Huntington Theatre guide to Seven Guitars: https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/August-Wilson-Monologue-Competition/AWMC-Plays/Seven-Guitars/
YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYQzNGKFRhdwbLYZ1mz6hLK
References to seven: The seventh play written in the cycle. Seven characters. Seven non-existent guitars. Seven years of bad luck. Red Carter used to have seven women. Six angels at the cemetery carry Floyd’s spirit away (7). Floyd’s seven ways to go. Red Carter counts seven birds sitting on a fence. Contest between Floyd’s six strings and Hedley’s one (7). Six men killed after George Butler died (7). Seven characters we never see who figure prominently (Pearl Brown, Leroy, Elmore, Hedley’s dad, Louise’s ex, Mr. T. L. Hall, Ruby’s unborn baby). Finally, From Wilson’s “Note from the Playwright,” the seven characteristics of his mother worthy of art.
Found poetry from Notes From the Playwright:
I have tried to extract
some measure of truth
from their lives as they struggle
to remain whole in the face
of so many things that threaten
to pull them asunder.
I am not a historian.
I happen to think that the content
of my mother’s life –
the contents of her pantry,
the song that escaped
from her sometimes parched lips,
her thoughtful repose
and pregnant laughter –
are all worthy of art.
Hence, Seven Guitars.
Hedley is the seer and spirit guy/guide, like Holloway, Doaker, Bynum (especially), Bono, Toledo, and Becker. Root tea drinker (also alcoholic, it appears). Jamaican, maybe, but could be Haitian. Speaks with an accent, a patois. Recalls Toussaint and Marcus Garvey. Ethiopia, rasta talk. In fact, much of his soliloquy in Act 2 Scene 5 appears to be lifted from Marcus Garvey speeches. Wants to buy a plantation, be a big man (in all the plays, the spirit guy/person is always in contention to be the Warrior).
Floyd reminded me a bit of Hambone (tell him to give me my money!), but also of Bynum and of Gabe. He also reminded me of Troy Maxsom and possibly of Levee, trying to make it as a musician but seemingly doomed at every corner. Only WWII veteran in the bunch. Floyd is the band leader and the guitarist (recall Boy Willie offered to get Mareatha a guitar in place of the piano). Buys the marker for his mother’s grave on Mother’s Day. I think Floyd is the Wilson Warrior here. But perhaps he shares it with Hedley.
Louise fits in the character mould of other strong stable women characters (Risa, Berniece, Bertha, Rose, and Ma Rainey). Although Vera does not heed Louise’s advice (about her Henry) immediately, in the end fate changes things and she does.
Canewell’s riff on roosters at end of Act 1. Naturally, he is the harmonica player in the band, having paid so much attention to roosters crowing. Lives with “some old gal.”
Catalog lists (Whitmanian) : roosters (Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi); types of cigarettes (Old Gold, Chesterfield, Pall Mall); brands of beer (Iron City, Duquesne, Black Label, Red Label, Yellow Label); Guns (Smith and Wesson, 38, snub nose 32 (no mention of 45, military issue).
Hedley slashed Floyd’s throat with a machete (like Loomis and Risa self-slashing and Levee killing Toledo with a knife). Dance scene celebration of the Joe Louis victory: Juba (in Joe Turner); Prison song (in Piano Lesson). Joe Lewis radio scene locates the play in time and provides multimedia appeal (Act 1, Scene 5). And what about the cabbage song (sexual innuendo) scene right after the funeral that opens Act 1? Card playing: whist, pinocle, pitty pat.
YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYQzNGKFRhdwbLYZ1mz6hLK
Once you read the play (or see it on the stage, and Seven Guitars is one I have not seen performed except in clips on YouTube) you realize: there are no seven guitars, so it must be symbolism of some type. There are seven principal characters, each one bringing in his or her own universe of issues and feelings and modes of expression. We are going to get to that. But first let’s look at some other “sevens” in the play.
