An Analysis of African American Music and Oral Tradition in Joe Turner's Come and Gone by August Wilson

August Wilson’s play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, puts much emphasis on the importance of music and oral tradition in African American culture and identity. Loomis‘ spiritual, physical, and emotional journey to find the “song” within himself is mirrored by the same journey of the African American community as a whole, who through their collective music are looking to reestablish connections with their past, each other, and their broken selves despite the traumas of slavery and methods of cultural repressionr The loudest expression of identity for this community becomes establishing the self through the performance or symbolism of music, an artistic expression that often brings some sort of confrontation with an ancestry or heritage, Bonnie Lyon’s 1999 interview with August Wilson offers the author’s critical interpretations of his own work, providing a historical and personal background for his choices in symbolism and metaphor, especially in regards to creativecatharsis and vocalized storytelling.

Vikki Visvis’ article on the use of Black music in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon gives a concise but crucial interpretation of the importance of music in African American literature.

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Joe Turner’s Come and Gone shows how music, and creative expression in general, is necessary for communities of the margin to affirm their place in the world despite societal boundaries, and how art is a way to establish human connection with those outside of the margin and igniting socialchanger Art is the one facet of culture that cannot be governed, controlled, or prejudiced against; where there are political, economic, and religious limitations placed on individuality, art provides a person with true spiritual freedom.

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This need for creative expression becomes immensely important in the discussion of African American culture, particularly in regard to the works of playwright August Wilson. Wilson recognizes that his community is built upon an empty space, the margins of society, and that this articular setting is the result of their being denied complete connection with African and American cultures. The response to thissuspended selfhood is the creation of African American music, evolving from the work songs of slavery into jazz, blues, and gospel. To make this music, according to the Wilson, is to be reconnected with African heritage, community, and ultimately, to one’s own lost soul. Music is thus a creative assertion of identity and place in the world, Wilson’s 1984 play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, serves as a metaphor for how the marginalized black American community uses the art of oral tradition, particularly music, as a way to rediscover their denied heritage and thus create and proudly sing an amalgamated selfhood ofAfrican—Americanism, Before delving into the importance of music in Wilson’s play, I will here provide a contextual background that testifies to the historical significance of African American vocal traditiont Wilson himself testifies to its importance in a 1999 interview, stating, “And it’s important to remember that blacks don’t have a long history of writing, We come from an oral tradition” (Wilson) This statement is a historical explanation for why African American culture relies so heavily upon artistry, such as music and theater, as a means of storytelling, Because of this cultural background, the symbol of music or song when used in a piece of African American literature takes on a new meaning as an image of black experience or identity. Going even further than Wilson is Vikki Visvis, who discusses the testimonial and emotional importance of black music in Toni Morrison’s Song ofSoIomon, providing an emotional background for its place in black literature. She states in reference to slavery and prejudice that “black music is a speech act that engenders emotional catharsis and brings latent memories to the fore”.

This statement exemplifies how music has a direct connection to past trauma and memories of pain within the history of the African American community. Music becomes a character’s verbal confrontation with his or her past. This renewed connection with heritage, as postulated in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, allows for a new history, or metaphorical song to be written, thus creating and claiming selfhood through an, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is a member of Wilson’s renowned collection of ten plays that depict African American experience, called The Pittsburgh Cyclet Each play is set in a different decade of the ZOLhcentury in Pittsburgh, and while the plays deal with black-white relations and racism, they also depict the collective music, beliefs, and humor of African American culture (Lyons, 2) What makes the Cycle notable in American literary history is its exploration of the human need and desire for connection, and its particular importance for a community characterized entirely by disconnection This cultural detachment for African Americans stems from the origins of slavery, when in being abruptly stolen from their homeland individuals were also robbed of an African heritage, and thus a genealogical-basis of identity, The detachment widens significantly in the post-Emancipation years, where traumatized former slaves with no known ancestral history or true identity are left to flounder as lost souls wandering through racist American society, Thus, Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle explores the efforts of the African American community post—diaspora to reconnect with each other, their history, and their individual spirit despite the boundaries enforced by mainstream American society. Ultimately, music becomes the common artistic trope through which connection is sought, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone exemplifies this use of art.

The foreword of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone sets the stage not only for the action of the play, but also for the themes of music and reconnection in the wake of emancipation. Speaking of these newly freed African slaves, Wilson writes, “They arrive dazed and stunned their heart kicking in their chest with a song worth singing. They arrive carrying Bibles and guitars.” (Wilson, foreword), The words ”Bible” and “guitar” are critical, as they are going to become the symbolic tools by which a lost community rediscovers its voice: through faith and through music However, Wilson puts more emphasis on this musical aspect of identity by suggesting that individuals have a unique song within their chest, and it is this idea of internalized spirit that becomes the most important symbol of the play Dissecting the thesis of the play through the eyes of Visvis, the song within each of these newly freed slaves is one of traumatic testimony, and to suppress that communal song is to threaten the stability of black identityi Wilson first introduces the concept of song and soul in the text through the character of Bynum, a rootworker, or practitioner of “strange” spiritual activitiesi Bynum explains his spiritual awakening as one resulting from an encounter with a “shiny man”, during which he sees his father’s ghost. Bynum says of the interaction: My daddy called me to him, Said he had been thinking about me and it grieved him tosee me in the world carrying other people’s songs and not having one of my own Told me he was gonna show me how to find my song(9-10)l With the song Bynum speaks of clearly symbolizing the soul, Wilson makes a very important commentary on the significance of music in African American culture, Because his song, his true identity, is discovered through an interaction with his father, there is the clear suggestion that in order for this community of wanderers to reclaim their identity, they must have a renewal of connection with their traumatic past.

