In Search of the Blues

Review of Bill Minutaglio, In Search of the Blues: A Journey to the Soul of Black Texas (University of Texas Press, 2010). Published in PopMatters (16 May 2010).

“They call it Stormy Monday”, observed the Texas bluesman T-Bone Walker in one of his signature songs, “But Tuesday’s just as bad”. It’s a claim that finds a number of echoes in this collection of articles by Bill Minutaglio, an Italian-American writer who moved from his native New York to Texas in the ’70s and has written extensively about the experiences of black Texans.

In Search of the Blues is not, as one might expect, a book about blues music, a confusion exacerbated by the fact that a book bearing the same title (by Marybeth Hamilton) and another bearing a similar subtitle — Gayle Wardlow’s Chasin’ that Devil Music: Searching for the Blues — undeniably are. T-Bone Walker haunts a few of the book’s pages, and there are pieces on African American musicians at the end of the book, including an article about the late “discovery” of Henry Qualls by European blues fans, an account of the church zydeco scene in Texas, and a brief memorial note on Lightnin’ Hopkins.

It’s the sense of the blues, rather than its musicological representatio,n that lends this book its titular reference. Above all, it’s blues fatalism that Minutaglio echoes in his writing, the imprisoning certitude that led Walker to note that “Wednesday’s worse, and Thursday’s just as sad”.

The book is divided into three sections. “Three Generations” comprises profiles of football coach Ray Rhodes, former Black Panther and anti-drugs activist Fred Bell (aka Fahim Minkah), and Texas-born Percy Sutton, former attorney to Malcolm X and proprietor of Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. The second section, “Community”, constitutes the real heart of the collection with its tragically moving tales of life in Congo Street, Joppa, Sand Branch, and the neglected communities of South Dallas. All the chapters in the book have had their original titles adapted to give them a connection to the blues (“Black Panther Blues”, “Free Man Blues”, etcetera), a connection brought home by the closing section on Texan musicians.

Besides his gift for writing, Minutaglio appears to have a singular ability to get his subjects to accept him and to open up to him. He occasionally expresses surprise at this (“I never understood why they let me into their living room, why they opened the door”, he says of an early interview) and he is always careful to make clear the lingering sense of suspicion and distrust emanating from people who have been let down too many time by curious outsiders.

This is an emotive, compelling, and enlightening collection of essays thanks as much to Bill Minutaglio’s writing as the inherent human interest in the topics he chooses. Minutaglio is a master of the kind of muscular prose that seems always in search of drama. If the drama is not immediately apparent, Minutaglio seeks its out. The piece on Rhodes is framed with a narrative about a hanging tree where one of the coach’s ancestors was murdered, according to local legend.

The performative writing sometimes — as in the article on Fred Bell — reads like the narrative of a crime thriller. Minutaglio is aware of the talismanic power of words used by people like Bell and the blues singers, and he uses them himself to give his prose an extra dimension of power. This comes through in his use of syntax, repetition, and the well-deployed phrase.

However, the tour-de-force nature of Minutaglio’s style is not without its problems. Any writing that asserts itself in the way his does is bound to have to suffer the negative effects that its prosodic visibility brings about. In Minutaglio’s case, this means that the constant affirmation of the plight of his subjects and an equally constant asserting of himself as a chronicler of them necessitate the construction of numerous us-and-them scenarios. Whether engaging in bewilderment at what he could possibly know about his subjects or performing authenticity work to show that he is, after all, an appropriate commentator, he is forced to segregate himself and his subjects from a variety of inauthentic others: sociologists, “earnest white musicologists”, writers of “anemic” doctoral dissertations, or “earnest white imitators” of authentic blues singers.

One can understand how these others function not just as foils in Minutaglio’s prose, but as the perceived interferers in his subjects’ lives. There is a powerful sense that the communities that Minutaglio writes about have felt themselves let down repeatedly by the intentions of outsiders, even when those intentions have been benign. Again and again the refrain is sounded: nothing really changes for those at the bottom of society. This strategy of authenticating by othering, however, becomes an annoying tic in some sections of the book. On the other hand, it’s questionable whether a more transparent style would have done much good; perhaps the annoyance needs to be there as a constant poking of the conscience of Minutaglio’s readers.

Those readers will often search in vain for glimmers of hope. One of the implicit arguments of the book appears to be that any search for happy endings is merely another way of ignoring what’s happening, a way of doing away with the guilt one might otherwise feel. It’s a convincing argument, one that carries a hefty history and truth, but it still feels like a stalemate. The question always returns: what is to be done?

One answer seems to be offered in the act of recording itself, of bearing witness. Witnessing is equally about seeing and saying; a witness who has seen but will not say what they have seen is of little use, for example, in a law court. The witness carries something that is wanted by others. Witnesses are activated through the desirability of the information they can provide. Minutaglio’s witnesses are desirable to him and, in turn, his own testimony is offered as knowledge that should be desirable to his readers.

Witnessing, in this sense, is about the completion of a task, moving it from a passive to an active role. It is a productive force in that it results in the transference of a thing presented to a thing re-presented. Writing is an example of this transference, even if something is inevitably lost in the process or if the process involves some performative shoving. If there can’t be a passing-on, there can be a moving-on, as evidenced by Percy Sutton when he says that bitterness settles on those who can’t move beyond their anger.

The power of passing-on seems to be the point of many of these pieces, though Minutaglio doesn’t seem so sure in his newly-penned introduction. “For years,” he claims, “I blanketed myself in some righteous robes and presumed I was serving some higher goal. That I was doing all this because it was important for everyone else to know these things.” The implied self-critique is not elaborated on, except perhaps in his claim that “nothing was really clear except that, really, change was slow.”

At the close of the introduction, Minutaglio quotes T-Bone Walker: “Fate’s an awful thing”. Yes, it is, but could it be that, just as the blues singers seem to escape the fatalism they announce by their very enunciation, writing offers a way out, or at least a call to action?

Even if Minutaglio’s new contextualizing commentary — provided in pre-chapter introductions and post-chapter updates — suggests that, for many of these communities, nothing much has changed since he first wrote about them, presumably there is still some hope that the reprinting of this emotive work will help to force these issues into the light once more. Otherwise, why bother? Here, then, it is not a case of providing happy endings, but rather on insisting on the dangers of forgetting.