Red Carter, who passes out cheap cigars to celebrate the birth of his son, says he had seven women at one point, one for each day of the week. Floyd Barton, in a stirring monologue, describes the seven options available to him (Act 2, Scene 3). A character mentions seven years of bad luck. Six angels at the cemetery carry Floyd’s spirit away (7). Red Carter counts seven birds sitting on a fence. Billy Conn is knocked out in round eight after earlier surviving a count of seven. There is a contest between Floyd’s six strings and Hedley’s one (7). Six men are killed after George Butler died (7). Seven characters we never see who figure prominently (Pearl Brown, Leroy, Elmore, Hedley’s dad, Louise’s ex, Mr. T. L. Hall, Ruby’s unborn baby). And finally, from Wilson’s “Note from the Playwright,” his mother’s seven characteristics that are worthy of art:
I am not a historian.
I happen to think that the content
of my mother’s life –
(1) her myths,
(2) her superstitions,
(3) her prayers,
(4) the contents of her pantry,
(5) the song that escaped
from her sometimes parched lips,
(6) her thoughtful repose
(7) and pregnant laughter –
are all worthy of art.
Hence, Seven Guitars.
While on the subject, numerology and listings of things figure prominently in Seven Guitars. Five brands of beer are mentioned (Iron City, Duquense, Black Label, Red Label, and Yellow Label) and five brands of cigarettes (Old Gold, Chesterfield, Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, and Camel). Canewell describes three types of roosters, maybe four: the Alabama rooster, the Georgia rooster, the Mississippi rooster, and the pre-Emancipation rooster.
OK. Back to the seven characters.
1. Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, the principal character in this tragedy, is a talented musician who makes a series of ill-fated decisions, in life and in love, and meets an end that no one saw coming at the hands of Hedley. Floyd reminds me of Levee (wanted to make new music, preferring a gun to a knife in a fight) and Troy Maxsom (tragically flawed and professionally unfulfilled) and in some ways, Boy Willie Charles (high hopes for financial success but with behaviors that often drag him down).
2. Hedley is the seer in this tragedy, the oracle, the mystic with peculiar non-urban ways, like Bynum earlier, and somewhat like Toledo evoking memories of ancestors, like Holloway understanding and applying history to the present, and perhaps somewhat like Berniece at the end of her journey when she calls on the ancestors.
3. Louise is the boardinghouse manager and landlady. She maintains order and decorum in the house, and dispenses sound motherly advice to Vera and to her niece from the south, Ruby, advice that is not always followed.
4. Canewell plays harmonica in Floyd’s band, and harmonizes relationships between other characters to keep conversations on an even keel, so to speak. Canewell is old school, preferring a knife to a pistol in a fight. In a late conflict with Floyd, Canewell gives in and backs away from the precipice. Canewell sees the angels at Floyd’s funeral and reappears in a later play with a descriptive name.
5. Red Carter is the drummer in Floyd’s band. He is the first one to take a piece of sweet potato pie in the opening scene and he appears late in Scene 4, stylishly dressed. He fancies himself a ladies man. He is a modernist and a realist.
6. Vera, ignoring her better judgement and the advise of Louise, allows herself to be charmed by Floyd and his dreams of financial and professional success. In the opening, Vera also sees the angels carrying Floyd to heaven. Vera has a dress with two shades of blue. Before the end, Vera accepts Floyd’s invitation to accompany him to Chicago, but she lets him know she has an unexpiring return trip ticket back to Pittsburgh.
7. Ruby arrived unannounced from Birmingham, pregnant and fleeing a love triangle that resulted in one death and one imprisonment. She is pretty and sexy with her charming Southern ways and her youthfulness, attracting all the men in turn. Ultimately she has sex with Hedley, a man 40 years her senior, and allows him to believe he is the father of her unborn child. Both Ruby and her child reappear in a later play, King Hedley II.
