High Singing Blue: Bill Traylor
(catalog essay, Hirshl and Adler Modern, 1996)

What red was to Titian, yellow to Van Gogh, a high singing blue was to Bill Traylor. The blue of his drinking figures, of his houses, of his abstract constructions is "showcard blue," "cobalt blue," the same blue those who grew up in the American South remember from the hand painted signs in the window of the local grocery stores, advertising specials--"yams 15 cents/pound."

This blue is electric--like the urbanized blues of the electric guitar, its brightness a miracle of modern technology. It is not the faded blue of indigo, weathered and worn--of the overalls in which Traylor had spent most of the eighty four years before he began painting, as a slave and sharecropper. But it is the blue of the musical blues.

The color is more than a coincidence. Traylor’s work shares with the music formal qualities that likely have much deeper roots. The scholar William Farris Thompson in Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro American Art and Philosphy discusses several themes shared by both African and African American visual and musical arts.

He describes, for instance, an African tradition of "high affect colors," such as strongly contrasting blue and white, that go back as far as examples from the medieval period, found in caves in Mali, West Africa. In those fabrics he sees "willful, percussively contrastive, bold arrangements." (note 1)

What drew Traylor to blue? The artist Charles Shannon, who discovered Traylor drawing and painting on Monroe Street in Montgomery in 1938, supplied him with that blue paint. But Shannon also provided paints of other colors and papers and brushes to supplement Traylor’s original pencil stub and straight edged stick. Of these, Traylor chose the blue, and the occasional red, keeping his palette lean as the chickens and mules he drew, and resorted to no more elegant painting surfaces than the back sides of shirt card boards and ads for Baby Ruth and Snickers candy. Traylor painted Black Horse on the back of a poster advertising a Negro American League baseball game between the Birmingham Black Barons and Cleveland Bears.

Drawing and painting there on Monroe Street in Montgomery, Traylor created a whole world compounded of observation--the Mexican traveler looking for a hotel, fancily dressed women--and memory of his time on the farm near Benton--plantation owners, possum hunts and Saturday night revels.

Traylor’s animals and people, the almost abstract basket shapes, the constructions with figures clambering over them, the possum hunts and ruckuses, the houses and other buildings, together suggest a landscape of character and story as complete as Faulkner’s Yoknapawtapha county. It is a landscape like that of the blues, where metaphoric animals coexist with crossroads, railroads and roadhouse juke joints.

"The visual blues," one prominent collector of self-taught art calls it. At its crudest level, this analogy between music and self taught art was already expressed by Allen Rankin in 1946 when he wrote of Traylor,

"Untouched by education, he did what many Negro artists have done in music but few have ever done in art. He went back to his native African traditions." (note 2)

Traylor had moved from the area around Benton, a town of no more than 300 people in the Black Belt of Alabama, about 35 miles west of Montgomery, after he said "he lost his white folks." Part of Traylor’s story is of his discovery of the city, of the interaction of the modern urban world--the world of the straight line--with the traditional rural world--the world of the curve. Or the fascination with straight ruled lines that provide the armatures for so many of Traylor’s drawings, may have origins in the strips and stripes William Farris Thompson cites in African American fabrics with African origins.

Many blacks had made the same journey to the city after the collapse of the cotton economy, a process begun in the twenties by the boll weevil--subject of so many blues songs and folk tales one is surprised Traylor never painted the insect-and finished by the Depression.

The urban world of Monroe Street was also a place where Traylor would have encountered images and sounds from film, phonograph and radio. The Peking movie theater stood near the Red Bell Cafe where Traylor worked. Through Montgomery would come minstrel and medicine shows, carnivals and circuses that may have inspired the panthers and elephants. The blues singer Ma Rainey toured for years with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels a traveling show that would have come to Montgomery. (The photographer Walker Evans recorded many of the minstrel show’s wall sized advertisements.) There was music from radios--in 1939, the young Hank Williams, just out of high school and the author of "WPA Blues," could already be heard on Montgomery’s WSFA radio--juke boxes and phonographs. Phonographs were mechanically powered (wind up models) and radios battery powered; both preceded the electric light in rural homes.

Only the recording process "froze" the liquid nature of the blues. The qualities of fable and parable in the blues, of a basic narrative armature often decorated with new names and details and changing lyrics have counterparts in Traylor’s work. His human characters and animals seem to spring from a similar mode. The freshness of his work carries the same feeling as a blue performance. There is a casualness about the song as something separate from performance, a sense of mutability lost in more modern or "sophisticated" understandings of the art. There is a sense of making it up as you go along, of a story still fresh in the telling.

Many of Traylor’s drawings glow with anecdote, fairly sing with tales that could be set to music. Traylor’s animal world sometimes recalls the sort of African derived animal tales--popularized by Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus-- in which the weaker animal tricks the stronger. The comments and stories Shannon recorded from Traylor’s mouth and penciled on the back of some of the drawings are instantly alive in our ears--you can hear the man talking, telling, almost singing.

