A few Seven Guitars observations: “That’s All Right, Mama”—Floyd Barton’s ostensible song—was originally recorded by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in 1946 in Chicago; it’s Floyd “School Boy” Barton who records it apparently in 1947, a year before the play is set. Crudup stopped recording in the 1950s because of disputes over royalties—said he realized he was making everybody rich but he was poor—and he went back to Mississippi and started selling bootleg instead; Floyd, as well as his fellow musicians, are preoccupied about being poor when everyone they work for is getting rich.
Sara Degree, mentioned in Act I, was a Catholic woman revered in the Hill district who evangelized and took care of black children; and Doc Goldblum, mentioned as a possible source of help for Hedley’s TB, lived across the street from the Kittel/ Wilson home, Ervin Dyer and Monica Hayes, mention in a 2003 Post Gazette A&E article.
Buddy Bolden, the cornetist Hedley was obsessed about, is credited with creating the Big Four, a syncopated bass drum pattern, the second half of which was called the Hambone. Called the father of Jazz, he apparently combined ragtime and the blues, adding brass under the influence of Gospel, to create the new music form. Like Hedley, he became crazy—his alcoholic psychosis evolved into schizophrenia when he was in his 30s, and he spent the rest of his life in the Louisiana State Insane Asylum. (Note: That is the “official” story. Seems awfully young (30) to suffer from alcoholic psychosis. At any rate, Bolden spent the rest of his life, in effect, incarcerated. End note.)
The legendary Sonny Boy Williamson—the original—was also killed in June 1948, the year in which Seven Guitars is set, in a street robbery—one of his first songs and a jazz standard was Good Morning, Schoolgirl. Should we also think of him when we think of Floyd? Williamson played blues harmonica, of course, like Canewell. Sonny Boy Williamson II also played it, for years, with Robert Johnson for King Biscuit radio. The name of his “One Way Out” album recorded in the early ‘50s makes me think of Floyd’s “one way” speech before he commits the robbery.
Floyd is an interesting character, a man who commits a robbery to get the money to do what he wants when he’s incarcerated and cheated by the legal system and the racism that entangled him in it in the first place; a man, like Malcolm X, killed by another black man who could best be described in Floyd’s case as a crazed visionary, in a cutting more fatal than those experienced by Risa in Two Trains, or by Loomis.
Levee’s cutting of Toledo was equally fatal, I think, but we have no evidence suggesting Toledo was carried off to Heaven by a band of angels afterward, as Vera and Canewell suggest here. Are we to assume Wilson’s idea of justice is quite relative, then—that maybe it’s not such a crime to take what you may be owed by the society denying you?
The critics talk about the frustration of expectations post-WWII of blacks in America expressed in this particular play, and the broader message here may also have to do with outliers in societies taking down their own promising leaders, because when people cannot successfully throw off oppression, they turn their anger on one another instead. I did not much like this play—I think the premises seem confused, except that everything bad that happens ultimately results from oppression.
If Floyd is a free agent choosing his desperate move, why, after he’s killed by the trickster figure Hedley is that Deus Ex Machina waiting in the sky to haul him off to his reward? Or is the sky populated, like those in the classics or in more primitive cultures, by many gods occupied by their own squabbles, and are humans just their pawns? Money, again, is of course the root of all evil—when ancestors and tradition are ignored, dollars and cents rule.
Tony Kushner talks a lot about all the sevens in the play, from guitars to characters, to Floyd’s options, to Red Carter’s women, to Hedley’s “I offer the flesh of my flesh, my seven generations.” He suggests the reference may be to the mark of Cain (suggested also by Canewell’s name—and cane is chopped with machetes, one of which certainly does mark Floyd). But I found an additional way to look at the quote: seven generations, roughly 210 years, subtracted from 1948, becomes 1738. That was the year the first free African American community in the United States—Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose—was established just north of St. Augustine in Florida. Now considered one of the most important sites on Florida’s black heritage trail, Fort Mose was actually excavated in 1986 and designated a US Historic Landmark in 1994. Seven Guitars opened in 1995, was presumably being written and edited the prior year. Coincidence or intention, this juxtaposition of African-American freedom, and the oppression that followed?
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