Finally, just a short note on the significance of Floyd’s appointment to record in Chicago. It is on June tenth (not June 10th) at 10 o’clock in the morning. Sounds and looks like Juneteenth, the celebration commemorating the end of slavery in Texas in 1865. Meanwhile, his manager has absconded with his money and is in big trouble for selling fake insurance. Of course, Floyd never makes it to Chicago.
p.s. There are natural and organic connections between this play, Seven Guitars, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. That’s grist for another mill as my father would say.
A few words on Buddy Bolden, referenced often in Seven Guitars. Called alternately the “Father” and the “King of Jazz,” Bolden is credited with the creation of the Big Four, “a key rhythmic innovation on the marching band beat, which gave embryonic jazz much more room for individual improvisation.” He was committed to a medical facility in New Orleans at age 30 with “acute alcoholic psychosis.” It does seem 30 is a very young age for such a malady, and it may be suggested that it was a misdiagnosis. He spent the remainder of his life hospitalized, and in effect, incarcerated. One group member suggested that perhaps Bolden suffered from Hemochromatosis, a condition where too much iron builds up in the blood, resulting in symptoms very similar to those resulting from excessive alcohol consumption over a long period of time.
From the New Orleans Official Guide:
First of the great New Orleans jazz figures was Buddy Bolden, a barber who blew his horn to glory. He had two loves, music and women; in both he won money, local fame and jewels. Friends remember how, as he marched along, one grinning girl held his coat, another his hat, and during his moments of rest, a third took his horn. Let Buddy smile too long at any one of them, and the other two tried to tear her eyes out.
Buddy made up one song after another; when he wasn’t playing his horn, his rich voice was stirring the girls, “giving ’em the crawls.” His playing had one feature that later jazz authorities recognized as indispensable — “the trance,” an ability to sink himself in the music until nothing mattered but himself and the cornet, in fervent communion.
This 2001 review by John Lahr keeps on popping up: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/04/16/been-here-and-gone
Seven Guitars always leaves me with the strangest internal conversation, even though I’ve read it several times and I know what is going to happen at each decision point, AND I know Seven Guitars, while considered by many as Wilson’s Greek tragedy play, is an important prequel, so everything that happens must happen. It is the “predetermination” that gets to me, that things are predetermined so wrongly. I ask myself during the reading, for example, why doesn’t Vera listen to Louise and ditch Floyd? Why didn’t Floyd listen to Canewell and insist on royalties for his first recording? Why doesn’t Hedley take his TB self to the sanatorium? Why doesn’t Hedley shut his trap about all the Ethiopia/Haiti stuff? Why does Floyd resort to crime? Doesn’t he know crime does not pay? Why is Ruby? Why IS Ruby? To be fair, these are all the types of questions I ask myself when watching Eastenders, but I watch it everyday!
Before I get too far afield, please pay special attention to the dedication, to the Tony Kushner forward, and to the Note From the Playwright. All three are quite magical and add to the play’s context.
Also, upfront, the play list for Seven Guitars is probably one of the fullest and most complete of them all. So much music is cited/referred to/alluded to in the play.
By way of introduction, Wilson says in an interview that the thought for the play began as a story about four men working in a turpentine factory in the South. All musicians, they had a desire to go to Chicago to make a record. Wilson admitted that he knew nothing about the making of turpentine. Then he says that three women showed up, all in his imagination, of course, and asked for space. The setting for the play migrated from the turpentine factory, to Chicago, to his mother’s backyard in Pittsburgh when the women arrived. He also said in an interview that the seven guitars are the seven characters in the play.
A few things stand out for me in the play. There are so many lists of things. It almost reminds me of Walt Whitman. Act 1 Scene 1 lists all the different types of beer. Scene 2 has a list of ingredients for dinner. Scene 3 lists different brands of cigarettes that people smoke. Scene 4 lists the actual recipe for cooking greens. Scene 5 lists the blow by blow account of the Joe Louis fight and the different types of roosters. And skipping some, Act 2 Scene 3 lists Floyd’s seven ways to go. There is ritual in list making which is perhaps why Whitman found it a useful tool. And list making speaks to the oral tradition of religion in an almost mystical way.
