Taylor (Lady of Spain, 1992, etc.) examines hard times in the early-20th-century South—and the music that resulted.
The story isn’t so much about Blind Singer Joe, a young Caucasian bluesman, as it is about his mother, Hannah Ruth Bayless. A poor girl whose only resources are her natural beauty and vocal ability, young Hannah marries a good-looking scoundrel who leaves before Joe’s birth and returns sporadically. She works as maid to the Holts, a rich family whose daughter Amelia recognizes and nurtures Hannah’s musical gifts, and who is perhaps falling in love with her. Amelia’s brother Emmett also has an eye for Hannah; he gets her pregnant and then ignores her. Amelia raises baby Alex, Joe’s half-brother, as her own, establishing a class division between Hannah’s two sons. In short chapters with short paragraphs and sentences and lots of dialogue (but no quotation marks), the narrative details a generational progression of splintered families: children abandoned by one or both parents, siblings who die of disease, violence or suicide. Inevitably, Hannah leaves Joe to establish a career with her second husband, a gifted fiddler named Pink Miracle, but her music remains in Joe’s blood. In the late-1930s prelude and coda that frame Hannah’s story, Joe is a street musician in the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, knowing there’s some resentment of him as a white man playing the blues, though he’s as blind to race as he is to everything else. While he connects with both Pink and Alex and learns of a stepsister, Joe knows that he is essentially on his own in a world where everyone is ultimately alone. His insights should strike a responsive chord among fans of rural blues and country music.
More compelling and less hokey than one might expect.