A simple composition of a dog, basket, and bird contains a tale, a witticism: "Bird on top of the basket and he don’t know it," Traylor said of it.

Allen Rankin recorded another tale in his 1946 Collier’s magazine article on Traylor: "Ole bullfrog say, ‘Who’s gonna sleep wid my wife when I’m dead ?’....an all de little frogs say ‘Me! Me! Me!’ Old bullfrog say ‘Who’s gonna take keer of my wife when I’m dead?’ An aint no little frog made a sound til yet."

More elaborate narratives of "exciting events" and drunken nights are implied by the constructions where drinking men--often blue--are surrounded by elfin figures, part sprite, part Dr. Seuss, like preaching drunks or drunken preachers--a humorous literal suggestion of high spirits. The world of these revels is an illegal one--that of bootleggers and moonshine. Traylor at once exhalts in drunkenness and mocks it; his pencil and brush seem to carress the outlines of kegs, pitchers, and whisky jugs with the awe and respect of someone holding a genie’s lamp.

On the back of "Sullin’ mule" Shannon recorded these words: "He’s sullin’. He won’t work. Minute he sees a plow he start swinging back. You can’t make em go. Git’s dat pride from his mama. Every where dat mare went he went. He followed her everywhere--so when he got big--he just like her--went every where she went--did everything she did." This mule is an individual for Traylor, a character.

The blues are full of references to ponies, horses and mules--often with sexual overtones. In the world where Traylor grew up, subtle knowledge of horses and mules was as vital as knowledge of automobiles in later years. This knowledge informs the lines of Traylor’s work--the difference is immediately visible between say, the recalcitrant beast in He’s Sullin’, head stubbornly bent, body tensed like a bow, and Alerted Mule, with thinner forelegs and an energy of pose.

Another powerful socially charged image--shared by blues lyrics--is that of the snake. In the blues the snake is often a stealthy seducer, a social as well as sexual insurgent. Traylor’s snakes are not just pests or threats but images of hidden power. One of Traylor’s snakes steals eggs--in Snake Running Chicken Off Nest--a black thief in the barnyard of white domesticity?

Another of Traylor’s snakes graced the cover of the catalog of the landmark Black Folk Art show organized by the Corcoran Museum in Washington. All of Traylor’s power--his sinuous wit and studied energy-- is curled up in that snake.

The dominant idea of folk art has changed since that show. Expressed in the substitution of the term "self-taught" for "outsider" the change parallels a change in the understanding of the blues. Once viewed as a kind of anonymous folk art, the music is increasingly seen as art of individual creators, learning from each other, to be sure, but competing as well. Individual geniuses rise above the average and transcend the genre.

The greatest is Robert Johnson, who bears striking comparison to Traylor. Both are figures of individual vision and talent. "Folk" suggests an achievement of convention achieved by the collective work of a group, rather than of the vision of individual artists. Johnson’s is a darker vision. He sings of the hellhound on his trail---one thinks of Traylor’s oversized dogs---but also of the Greyhound bus line, ‘the dog’ in vernacular speech. (Traylor painted a greyhound as well.) In the lingo of the south, similarly, certain trains were nicknamed after snakes and dogs as well: the Yellow Dog, the Black Snake. And the train, the bus, the weary leg were means of possible escape.

Johnson had died in August of 1938, aged 27, but John Hammond and Alan Lomax were searching for him at about the same time Shannon discovered Bill Traylor. Hammond, the New York record producer, hoped to bring Johnson to New York as the centerpiece of his landmark "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall. Each artist had a short career---Johnson’s at the beginning of a life span, Traylor’s at the end.

Abstraction in Traylor--his strange "constructions" and baskets, for instance, often possesses rhythms and repetitions that suggest sound if not song. In Whippoorwill, the hatchings of the bird’s body are surrounded by hatchings on the ground of the paper, like bits of detached sound, as if shape were dissolving into song. The whippoorwill is a bird better known for its sound than its shape--fluffed and camouflaged, it vanishes into leaves--and Traylor depicts it as such. The bird’s very name is supposed to sound like its cry, and it is always the "lonesome" whippoorwill, the American nightingale, whose distant sad call--a call of loneliness from deep in the American psyche--shows up not just in blues songs, not just in Hank Williams’s "So Lonesome I Could Cry" but in Huckleberry Finn itself: " I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead....I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and whippowill and dog crying about somebody that was going to die and the wind was trying to whisper something to me and I couldn’t make out what it was..."

