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Intersections: August Wilson, Writing to the Blues

Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson has spent more than 20 years writing a cycle of plays that chronicle black life in 20th-century America, decade by decade. In works such as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences and The Piano Lesson, Wilson writes about segregation and race relations; the daily struggle to find and hold a decent paying job; love, death and spirituality.

Wilson likes to say his work is inspired by the four Bs: Writers Amiri Baraka and Jorge Luis Borges, painter Romare Bearden, and the blues. But if you press him, you'll find the blues get top billing. As part of Intersections, a Morning Edition series on artists and their inspirations, Marcie Sillman of member station KUOW spoke with the playwright.

As a young man, Wilson haunted Pittsburgh's thrift stores, buying stacks of old albums for a nickel each. One day, he came across a recording by Bessie Smith, one of the great blues singers of the 1920s and '30s.

"I put that on, and it was unlike anything I'd ever heard before," Wilson recalls. "Somehow, all that other music was different from that. And I go, 'Wait a minute. This is mine… there's a history here.'"

The first song on the record was "Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine." Listening to the song, over and over, Wilson realized he could write in the language he heard around him -- black street vernacular -- rather than the English he admired in the works of such writers as Dylan Thomas. It was, he recalls, a defining moment: "The universe stuttered, and everything fell into place."

In Wilson's Ma Rainey, the title character calls the blues "life's way of talking." Wilson says the blues are life's instructions: "Contrary to what most people think, it's not defeatist, 'Oh, woe is me.' It's very life-affirming, uplifting music. Because you can sing that song, that's what enables you to survive."

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