That oral confrontation with past pain through music, and here a symbolic song, is what characterizes much blues and gospel music, providing further evidence to the importance of verbal artistry in African American culture. The importance of music is again seen in Act 1, Scene 4 of the play, during which the characters perform a Juba dance at the suggestion of Seth, who otherwise distances himself from any connection with African culture As Wilson describes in the stage directions, “The Juba is reminiscent of the Ring Shouts of the African slaves. It is a call and response dance. [Bynum] calls the dance as others clap hands, shuffle, and stomp around the table” (Wilson, 52) The importance of the communal experience of music, particularly call and response such as the juba, is explained by Visvis as a method for black musical communication to distinguish itself from white patterns of testimony (Visvis, 266) This insight offers an important idea regarding the identity of Seth While he is largely determined to be an American in selfhood before anything else, his call for the juba dance symbolizes his inherent need to have some kind of connection to his ethnic community Through the music and the dance of his community’s ancestors, Seth is able to confront the past of his people without having to feel their pain or give up his dream of being considered entirely American. Communal encounters with music thus become a way that African heritage is celebrated as well as confronted in this play. While Bynum represents the need for connection with spiritual ancestry and Seth illustrates the need for connection of community, the connection made through the journey of Herald Loomis is the most important: the reconnection within himself, His first appearance in the text speaks to his notable presence amongst the characters, as seen in the stage directions: ”He is at times possessed He is unable to harmonize the forces that swirl around him, and seeks to recreate the world into one that contains his image”.

Loomis represents the experience of being lost within the abyss of the margin as a result of having no recognizable song, or spiritual connection to the past, to others, or to his own self. His inability to “harmonize” is proof of his crippled ability to sing his song and claim his place in the world because he is lost in every way. Loomis‘ arrival at the boarding house places him in between the two extremes of African American identity: one that is truly African (Bynum) and one that is truly American (Seth). Wilson’s emerging idea, traced through Loomis’ spiritual awakening, is that writing and singing a song of both cultures is a necessary action in order to create a unique identity for a community of the margin. When Wilson was asked in the same 1999 interview about what gave him confidence in his work as an artist, Wilson answered: You have to know yourself and what you’re capable of It’s a matter of exploring yourself, of having the courage to face your demons and your confidence that you can, that you’ll survive the encounteri All of these things are what makes the art (13) This expression of artistry and self—awareness is the basis for the final scene of the play, in which Loomis finds his song and redefines his place in the world, once and for alli The appearance of his wife, with whom Loomis believed his soul rested, sparks the growing revelation that his soul was within himself the whole time while he was searching for it within her (Wilson, 91), In order to realize his own strength, Loomis had to experience the deepest point of the cultural void in between two extremes of black identity presented in the boarding house, Like Wilson says in the interview, Loomis‘ exploration of himself is the challenge that ultimately gives him the ability to define himself on his own terms, and to sing his song in the way he wants to sing it.

Through this awakening, Wilson suggests that African Americans must  create their own music, spirituality, and unique culture in order to survive the societal limitations of identity imposed by the margins of society. Incredibly important to the climactic finale is the fact that there is no spoken or audible reference to music or song; rather, music is conveyed through physical actions Loomis declares in defiance of his wife, “I don’t need nobody to bleed for me! I can bleed for myself” before slashing himself across the chest and rubbing his blood over his face (Wilson, 93), If we consider Loomis’ body as the vessel for his song, trapped within by hardened layers of traumatic experiences, his slashing of his chest is his singing, or his breaking of self-imposed boundaries and his freeing himself from the emotional and spiritual restrictions created by his pastr Loomis sings a song through blood of his own shedding and not through blood drawn from whipping, and through song way does Loomis celebrate his emancipation and baptize himself as a free individualr The most important part of Wilson’s interview comes from his explanation of the meaning behind another play of the Pittsburgh Cycle, The Piano Lessonr Wilson speaks of how the character Berniece of this piece experiences a radical change by calling upon her ancestors, who are both inside and outside of herself. He elaborates: And when I was writing the play, I thought, if we do this right, people in the audience would call out the names of their ancestors. Through that the audience would feel like a community I can see it happening with a black audience, because black people do that in church all the time. The same logic of relational experience applies to the communal nature of experience in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and its use of oral tradition.

There is a shared experience in verbally calling upon the spirits of the past and accepting them as a part of the self, This shared experience of African American community is a unifying factor of the margin, classifying it as a nourishing community of people who understand each other’s experiences It is in this way that the play represents the ancestral, communal, and internal experiences of connectionthrough artistic communication, and how important this is to the concept ofself— creation, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is a reminder of the special importance that music, storytelling, and general creative expression has for a marginalized community. Most facets of culture place limitations on expression of selfhood in order to maintain control of marginal boundaries. Politics can keep homosexuals from marrying, economics can make sure the poor are still poor, and religion can restrict gender roles, to name only a few examples, Art, however, is the one part of culture that cannot be controlled, and for the margin in particular, art becomes the means by which identity, self worth, and hopes for the future are communicated to the rest of the world, One of Wilson’s final comments on artistic communication is about how to shake a character’s system of beliefs is to shake that of the audience (Wilson). Music, theater, paintings, photographs, film, and all other artistic mediums are thus examples of how individuals isolated from society must achieve a spiritual, communal, and internal connection with their audience in the hope of igniting social change. The result of this spiritual connection between people is the transcendence of societal walls, preconceptions, and stereotypes, and a new conception of identity based on morality is born, The songs of souls within margin are loud, and these artistic communications are an invitation to experience a life in color rather than black and white,

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An Analysis of African American Music and Oral Tradition in Joe Turner's Come and Gone by August Wilson. (2022, Jul 19). Retrieved from

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