The sense in Whipoorwill of rendering sound in image is repeated elsewhere in Traylor--a snake is accompanied by marks that seem to hint at his hiss, and the blue devils or dancing imps of his scenes of drunkenness and revelry are bent like blues notes. (note 4)

The fabrics in the dresses of women Traylor observed on Monroe Street are rendered with a rhythmic set of marks, very much like the decorative patterns Birney Imes has photographed on the walls of contemporary juke joints.

A similar sort of repetitive patterning seen in the work of self taught artists like David Butler and Z.B. Armstrong or in such folk environments as Margaret’s Grocery, near Vicksburg, Mississippi. Such repetitive patterning may echo the African drum beat, a sound feared and forbidden by plantation overseers during slavery and later during the sharecropping eras, as dangerous and potentially inciteful. Many earlyblues guitarists provided a beat by striking the bodies of their instruments with their hands.<

Indeed, it was the later addition of drums to the blues and to white country music from the Americna south that produced first rhythm and blues and finally rock and roll music.

On his visits to Monroe Street Charles Shannon often stopped at the local five and ten to buy "race records"-- thick 78s of blues and spirituals, jazz and ragtime, from the Vocalion or Okeh labels. He owned such blues as Josh White’s "Black Snake" and Blind Boy Fuller’s "Snake Woman Blues."

Shannon might never have appreciated Traylor’s snakes and mules, might never have paused to notice him there on Monroe Street, had he not first loved black music--spirituals, jazz, blues. He immediately compared Traylor’s work to that of spirituals.

Beginning with the summer of 1935 when he hired two young African American men to help him build a cabin, Shannon’s fascination with black culture grew. It directed and inspired his own painting. "It really set me on fire," Shannon would recall. "The blacks’ music the way they moved the way they lived....they just seemed to be more deeply alive to me. They seemed somehow to have more wisdom than other people I knew."

Shannon owned records by Bessie Smith and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, who was to provide Elvis Presley with one of his first hits "That’s All Right Momma." Shannon enjoyed the music of Peetie Wheatstraw (who called himself "the Devil’s Son in Law" and from whom Robert Johnson may have learned the usefulness of claiming to have made a deal with the devil.) The tale he had traded his soul for his music, at a lonesome country crossroads, was an essential part of the Johnson legend.

Shannon had visited Harlem nightclubs in 1938 or 1939 with Carl Van Vechten, the central figure in encouraging white intellectuals to look to black music.

Shannon was far from alone in this appreciation. As Ann Douglas shows in her recent study of modernism in New York, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920’s, (note 5) African American culture was as fascinating and exotic to the American modernist as things "Oriental" had been to the European romantic. Black culture seemed powerful, primal, and above all undiminished by the paralysis of self consciousness.

The same sort of fascination Shannon felt sent the Library of Congress field recorders such as John and Alan Lomax into the south, the same ethos that led James Agee and Walker Evans to record the lives of white sharecroppers in Alabama about the same time Traylor left the farm.

Just as wider and closer study of the world of the blues has seen Robert Johnson emerge as figure of singular talent--in Mystery Train, Greil Marcus puts him in company with such American visionaries as Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards and F.Scott Fitzgerald--Traylor’s importance increasingly appears not just as a folk artist, not just as a black artist, but as a major figure of the American visual imagination, of the rank of Homer or Hopper, Ryder or Rothko.

And Traylor’s blue begs comparison not just with the blue of signs or songs, but the American blue of Winslow Homer’s skies and Martin Johnson Heade’s oceans, the modern blue of Yves Klein or Matisse cutouts. The more we look at Traylor the more we find something else: that not only does his art look the way the blues sound, but the blues can come to sound like his art looks.

In "All My Love in Vain" Robert Johnson sings of seeing a train carrying his lover pull away from the station,"with two lights on behind." "The blue light was my blues and the red light was my mind," he sings--an image as abstractly dark and soulful as a Rothko. Listen to this song, its sound smeared by the vagaries of the recording and rerecording processes, after seeing Traylor’s work, and you can’t help but imagine Traylor’s showcard electric reds and blues in the glow of the lights.
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1 Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro American Art and Philosphy. William Farris Thompson. New York: Random House, 1983) p. 209

2 "He Lost 10,000 Years," Colliers, June 22, 1946. Rankin was an Alabama newspaper columnist.

3 A guide to the world Traylor inhabited is provided by another WPA product, the 1941 Alabama :A Guide to the Deep South by the Writers Program of the WPA (New York: Richard R. Smith), which included photographs by Walker Evans, Marion Post Wolcott, Dorothea Lange and other FSA photographers. It lists Shannon among the notable local artists mentioned. Reading it, one learns that Traylor’s Monroe Street base was only a few feet from the former slave market and the first capitol of the rebellious Southern confederacy.

4 William Eggleston has photographed caricatured, animated bent notes on vernacular ads for dances in Mississippi and Alabama.

5 New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.

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