the "big and broad" voice typical of blues singers. Harpo doesn't like the idea of "his woman" singing in public, but Shug overcomes his objections by pointing out how much money they can make. "Squeak" begins by singing Shug's songs, but soon she has achieved enough fluency in African-American musical traditions to sing her own songs, and at this point she insists that Harpo call her by her real name. "Squeak" brings to mind the unpleasant sound of rusty hinges and the inarticulate noises made by a small, frightened animal. Now that Mary Agnes has found her voice and begun creating her own songs to express her experiences, the nickname is an inappropriate reminder of her earlier days as Harpo's "little yellowskin girlfriend" (73). By becoming a daughter of Legba, Mary Agnes has reclaimed the right to define her own identity and make use of the powers she has been given.

Shug Avery sweeps through The Color Purple like a force of nature, encouraging Celie and Mary Agnes to assert themselves and escape the oppression of the men in their lives. Like a West African orisha, Shug is as capricious as she is powerful, and she often chastises her devotees. This daughter of Legba brings love and then withdraws it, teaching the profound lessons of the blues. She not only remakes every aspect of Celie's life, she also rewrites her personal history by discovering Nettie's letters and revealing the true story of Celie's parents. Like Bessie Smith, she expresses African religious concepts in an African-American idiom that is a synthesis of such diverse influences as the blues and the sermon, the work song, the folk tale, and the spiritual, keeping alive the vital connections between the past, the present, and the future.


(1.)For instance, both Watkins and Williams use the term catalyst when discussing Shug.

(2.)Keith Byerman calls The Color Purple a "'womanist' fairy tale," but he also points out that there is no "obvious contradiction" between the fairy tale "and the Afro-American and African materials that enrich the narrative" (162). Although Byerman calls attention to some of these "materials," he does not link Shug with her African-American heritage. For complaints that the novel is insufficiently "realistic," see Harris, Towers, and Pinckney.

(3.)In 1931 Melville and Frances Herskovits recorded a Dahomean myth which explains Legba's pre-eminent position among the vodun (gods or spirits). Long ago the creator presented his seven children with a gong, a bell, a drum, and a flute and said that whoever could play all the instruments and dance at the same time would be the leader of the vodun. Legba's older siblings all tried and failed, but Legba succeeded, and his musical dexterity amde him the messenger and translator of the vodun and the intermediary between humans and these powerful spirits (140). Courlander and Frobenius include myths about Legba in their collections of African folklore, and Robert Farris Thompson has demonstrated Legba's continued vitality in the Americas. Rigaud's study of Haitian voodoo reveals Legba's importance, as do the works of Hyatt, Hurston, and Haskins on hoodoo in the United States. According to Gonzalez-Whippler, in Cuban santeria Legba is known by the Yoruba name Edju, but his varied powers are consistent with those of Legba in other West-Africanbased belief systems.

(4.)In Neo-African Literature, Janheinz Jahn suggests that the blues "demonstrates the attitude caused by the loss of life-force or leading to the gaining of life-force" (172). J. L. Dillard makes a similar argument in his Lexicon of Black English (75-81), as does LeRoi Jones in Blues People (34).

(5.)Lucius Hardy, "Mr. Blues" (Paramount 12598), recorded Dec. 1927, qtd. in Oliver, Blues 305-06.

(6.)"Two Time Blues," recorded in Memphis, 14 Feb. 1928, qtd. in Taft 1:362. The devotees of the bori cult among the Hausa are referred to as "horses" who are "ridden" by the gods. See Besmer. The same terms are used in Haitian voodoo. See Herskovits, Hurston, and Rigaud.

(7.)Bessie Smith, Nobody's Blues But Mine (Columbia CG 31093).

(8.)Variations on this theme can be found in Oliver, Blues 88, and Levine, Black Culture 269-70.

(9.)Ralph Ellison has pointed out the "ritual use" of the blues and cited Bessie Smith as an example of a performer who "might have been a 'blues queen' to society at large, but within the tighter Negro community ... she was a priestess" (257).

(10.)On March 3, 1920 the New York Times reported that the defendant in a libel case wanted to have girls demonstrate how they danced the "shimmy." The judge's response testifies to the dance's great popularity and the disapproval of the establishment: "I wouldn't permit a public demonstration of the dance. The jurors know what it is as well as I do. Such a dance, if permitted, is not fit for any person to indulge in" (2). A year later, the New York Assembly passed the Cotillo bill, also known as the "anti-shimmy bill," which was "designed to license public dance halls in New York and to give the Commissioner of Licenses power to regulate dances" (New York Times 30 Mar. 1921: 7, 13).

(11.)See Albertson for some publicity photos from 1923 which fit this description (49).

(12.)Keith Byerman has also noted that Celie behaves like a "conjure woman" in this scene, and he mentions that Shug "opens for Celie the realm of the unconscious" (166-67).

(13.)For instance, see Harris, Towers, and Watkins.

(14.)For the concept of the "personal Legba," see Thompson 19-22.

Works Cited

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Besmer, Fremont. Horses, Musicians and Gods: The Hausa Cult of Possession-Trance. Hadley: Bergin and Garvey, 1983.

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Author:Marvin, Thomas F.
Publication:African American Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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