Don’t Start Me Talkin’


Many musicians adopt stage names and personas.  While some do it to lend more credibility to the music they play, others find it easier to use an alter ego than it is to perform as themselves.  Either way, it begs the question,  does “playing the part” eventually subvert their own identity, and if so, does that make the music they create any less authentic?

Tom Williams explores these issues in his new novel Don’t Start Me Talkin’ (Curbside Splendor Publishing 2014).  The book tells the story of Brother Ben, the “only remaining True Delta Bluesman,”  who is embarking on a North American tour with his trusty harmonica player Silent Sam Stamps by his side.  Ben, whose real name is Wilton Mabry, is a talented African American guitarist who is considered the “real deal” by his predominantly white fans, a pretense that he has carefully cultivated over the years.  While his fans lovingly cling to the legend of a hard drinking road hardened bluesman, Mabry secretly leads a more healthy lifestyle filled with morning jogs, green tea, vitamins and brown rice.  His sideman Silent Sam aka Peter Owens, a middle class Michigan State graduate who fell in love with the blues by listening to the radio, has been adopted into the act following in the footsteps of Ben’s previous sideman.  While Peter begrudgingly accepts his Silent Sam persona, because it allows him the opportunity to play with Ben, he begins to worry that it may well ruin exactly what he loves about the blues – their authenticity.

It’s this struggle to balance his need for authenticity without revealing his true identity that makes Peter the voice of the book, and the essence of it’s underlying meaning.  The characters own struggles with authenticity and its effect on their identity mirrors the struggles African Americans have experienced as their culture has been co-opted and slowly assimilated by white America.

How does one deal with racial stereotypes without giving into them?  Can you become part of a culture without giving up your own identity?  Does assimilation destroy authenticity?  These are all themes that bubble up throughout “Don’t Start Me Talkin’,” and make it a compelling read.

Williams’ sardonic style and attention to detail does the rest, and lends the book a swagger and confidence that breathes life into the characters.  His love and knowledge of the blues is palpable, as he references blues musicians, playing styles and even titles the book and its chapters after Sonny Boy Williamson songs.  Even the book’s packaging gives you the feel of holding a blues record in your hands.

If I have any complaint about “Don’t Start Me Talkin'” it’s that the book could have been better edited.  While some chapters are concise and well written others contain passages that drag and reiterate plot points better made earlier in the book.  Of course, that might well be Williams’ intent as the struggle to retain one’s identity without surrendering what makes them unique and “authentic” is one that never really ends.  After all, as Brother Ben is fond of saying to anyone who complains that the that the blues all sound the same, “Then you doan know blues.”

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