In this Book
The Blues Muse: Race, Gender, and Musical Celebrity in American Poetry focuses on five key blues musicians and singers—Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Robert Johnson, and Lead Belly—and traces the ways in which these artists and their personas have been invoked and developed throughout American poetry. This study spans nearly one hundred years of literary and musical history, from the New Negro Renaissance to the present.
Emily Ruth Rutter structures the study around one pivotal understanding: however marginalized, poetry is a crucial medium for comprehending sociopolitical and cultural developments. Building from this idea, Rutter traces the evolution of the poetic invocation of blues muses through a succession of cultural eras, political climates, and artistic movements, asking how and why these protean blues figures change shape both within and across generations. Drawing on the work of poets Langston Hughes, Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka, Harryette Mullen, Terrance Hayes, and many more, as a guide, Rutter discusses topics such as the poetic renderings of black struggle, the constantly evolving notions of authenticity, and the portrayal of blues artists as heroic symbols of African American resistance.
The Blues Muse not only examines blues musicians as literary touchstones or poetic devices, but also investigates the relationship between poetic constructions of blues icons and shifting discourses of race and gender. Rutter’s nuanced analysis is clear, compelling, and rich in critical assessments of these writers’ portraits of the musical artists, attending to their strategies and oversights.