Robert Johnson and the Blues
Although during his short lifetime his reputation reached not far beyond the bars and roadhouses of the Deep South where his music evolved, Robert Johnson, after his death, as noted by Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch in their biography, ‘‘rose from obscurity to become an all-American musical icon, the best-known although least understood exemplar of the Mississippi Delta blues tradition.’’ The blues developed early in the twentieth century from African American musical traditions such as spirituals and work songs, incorporating particular guitar chord progressions, call-and-response patterns, and lyrical lamentations, with the resulting music serving to both express and purge worldly sorrows. Born in 1911, Johnson flourished in the 1930s, when he traveled and played constantly and recorded a couple of records that sold modestly. He died a mysterious death, presumably poisoned, in 1938. As noted by Pearson and McCulloch, music historians came to recognize his recordings as ‘‘the last and most highly evolved example of an older style—a dying echo of one of the primitive building blocks from which jazz was constructed,’’ while also representing ‘‘the first faint rumblings of the rock-and-roll revolution.’’
In Reservation Blues, Alexie hypothesizes the injection of the blues into modern American Indian culture through the person of an aged Johnson, and he adapts the myth about Johnson having sold his soul to the devil to gain otherworldly musical skill. On the one hand Alexie portrays the pairing of Indians and the blues as a perfect fit, the blues being ‘‘ancient, aboriginal, indigenous;’’ they ‘‘created memories’’ and ‘‘lit up a new road’’ for the Spokanes. And yet on the other hand Alexie’s Spokanes as a community reject the blues, from both Catholic and traditional perspectives, and Coyote Springs proves to fail ingloriously, as if fate wished to have it that way. This failure is especially interesting in light of Alexie’s suggestions of a persistent Native American influence on popular musical traditions, as personified by Big Mom, gifted teacher of a variety of revolutionary musicians. In When Brer Rabbit Meets Coyote, Paul Pasquaretta asserts that musicologists have indeed recognized that Indian musical traditions were influential on the early development of African American forms, and many renowned black artists, including Lena Horn and, perhaps most significantly, Jimi Hendrix, have degrees of Native American ancestry. Alexie might have cemented the musical link between black and Indian cultures by blessing Coyote Springs with success—or at least by saving them from failure—but his more tragic conclusion, in which white oppressors persist as white oppressors, may be more reflective of the modern music industry.
Spokane Indians and Faiths
The Spokane Indians have long resided in the region of the Spokane River in eastern Washington, historically being a people whose livelihood revolved around salmon fishing. Like many other tribes, the Spokane suffered from imported diseases and saw their land usurped by white settlers supported by the U.S. government. The construction of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, into which the Spokane River flows, was a catastrophic event for many tribes in the region, as it forever cut off salmon migrations farther east, in addition to flooding hallowed grounds. While Alexie was raised on the Spokane reservation, the primary setting of Reservation Blues as well as other stories of his, he does not infuse the novel with tribal history or cultural practices. Although readers and critics would likely respond positively to a more intimate portrayal of lives of traditional Spokanes, Alexie has stated that he does not believe it appropriate to delve fictionally into his tribe’s traditions, particularly spiritual ones, because doing so would open the door for the sort of cultural theft exemplified by Betty and Veronica in his novel.
Instead, Alexie deals with the faith that has become a great influence on modern Spokanes, namely, Catholicism. As throughout much of the United States, missionaries came to Spokane territory in the mid-nineteenth century, to endeavor to convert the tribe away from traditional practices in favor of Christian ones, with mixed success. Accordingly, Alexie gives his characters a variety of relationships with Christianity: Thomas cannot forget that the U.S. soldiers who murdered so many Indians were God-fearing Christians; Victor was abused by a priest; Junior demonstrates no faith at all; and Chess and Checkers are devout Catholics. Out of these clashing modes of experience, Alexie perhaps presents an ideal resolution for Catholic and traditional Indian faiths on a modern reservation when he has Big Mom and Father Arnold join forces in the closing chapter to mourn for Junior.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Sherman Alexie, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.