A few more things stand out. The funeral scenes at the beginning and end serve as bookends for the plot development in the middle, almost like a series of flashbacks. Vera says twice about the angels in Scene 1 “They come down from the sky.” Only Vera, Canewell and Hedley saw the angels. Floyd was a WWII veteran and claimed a knowledge of guns and weapons although most black WWII veterans didn’t see combat action, especially not illiterate ones. Vera makes a reference to a dress having two different kinds of blue, perhaps a metaphor. Canewell would have been a preacher but the devil’s call was too loud (Canewell and Ruby show up in a later play, as does Ruby’s son and Red Carter’s son). The dance scene after the fight reminds me of the Juba in Joe Turner and the table prison song scene in The Piano Lesson. Hedley killing Floyd with a machete is certainly reminiscent of his ritual killing of chickens in the yard, but it also reminds one of Levee’s knife murder of Toledo and Herald Loomis’s self-mutilation with a knife.
There will be more later after our Friday discussion.
Notes from Session #2: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/11/05/notes-on-seven-guitars-11-05-2018/
Carole Horn’s notes from Session #2: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/11/05/carole-horns-notes-on-seven-guitars-11-05-2018/
Notes from Session #1: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/04/16/pre-class-notes-for-seven-guitars/
A couple of quick bookmarks to insert before moving on from Seven Guitars.
I haven’t seen it mentioned in the body of literature, but August Wilson often makes a point to applaud literacy, reading and writing, and to decry, if not condemn, illiteracy. This may seem an almost obvious position for a playwright to take, and it may appear that literacy is an automatic “state” to assume in an industrialized democracy like the United States. But a quick look at the statistics tells a different story and highlights the importance Wilson places on literacy in character and plot development.
In Fences, for example, Troy cannot read or write. Could that be the real reason why he wasn’t able to transfer to white league professional baseball? We don’t know and Wilson doesn’t tell us. In Seven Guitars, Floyd is illiterate and it is the cause of many of his woes. He can’t get his daily compensation because he couldn’t read to know to keep a certain letter. He failed to negotiate a deal for royalties on his first hit because he didn’t understand the process or the business itself of recording. He is a veteran of WWII, but he didn’t acquire any transferable skills from his army hitch because he couldn’t read, he couldn’t acquire information from texts. His misfortunes, it may be argued, stem more from illiteracy than from poverty, or racial discrimination, or any other cause.
We get the impression from The Piano Lesson that Boy Willie was functionally illiterate. He could farm, but there was nothing he could do, by his own admission, in the city (where literacy skills are required). Boy Willie thought it absurd that Maretha could only play what was written on the paper. In Ma Rainey, Levee was illiterate, though he could read and write music. In the end, he kills the only band member who could read and write, Toledo, acting out a rage he couldn’t contain from failing to get a side deal on some music he had written. I’ll have to go back and review Joe Turner and Gem but I am almost certain there are some references to literacy.
OK, that’s bookmark #1. Here is bookmark #2.
I think August Wilson was an archivist par excellence. He gave a lot of credit to libraries, and specifically to public libraries, but his talent was in creating and storing records, records of human life in each 10 year period of the 20th century. Seven Guitars is full of lists of things pertinent to life in the 1940’s. In The Piano Lesson the piano is itself an archive, a storage of family events across the years. Ma Rainey introduces us to “the record” and the recording process, a store of information that is transportable and reproducible. On and on.
These are two “properties” of Wilson’s writing that I hope to develop more fully in the days and weeks ahead.
Let’s start with a recognition of the play’s dedication, to Wilson’s wife, Constanza Romero, and the Note from the Playwright, a sweet inscription to Wilson’s mother, Daisy Wilson Kittel, that details both his attention to character development and his recognition of culture as a prime mover of history. He spells out the play’s name, Seven Guitars, as an analog and a surrogate for the content of his mother’s life.
