We’re about to launch a two play series called “America’s Backyards” because both plays are set entirely or in part in the backyards of some “ordinary” families in 1948. These plays and these backyards have no knowledge of each other: the first, August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, is set in the backyard of an apartment house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District; the second, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, takes place in and around the Loman home in Brooklyn. But it isn’t only geography dividing these two backyards-- it’s the even greater distance separating the lives of black and white Americans at the middle of the century.
The 1940’s were not good years for African-Americans. The great migration of blacks to the north had increased during the war, and now in cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Cleveland African-Americans were clustered in urban neighborhoods, living together and yet well apart from whites.
In 1948, segregation had just been ended in the armed forces, and President Truman had proposed civil rights legislation with anti-lynching, fair employment, and anti-poll-tax provisions. But while a civil rights platform had been adopted at the Democratic National Convention, the Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina delegations had walked out, forming the reactionary “Dixiecrats.” The country was still 15 years away from the profound and turbulent changes created by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.
Pittsburgh’s Hill District became the center of African-American life in that city, a neighborhood of poverty and rich cultural expression. The Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay called the Hill the “Crossroads of the World” in the 1930’s, since it was a place where many great black artists, including Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Roy Eldridge and Ella Fitzgerald, performed and honed their skills.
By the late ‘40s, the Hill was still swinging, but for aspiring for musicians like Floyd Barton, the central character of Seven Guitars, Pittsburgh was a place on the way to Chicago, where all the action was. The great migration of Delta musicians to Chicago has been well documented, and Floyd is part of this tide—or wants to be. He’s made a hit record there but with no royalties. He’s been invited back to make some more but has run into a little trouble with the law and is without funds. Floyd seems to be a relation of the historical Arthur Crudup, whose Chicago hit record of “That’s All Right” some say paved the way for Rock ’n Roll and was the first track Elvis Presley recorded for Sun Records in 1954. Crudup got into a royalty dispute of his own and rarely recorded again. Floyd’s story is also reminiscent of Muddy Waters, who had some difficulty getting his own start. Waters was invited to play in his first Chicago recording session but had a day job selling Venetian blinds. So he told his employers a fictitious cousin of his had been murdered, and that he had to take care of some business. You had to be resourceful if you were black and wanted to make a record in 1948. Floyd is resourceful too; only his plans don’t work out so well.
Seven Guitars is not just Floyd’s story. It’s a group portrait of seven characters living in and around the backyard of the apartment house. Originally Wilson said his seven were meant to be male musicians, but then a woman showed up and insisted on being part of the scene. By the time he was finished there were three women and four men, all spending a lot of time out in the backyard. So let’s talk about the backyard, now as iconic a feature of suburban American life as a Norman Rockwell painting.
It wasn’t always so, since for the better part of the 19th century, the backyard was a utility space, with cows, trash, chickens and an outhouse. When people relaxed, they sat out in front, on their porches. But by the middle of the 20th century, sanitary sewers were the rule. Outhouses disappeared, badminton nets and barbecue grills came in, and the great American backyard became the place for recreation and relaxation. The backyard of Seven Guitars is a backyard in transition—the outhouse has gone, but the vegetables and chickens remain. The grill isn’t being fired up on the paved patio, and there’s no croquet on the lawn—in fact, there’s no patio, no lawn and no croquet. But there’s food to be enjoyed, cards to be played, and a radio brought outside so folks can listen to Joe Louis knock out Billy Conn.
Most of all, this backyard is a place to make music. There are no spectacular break-out song and dance numbers in Seven Guitars, but this is a musical all the same. And while everyone plays, and sings, and dances, the real music is in August Wilson’s language, some of the richest and most evocative he ever wrote, shared by the all characters. Each of the “guitars” plays with the others, and each has a solo and a duet too. So by the end of this play we know each character, and the kind of music he or she makes. Floyd is the lead, the most aggressive and vibrant group member, and also the one most likely to go off the rails. Floyd is ready for the city: he talks about Buicks, telephones, a refrigerator. He’s ready to move. He’s trying to get back to Chicago and also wants to reclaim his girlfriend, Vera, who has rich longings and serious doubts in equal measure. Louise, who runs the house, has given up men entirely and sings for herself, while Ruby, the new arrival, wears a red dress and leaves a trail of violent broken hearts behind her. Canewell, the harmonica player, hasn’t lost his rural roots: he knows a recipe for collards, knows how to choose a watermelon (like a woman—“if they soft, they sweet”). He’s wary of the big city, where he was arrested for playing on the street. Red Carter, the stylish drummer, may feel the same way—he has enough trouble keeping up with his seven girlfriends—they’ve been neatly sorted into one for each day of the week, but they all want to see him on Friday night. The most primitive instrumentalist, Hedley, only plays a wire strung between a rock and a nail, but his music is the wildest and most apocalyptic: he’s full of revelations and dreams of being given an entire plantation of his own by the trumpeter Billy Bolden.
What you want with a band like this is get them into the backyard and let them jam—and boy, do they! Wilson didn’t write Seven Guitars like many of his other plays, with a central character driving hard towards a defining conclusion (though that happens here too). Instead this play is circular, doubling back on itself, giving each character a chance to riff and air it out, and really, this music is gorgeous: it’s the blues. Wilson said the blues ”contain the cultural responses of blacks in America to a situation they find themselves in,” while also providing them with information and a shared communal understanding. As Ma Rainey says in Wilson’s play about her, the blues “help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone. There’s something else in the world.” The blues come out of pain and suffering, out of trouble of all kinds. But while they express pain, they also control it, and without losing its depth they convert it into something else, something like happiness, since now this pain is hooked up with melody, rhythm and the going on power of life. As Albert Murray says, the blues “is music to have a good time with.”
When Wilson wrote Seven Guitars in 1995, he said the 40’s reminded him of contemporary life, particularly its violence. He said, “It was a violent time. The violence is integrated almost seamlessly in their lives. It’s just like what’s going on now. Men in the world have weapons. I always look at this backyard as an arena, an arena with blood and guts, even though its only chicken blood and chicken guts. It’s still blood and guts and men with knives and steel and guitar strings . . . and of course one of the main characters is murdered.” Fair enough. And yet the blues covers this too, which may explain why, for all its violence and struggle and defeat, the experience of this play is actually exhilarating. Ben Brantley of the New York Times, wrote this about a revival seven years ago: “The marvel of Seven Guitars, which is always true of Wilson at his best, is how large a social portrait emerges from seeming small talk: from bickering, joking, gossiping and idle scheming. From such conversation emerges a sense of an entire economic and legal system, stacked unwinnably against the black man; a social structure in which home and relationships are rarely fixed; and a folklore of rhymes and superstitions and recipes that acquire another layer every time they are repeated.”
We suggest you make your plans to get yourself a place in this Hill District backyard. Here you will find several small servings of the richness of life, often plated with music and dance. Here you will find the real blues, the improvisation, the resilience, and the imagination of African-American life at mid-century. It all adds up to feast. It will stick to your ribs on a late summer night, and you will leave warmed and deeply satisfied. That’s a promise.