Da Capo Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-306-82179-0
The great bluesman Buddy Guy’s story in some ways was the story of any bluesman who left the South for Chicago near the middle of the 20th century, lured by the electified sound of what’s now called the Chicago Blues, created by earlier artists like Muddy Waters, Earl Hooker, and Howlin’ Wolf. In some ways it’s not like so many other artists’ stories at all, for so many of them lived and died in complete obscurity. That was not Buddy Guy’s destiny, and of course that’s the bulk of what this book is about.
Buddy’s early life as a sharecropper’s son in Louisiana, however, is not given short shrift. There’s a good deal of fascinating detail about what life for a black man was like at that time and in that place, the strong values his parents imbued in him, and what led him to music in the first place. This information has to inform the reader’s understanding of the next phase of his life, when he left home to make his fortune in Chicago. Continue reading
When a kid picks up the guitar at twelve they might be dreaming of being the next Buddy Guy or Jimmy Page or Bonnie Raitt or Rosie Flores. When one of us starts writing seriously, we might be dreaming of being the next Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner or Ursula Le Guin or Stephen King or Arthur C. Clarke or…well, pick your own poison. Those are what I tend to think of as “flash paper” dreams. Doesn’t take much to turn them into smoke and vapor. Usually a couple of years of working hard and getting nowhere will do it. The interesting thing about the whole process is not that most people quit at this point but rather that some people don’t. I mean, “You can’t have what you wanted, so forget it.” is a pretty powerful disincentive for staying the course. So why hang around when that fact become all too clear?
I think those who don’t quit are the ones who get new dreams. Not “settling for less,” but rather discovering something you didn’t know about in the first place. Something you didn’t even know you wanted, because you didn’t know it existed. In which case your original dream has done its job. It got you started, pointed in the direction you needed to go, even if that place you’re searching for wasn’t where you thought it was. J.R.R. Tolkien made me want to be a writer, but I figured out pretty much immediately that I wasn’t going to be the next J.R.R. Tolkien. For one thing, he was pretty much sui generis and there wasn’t going to BE a next J.R.R. Tolkien. Any more than there was going to be—more of my heroes–another Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin or Fritz Leiber. They’re them and you’re you. Once I got clear on that, then it became okay to figure out who I was and what I really wanted.
I’m still working on that and don’t expect to ever sort it out because the bar keeps moving, and for what little it may be worth, I wish as much for you. You work, you live, and who you are and what you want to accomplish keeps moving, keeps evolving. That’s better than okay—it’s crucial. As time goes on you’ll know more. If you’re lucky, you’ll understand more. And what you think is important won’t stay the same, at least not entirely.
Getting started is what some dreams are for, but odds are they won’t be the ones that keep you going. And as for who you’re eventually going to be as a writer, that’s not really your problem. Anyone who cares to can sort that out after you’re gone. Maybe you’ll be someone else’s dream, for a while. Maybe not, but either way what matters is that you, when the choice was there, was able to grow and evolve along with those dreams and almost but never quite–a blessing on you–keep up.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m a beginning guitar player. But there’s an aspect of this musical adventure that I haven’t mentioned before, and I do think this simple fact needs to be acknowledged—as a guitar player, I suck. A reader might be forgiven at this point for observing the obvious—“You’re a beginner. Of course you suck.” Sorry, no, it goes far beyond lack of practice and experience. While I’ve always loved music, I discovered early on that I have little natural aptitude for making it. If there’s a musical gene, it does not run in my family and I for sure don’t have it. Yet here I am taking up guitar and massacring “Smoke on the Water” like any beginning fourteen year old (and yes, they still do). Only, of course, I’m a looong way from fourteen, when such things might be considered part of the normal course of events. There’s nothing normal or natural about what I’m doing. So why am I doing it?
Because I’m a writer. Continue reading