Using Aristotle’s Poetics as a frame of reference, let’s first note the prologue/Greek chorus in Act 1. Scene 1. It takes us forward in time to the funeral of the main protagonist, Floyd Schoolboy Barton. So we know up front what is going to happen. Floyd dies. There are no surprises, we just have to wait and see how the plot develops and how events unravel leading Floyd to his end. Even so, strangely enough, as spectators, we have hope, hope for Floyd, hope for his future as a recording artist, hope for his relationship with Vera. As we read we sit on the edge of our seats. Silly us, because the playwright told us up front. Why is there suspense?
Aristotle’s perfect tragedy does not involve the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity, nor does it involve a villanious man in a similar condition. It should be a man in between, a guy like Floyd Barton, perhaps. The change of fortune should be from good to bad and should come about not because of some vice, but because of an error in judgement or a similar frailty. Floyd, after several ups and downs, has just enjoyed a successful debut playing his hit song at the local dance club, and is on his way, with Vera, his true love, on his arm, to Chicago to record an album. The success he has hoped and dreamed for is almost within his grasp.
Then by some quirk of fate, Canewell discovers the money Floyd stole and buried in the yard, later acknowledging the “ownership” to Floyd, but right in time for an intoxicated Hedley to show up and assume the buried money is the result of some alcohol-crazed dream he had of his father and Buddy Bolden. Whereupon Hedley retrieves the machete recently gifted to him by Joe Roberts, and uses the machete to whack Floyd in the neck, severing his windpipe.
Of course, a lot happens in the interim. There is the complication of Floyd’s release from incarceration without access to either finances nor the means to earn wealth from his music as his instrument, as well as the drummer’s drum set, are in hock at the local pawn ship and the term for retrieving them has expired. There is the disappointment Vera experienced when he abandoned her earlier for Pearl Brown that he must now overcome, despite negative reinforcements from the landlady, Louise. Things are not looking good for Floyd.
Then in a reversal of fortune, Floyd comes into a bit of cash (from illegal activity, nonetheless), buys a new electric guitar, a new dress for Vera, and makes his date at the dance club, all to a rousing success. Collapsed into the same event, there is recognition of Floyd’s musical talents. The final spectacle collapses pathos and catharsis, for Hedley and Canewell at least, with Floyd, unfortunately, on the losing end.
It is important to recall that Seven Guitars is a prequel of sorts, and many seemingly random threads will establish their significance in the second part, the penultimate play in the Cycle, King Hedley II. But we should also note the archived information Wilson preserves, the card games (bid whist and pinochle), the cigarettes smoked (Old Gold, Chesterfield, Pall Mall, Lucky Strike, Camel), the beer brands (Iron City, Duquesne, Black Label, Red Label, and Yellow Label), the menu items for Vera’s dinner (Chicken, potatoes and green beans), the four types of roosters, Canewell’s recipe for cooking greens, the blow-by-blow account of the Joe Louis fight, and the mention of Toussaint L’Overture and Marcus Garvey, all preserved for posterity inside the play.
We cannot overlook the bits of magical realism in the initial and final scenes of the play. Canewell, Vera and Hedley all see the six angels escorting Floyd into heaven. I have no interpretation for why those three in particular see the vision, except that Vera had accepted Floyd’s marriage proposal, making her perhaps the character closest to Floyd, Canewell survives the prequel and shows up later with a new name, and Hedley “fathers” the next tragic figure, King Hedley II, in the only play in the Cycle named for a character.
Finally, favorite lines, both from Vera: “I done told you, my feet ain’t on backwards” and “It was two different shades of blue.”
Post group discussion: Seven in numerology. One source says seven means wholeness, completion and comprehensiveness. Another source goes into the symbolism of seven: seven is the number of the spiritual quest. Seven, a prime number, is popular in both religion, i.e., seven throughout Revelations, seven in the monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), seven in Freemasonry, mythology and Theosophy, seven in Greek and Roman mythology, and in culture, i.e., Seven Habits, Seven Secrets, Seven deadly sins, etc., etc., etc.
