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Narrative Time in the Blues: Son House’s “Death Letter” (1965)
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Blues songs from the folk tradition are often characterized as lacking a coherent narrative structure. David Evans has analyzed in detail the construction of folk blues out of local tradition, emphasizing the often-arbitrary character of the relation between stanzas. Folk-blues singers construct their songs in the moment, from a stock of traditional lyrics, melodies, and guitar parts, often building from what Evans terms a “blues core” to produce a song. This compositional method gives rise to lyrics that seem disjointed or only loosely connected. Contrast and association often serve as logical structures or techniques that roughly organize what appear on the surface to be almost random sets of stanzas.

Because of the deterministic relationship between the folk tradition and the actual music produced, what constitutes a song in the folk blues differs from more stable conceptions in other musical traditions. Not only do we need to adapt our notion of creativity in the normal sense of originality or self-expression in order to allow for it to be reshaped by the relationship to the tradition, but we need to shift our conception of what constitutes a song as well. In a sense, each individual performance must be understood as a song because each performance realizes, in a concrete form, one possible combination of traditional elements from among the infinite possibilities available to the singer. Within each song—each iteration of elements of the tradition—a particular series of stanzas are selected and combined to create the performance. This leads to a relatively unstable conception of a song that tends to focus on specific performances rather than repeatability or stability over time. It also tends to emphasize the momentary and transitory quality that often characterizes folk blues.

In spite of what on the surface appears to be a random selection of stanzas from out of the traditional stock, songs are nonetheless perceived as units by both performers and listeners. Even the most disjointed of lyrical combinations encourages the construction of a narrative thread, especially by the listener. To borrow from the poetic tradition, lyric announces in its opening sentence, whether explicitly or implicitly, “I sing here and now,” implying a kind of communicative situation with a message to be transmitted. As the folk-blues performer sings, the audience strings together the sequence of stock stanzas, aided by cues from the musical setting, to construct a story of sorts, albeit a fragmentary, contradictory, and often mysterious one. This story unfolds within a temporal frame, in part provided by the temporal context of transmission instantiated in performance.

Taken together, the construction of the song out of traditional elements, as well as the emphasis placed on performance, justifies the analysis of one particular performance as the realization of the combination and selection of traditional material contextualized within the frame of audience reception. In other words, one particular performance demonstrates the processes through which the song not only is constructed, but also is interpreted and understood. The following analysis takes as its point of departure Eddie “Son” House’s 1965 Columbia recording of “Death Letter” to unpack the workings of narrative in the song and, specifically, the temporal setting of this example of folk blues. This particular song offers richness and complexity in its combination of traditional stanzas and musical setting and thus serves as an outstanding example of the workings of time and narrative in the blues.

Son House’s “Death Letter”: Musical Setting and Lyrical Content

Compared to many of the examples of folk blues, the 1965 recording of “Death Letter” represents a relatively coherent thematic construction. The stanzas present a series of events that transpired in the past that cohere to create a story with specific, identifiable events that will be examined in detail below. While still an example of folk blues, “Death Letter” exhibits relatively more thematic coherence and thus invites narrative construction on the part of listeners. In order to understand the mechanisms by and through which narrative frames and temporal settings are established in blues, it is necessary to explore the enabling background of all forms of narrative communication in order to unpack the conditions that make these types of utterances possible and meaningful.

Blues is often...

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