Once you read the play (or see it on the stage, and Seven Guitars is one I have not seen performed except in clips on YouTube) you realize: there are no seven guitars, so it must be symbolism of some type. There are seven principal characters, each one bringing in his or her own universe of issues and feelings and modes of expression. We are going to get to that. But first let’s look at some other “sevens” in the play.
Red Carter, who passes out cheap cigars to celebrate the birth of his son, says he had seven women at one point, one for each day of the week. Floyd Barton, in a stirring monologue, describes the seven options available to him (Act 2, Scene 3). A character mentions seven years of bad luck. Six angels at the cemetery carry Floyd’s spirit away (7). Red Carter counts seven birds sitting on a fence. Billy Conn is knocked out in round eight after earlier surviving a count of seven There is a contest between Floyd’s six strings and Hedley’s one (7). Six men are killed after George Butler died (7). Seven characters we never see who figure prominently (Pearl Brown, Leroy, Elmore, Hedley’s dad, Louise’s ex, Mr. T. L. Hall, Ruby’s unborn baby). And finally, from Wilson’s “Note from the Playwright,” his mother’s seven characteristics that are worthy of art:
I am not a historian.
I happen to think that the content
of my mother’s life –
(1) her myths,
(2) her superstitions,
(3) her prayers,
(4) the contents of her pantry,
(5) the song that escaped
from her sometimes parched lips,
(6) her thoughtful repose
(7) and pregnant laughter –
are all worthy of art.
Hence, Seven Guitars.
While on the subject, numerology and listings of things figure prominently in Seven Guitars. Five brands of beer are mentioned (Iron city, Duquense, Black Label, Red Label, and Yellow Label) and five brands of cigarettes (Old Gold, Chesterfield, Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, and Camel). Canewell describes three types of roosters, maybe four: the Alabama rooster, the Georgia rooster, the Mississippi rooster, and the pre-Emancipation rooster.
OK. Back to the seven characters.
1. Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, the principal character in this tragedy, is a talented musician who makes a series of ill-fated decisions, in life and in love, and meets an end that no one saw coming at the hands of Hedley. Floyd reminds me of Levee (wanted to make new music, preferring a gun to a knife in a fight) and Troy Maxsom (tragically flawed and professionally unfulfilled) and in some ways, Boy Willie Charles (high hopes for financial success but with behaviors that often drag him down).
2. Hedley is the seer in this tragedy, the oracle, the mystic with peculiar non-urban ways, like Bynum earlier, and somewhat like Toledo evoking memories of ancestors, like Holloway understanding and applying history to the present, and perhaps somewhat like Berniece at the end of her journey when she calls on the ancestors.
3. Louise is the boardinghouse manager and landlady. She maintains order and decorum in the house, and dispenses sound motherly advice to Vera and to her niece from the south, Ruby, advice that is not always followed.
4. Canewell plays harmonica in Floyd’s band, and harmonizes relationships between other characters to keep conversations on an even keel, so to speak. Canewell is old school, preferring a knife to a pistol in a fight. In a late conflict with Floyd, Canewell gives in and backs away from the precipice. Canewell sees the angels at Floyd’s funeral and reappears in a later play with a descriptive name.
5. Red Carter is the drummer in Floyd’s band. He is the first one to take a piece of sweet potato pie in the opening scene and he appears late in Scene 4, stylishly dressed. He fancies himself a ladies man. He is a modernist and a realist.
6. Vera, ignoring her better judgement and the advise of Louise, allows herself to be charmed by Floyd and his dreams of financial and professional success. In the opening, Vera also sees the angels carrying Floyd to heaven. Vera has a dress with two shades of blue. Before the end, Vera accepts Floyd’s invitation to accompany him to Chicago, but she lets him know she has an unexpiring return trip ticket back to Pittsburgh.
7. Ruby arrived unannounced from Birmingham, pregnant and fleeing a love triangle that resulted in one death and one imprisonment. She is pretty and sexy with her charming Southern ways and her youthfulness, attracting all the men in turn. Ultimately she has sex with Hedley, a man 40 years her senior, and allows him to believe he is the father of her unborn child. Both reappear in a later play.
Finally, just a short note on the significance of Floyd’s appointment to record in Chicago. It is on June tenth (not June 10th) at 10 o’clock in the morning. Sounds and looks like Juneteenth, the celebration commemorating the end of slavery in Texas in 1865. Meanwhile, his manager has absconded with his money and is in big trouble for selling fake insurance. Of course, Floyd never makes it to Chicago.
p.s. There are natural and organic connections between this play, Seven Guitars, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. That’s grist for another mill as my father would say.
A few words on Buddy Bolden, referenced often in Seven Guitars. Called alternately the “Father” and the “King of Jazz,” Bolden is credited with the creation of the Big Four, “a key rhythmic innovation on the marching band beat, which gave embryonic jazz much more room for individual improvisation.” He was committed to a medical facility in New Orleans at age 30 with “acute alcoholic psychosis.” It does seem 30 is a very young age for such a malady, and it may be suggested that it was a misdiagnosis. He spent the remainder of his life hospitalized, and in effect, incarcerated. One group member suggested that perhaps Bolden suffered from Hemochromatosis, a condition where too much iron builds up in the blood, resulting in symptoms very similar to those resulting from excessive alcohol consumption over a long period of time.
From the New Orleans Official Guide:
First of the great New Orleans jazz figures was Buddy Bolden, a barber who blew his horn to glory. He had two loves, music and women; in both he won money, local fame and jewels. Friends remember how, as he marched along, one grinning girl held his coat, another his hat, and during his moments of rest, a third took his horn. Let Buddy smile too long at any one of them, and the other two tried to tear her eyes out.
Buddy made up one song after another; when he wasn’t playing his horn, his rich voice was stirring the girls, “giving ’em the crawls.” His playing had one feature that later jazz authorities recognized as indispensable — “the trance,” an ability to sink himself in the music until nothing mattered but himself and the cornet, in fervent communion.
This 2001 review by John Lahr keeps on popping up: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/04/16/been-here-and-gone
Here are the notes from Session 1: https://raymonddmaxwell.com/2018/04/16/pre-class-notes-for-seven-guitars/
Here is the playlist: