McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
Moving chronologically from the New Negro Renaissance into the contemporary era, my dissertation examines poetic representations of five blues artists: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), and Robert Johnson. Despite extensive scholarship on the blues and these icons, blues tribute poems have remained un(der)studied. Filling in this critical gap, I draw attention to the valuable sociocultural work that poets perform by continuously breathing new life into the blues in general and these artists in particular. At the same time, I contend that poets transform readers' understandings of blues men and women by investing them with mythic and symbolic qualities that correspond with their own (and often the era's) aesthetic and ideological concerns. Blues tribute poems, I argue, constitute a distinct and influential subgenre of American poetry--one that combines the mythic and the historical, the oral blues tradition and the written poetic one and invites readers to imagine, listen, and ultimately to internalize the images and narratives that poets advance.
Although there have been numerous blues figures invoked as muses, I maintain that Rainey, Smith, Holiday, Leadbelly, and Johnson possess what Joseph Roach terms an "it" quality that makes them compelling to generations of poets, historians, and music fans alike. Poetry offers a medium through which artists during any era can put forward their own interpretations of what these icons symbolize. Since the poets in this study are typically invoking these artists posthumously, they are also able to utilize poetic license to a much greater extent than would have been possible if these men and women had still been alive and performing. Indeed, the poet-muse relationship is not a one-sided affair, for blues tribute poets both document and produce sociocultural histories. Ultimately then, my project demonstrates that twentieth- and twenty-first century poets not only engage popular culture and sociocultural history but play significant and often unacknowledged roles in shaping readers' understandings of them.
Rutter, E. (2014). Constructions of the Muse: Blues Tribute Poems in Twentieth- and Twenty-First Century American Poetry (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/1136