A short word about structure in the play. The first scene of Act 1 ends precisely with the same line as the 9th scene of Act 2, the finale of the play. So the two are bookends “housing” the whole play. Also interesting the way the scenes get shorter, more compact, and more condensed in Act 2, sort of drawing us, pulling us, dragging us through the action to the end, which we already know, while keeping us on the edge of our seats. It is amazing how the structure of the play is used to unwind and unravel the action, almost collapsing linear time.
Random topics I may or may not have covered in earlier sessions.
The play’s structure with the end up front, followed by the action in the middle and the end at the end is both standard structure for Greek tragedy and a shoutout to Borges, one of Wilson’s principle influencers. Wilson pointed out how Borges tells his readers what is going to happen in advance, yet there is still a sense of suspense. Then it comes about. No doubt this is Wilson’s Greek tragedy play with Borges hints. See more on Wilson’s Greek tragedy structure in Session #4.
We have instances of Floyd’s functional illiteracy throughout the play. While in prison he paid someone to write letters to Vera. He didn’t understand the words in a letter from the prison detailing the procedure for claiming his pay for each day he was imprisoned. Even Red Carter accuses Floyd of not being able to read. It is not a huge leap to reason that Floyd’s issues with his early recording contract could have stemmed from his inability to read. I wonder how he made it through his enlistment in the Army and how he survived the war without being able to read. We see this issue of the impediments of illiteracy in other characters in the Wilson Cycle.
(Note: 4% of Americans are non-literate and 14% are below basic literacy levels. 34% are at the basic literacy level. 52% read under the 8th grade level. These are 2013 levels, from data collected by the OECD every ten years, but levels of illiteracy are sure to rise with the present influx of non-English speakers across the southern border. https://www.wyliecomm.com/2020/11/whats-the-latest-u-s-literacy-rate/). The American Library Association’s Library journal cites a 21% and rising rate of adult illiteracy in the United States.
Vera describes a dress she was wearing when she met Floyd as two shades of blue or, to be precise, “two different kinds of blue.” I saw this initially as a distinction between the blues of Buddy Bolden, for whom Hedley was named, and the blues of Muddy Waters, the mentor for our bluesman, Floyd Barton. Extending the frame of reference to another Wilson play, there was the “jug-bucket” blues of Ma Rainey vs. the dance music blues of Levee. A short search yields a multiplicity of different kinds and types of blues music, including Memphis Blues, New Orleans Blues, Chicago Blues, Delta Blues, and Texas Blues. Each has its own peculiar sound and its unique performers.
Throughout the play there are various lists of things, recipes with various steps, and categories of things. Included are types of beer, brands of cigarettes, types of card games, little rhymes, types of weapons, a blow-by-blow boxing match final round, types of roosters, and a recipe for cooking greens. Floyd lists seven ways to go.
I was struck by the similarities between Hedley’s tuberculosis condition, the testing and treatment of it, etc., and current concerns about COVID. Sort of brings it up to date. Tuberculosis, like COVID, was not extremely well understood in its early days and often patients were “herded” together in sanatoriums to die, similar to what happened in the nursing home scandals in New York and Michigan. Eventually, the nature of the disease became better understood and medications were developed that eradicated it. We can only surmise what happens in Hedley’s case, though Louise’s descriptions make it sound like his tuberculosis is already in advanced stages.
Speaking of Hedley, he is the first person we’ve come across who is not from the south like so many other migrants to Pittsburgh. It sets up a different dynamic in personal relations that we see playing out in Hedley’s interactions with other members of the ensemble. This reflects what actually happened with so many black Caribbean immigrants moving to Northern cities and having to interact with a new country, a new black society unlike what was most prevalent in the south, and in many cases, a new religious order. In effect they, these immigrants from the Caribbean faced separate challenges than southern migrants of a completely new society. Hedley makes Seven Guitars a special case for studying the great migration. Another aspect of the great migration not covered in the American Century Cycle, however, is the rural to urban migration that took place within the south and never crossed into northern states.
