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Blind Singer Joes Blues by Robert Love Taylor

Claudia Smith Brinson
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Lovely, lyrical Blind Singer Joe's Blues suggests music may come from misery.

Blind Singer Joe's Blues

Publisher: Southern Methodist University Press
ISBN: 0870745115
Author: Robert Love Taylor
Price: $22.50
Length: 232
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2006-11

Reading Blind Singer Joe's Blues is like singing. The words are beautiful, the melody is blue, tuneful, the story one of wanderings and great but broken hearts. At the end, your own self feels full of a resonance.

Take the fifth and sixth sentences of what author Robert Love Taylor calls the "prelude":

"He didn't care to be reminded of what he could never see.

"All the same, Pink Miracle said, your mama, she loved you, son." See, you could sing it.

Taylor's third novel mostly tells the story of Hannah Ruth Bayless, born in 1900 in Bristol, a town partly in Virginia, partly in Tennessee.

She is one of seven children abandoned by their father. At 16, she falls in love with Dudley Crider, a thief and a ramblin' man, and "On the third day, she slipped out of the house carrying a change of clothes in a poke and met him at the train depot."

Hannah Ruth returns home pregnant. She names her baby Singer; her mother adds Joe. "And so he was Singer Joe, and she sang to him about how his daddy was gone but he had two loving mamas."

She takes a job with the wealthy Holts, where the brother will harm her, the sister love her and encourage her singing.

Hannah Ruth's mother and siblings take most of the responsibility of Singer Joe, born blind. Besides, she soon turns to Pink Miracle, leaving a second child behind, too.

Pink runs away from a sodhouse in the Oklahoma Territory at 13 and makes his way to Beale Street in Memphis. At 21, Pink searches for and finds his Uncle Laclede in East Tennessee.

Pink plays for him "Soldier's Joy." He fiddles "with energy and care," leaving out "the slides and twists he'd picked up on Beale Street."

The uncle is not impressed and plays on his fiddle "something Pink had never heard before. ... the tune had a slippery, eerie sweetness to it, moving in strange ways, one part giving way to the other before you knew it ..."

This, too, is "Soldier's Joy," and Uncle Laclede tells Pink, "A hunnert years from now, maybe you'll know it."

Hannah Ruth meets Pink after World War I. So Butler introduces us not only to the poverty of Appalachia at the century's start and the consequences of war's aftermath, but also to the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed more people than the war.

Taylor divides the novel into five parts: Hannah Ruth, Pink, Dudley, Dudley and Son, Family. He also offers interludes, as in additional sections in a tune, placed between solos.

Dudley has his own terrible secrets, at one point expressed in his kidnapping of Singer Joe. It's through Dudley and the Holts that Butler offers the most complicated expressions of family, of blood's selfishly blind intentions and terrible consequences.

Whether mad, bad or absent, these are not people children find easy to survive. Singer Joe, rescued by an aunt and a school for the blind, has opportunities the earlier generation does not.

Still, Taylor points out, in his lovely, lyrical, never didactic way, that music may come from misery, a way to fill what's missing.

An uncle provides Singer Joe a guitar, and that's where he finds his mother:

"Reach for her, you get nothing. Sit still, set your tongue to humming, strum a few chords on the guitar, and there she is. It's as if there's no place else to be.

"More. It was to see from inside the darkness and know what it meant and how it felt. It meant nothing. It felt fine. It was where your music came from."

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