Louise explains to Vera multiple times that Floyd “just doesn’t know how to do.” Also known as “savior faire,” Louise says that Floyd lacks basic knowledge and information about the way things work. Of course Vera ignores Louise’s warning because she has a pipe dream of “being a different person” at her new destination that matches Floyd’s pipe dream of “making it” in Chicago. Similarly, Hedley has a pipe dream about a future life on a plantation he will be able to buy with money from his dead father’s ghost.
And what is up with Red Carter claiming he once dated seven women at the same time? Red Carter is lying and he knows it. Perhaps this “locker room talk” adds to the flow of the plot, a monologue for the boys in the band, Canewell, Red Carter, and Floyd. Wilson has said in interviews that nothing in his plays is superfluous and everything ties to something else in building the plot.
Ruby arrives and all the men go crazy. All the men. I could only shake my head. We will discuss, perhaps.
Wilson makes a big deal about Highway 61. I didn’t get it until I looked it up. Highway 61 runs along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Minnesota. It was a major thoroughfare out of the deep south and the subject of many blues songs. In fact, Bob Dylan made a complete album in 1965, Highway 61 Revisited, that included much of the music and blues tradition. See the playlist for other examples. Interesting that the earliest blues pieces describe trains and railroads, because railroads were the primary method of conveyance. Later, with the development of interstate highway systems, automobiles and highways become the underpinning subject of blues. (Note: Upon reflection, the earliest blues pieces may have focused on walking and shoes and we have certainly seem those themes in plays in the Cycle.)
A subplot within the plot, Hedley kills the neighborhood rooster as a signal that he will kill again, and soon. Hedley confesses to Ruby that he once killed a man who would not call him by his given name, King, a sign of things to come for his (alleged) and Ruby’s offspring in the future.
Another, perhaps, pure coincidence is seven stages in the development of the guitar as a musical instrument.
There were many distractions this week. But the show must go on!
I like to finish reading the play by Wednesday, write up my notes Thursday, and share them with you by Friday. But this week I am slightly behind schedule. I am going to list a few of these distractions for the sake of the historical record of our time.
Monday a member of my poetry group who lives in Poland posted on social media her efforts to work with Polish citizens to reduce hostilities directed against refugees fleeing into Poland from Belarus. I had read absolutely nothing in the US press about a border crisis between Poland and Belarus so I felt privileged to hear it from her first hand. I checked out some maps to actually see the various borders. A couple of days later I sent her a Langston Hughes poem I had previously sent to friends working the southern border crisis in our own country, Song of the Refugee Road, and included it in a poem I posted to my poetry blog here: https://thisismypoetryblog.wordpress.com/2021/11/17/whats-happening-at-the-poland-belarus-border/
Meanwhile, the jury deliberations in the Rittenhouse trial had us on the edge of our seats. When I saw those stacks of bricks being situated across Kenosha, I had flashbacks to the riots and destruction here in DC last summer (2020), a most unpleasant time in US history in my estimation.
Then the cantos we read from the Inferno this week, #30-#32, all had fascinating references to poetry and language that had me comparing translations (I have Esolen, Musa, Norton, and my favorite, Mary Jo Bang, a contemporary translation). I wish I could find a Zoom group doing Dante’s work. So far I haven’t found one. Or the right one.
OK. Seven Guitars. Of course, much has been made of the title and the implied numerology. Well, an internet search of “the numerology of number seven” only proves how much garbage there is on the world wide web! OK let’s roll the dice!
According to numerological studies, people with the number 7 are spiritual and in a constant search of hidden truths. They are explorers by nature and have a very different way of living life. Materialistic pleasures do not interest them. They are inclined towards the abstract and have an aptitude for art. Mostly, they are introverts.
It is believed that your guiding angel communicates with you by showing you repeating sequences of numbers. If you are seeing a sequence of three 7s, the angel number 777, as it’s called, it indicates that you are on the way to spiritual awareness.
Well, my first, middle, and last names all have seven letters! 777!
We meet seven characters in the play: Floyd, Vera, Louise, Hedley, Ruby, Canewell, and Red Carter. Wilson enumerates seven items or qualities in his mother’s life that are worthy of art. But you will be looking long and hard for seven guitars in the play. So it’s symbolic, a metaphor. Kushner goes on and on in his very long foreword about the “seven” symbolism.
Moving along, we see very interesting reactions among and between the seven characters. Floyd and Vera, Hedley and Louise, Hedley and Ruby, Canewell and Red Carter, and ultimately, Floyd and Hedley. Let’s discuss.
Floyd has a forever thing for Vera. He messed it up once, a youthful indiscretion, perhaps. Now he wants Vera to go with him to Chicago and share his life forever. Vera is noticeably concerned, but she eventually gives into Floyd’s irresistible charm, Louise’s warnings notwithstanding. Perhaps she should have paid attention to the counsel of an older woman.
I see a lot of depth in the relationship between Hedley and Louise, a lot more than just the landlord-tenant relationship. Louise is genuinely concerned about Hedley’s health. Of course, she may just be a caring woman but I am seeing something more. Hedley tells her, “You know a woman needs a man.” Later, Louise tells Hedley, “You ain’t gonna be nothing.” Sounds a bit personal. Later Louise tells Vera, “Hedley’s the closest I want to come to love . . . and you see how far that is.” But we don’t really see.
Hedley and Louise intersect at an unlikely juncture. Ruby, twenty something, arrives from Alabama, already pregnant. Hedley, 50-something, desperately wants to be a father. Over the course of the play, desire, intention and purpose all meet and Ruby decides to let Hedley think he is the father of her soon-enough-to-be-born child. Borgesian magical realism at its best, perhaps.
Canewell and Red Carter are guys in Floyd’s band, Floyd’s backup and support, so to speak. Canewell later becomes known as Stool Pigeon in the sequel, and Red Carter’s son, born in the play and named Mister, becomes best friends with Ruby’s son, King Hedley II. The relationship crosses generations.
A subject came up in our discussion and I want to put a small pin in it for further exploration. Is it possible that there is a relationship between Canewell, who shows up twice, once in Seven Guitars (1948) and again in King Hedley II (1985) and the famous literary classic of African-American literature, Cane, by Jean Toomer?
Floyd and Hedley have their differences at many levels. (spoiler alert!) Floyd idolizes Muddy Waters while Hedley prefers Buddy Bolden (old school vs. new in music). Floyd and Hedley go back and forth about what each heard Buddy Bolden say (ironically, Buddy Bolden left no recordings!). Floyd’s weapon of choice is a firearm while Hedley prefers a knife (and later, a machete). And both have a little thing for Ruby. But before the end, Hedley expresses his personal admiration for Floyd telling him, “You are like a king! They look at you and they say. . . this one is the pick of the litter.” At the end, in a kind of drunken stupor, Hedley mistakes Floyd for the ghost of Buddy Bolden bringing him money from his father (more Borgesian magical realism), and kills him with his machete.
Aside from his relationships with characters, Hedley brings us interesting information. Toussaint L’Overture, Marcus Garvey, voodoo, even insights on Joe Louis. The West Indian influence provides spice to the mix of characters. More on that in the discussion, hopefully.
I’d like to add just a thought here about the relationship(s) between Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Seven Guitars. Both are plays about the ins and outs of the recording industry. In Ma Rainey, the new upshoot, modernist (Levee), in a fit of blind rage, kills the black militant (Toledo), while in Seven Guitars, the old school (music-wise) traditionalist and black militant (Hedley), in a semi-drunken spree, kills the upshoot modernist (Floyd Barton, influenced by Muddy Waters). It’s almost an inversion of sorts. I’ll be sure to bring this up in our discussion.
Before I close out, may I share with you another of my compositions? I call it Blues Villanelle (it has a repetition of two lines lines from Seven Guitars). https://thisismypoetryblog.wordpress.com/2021/10/01/my-wifes-favorite-poem-blues-villanelle/