The Affects of Music in Sherman Alexie's "Reservation Blues"
Music has been created since the beginning of time. From hymns to rock and roll and country to rap, music has profoundly impacted the way in which humans relate to one another and the world around them. Furthermore, the impact of music is commonly referred to and analyzed in written literature. Sherman Alexie is a writer who uses music to convey themes of racism, stereotypes, and poverty that have stricken American Indians since being colonized centuries ago. These themes are seen in the characters in Alexie’s Reservation Blues. The spiritual woman, also known to be a music teacher, Big Mom, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a member of the band Coyote Springs, and the music executives from Cavalry Records, Phil Sheridan and George Wright, illustrate different impacts music has on both American Indians and Anglo people.
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Big Mom uses music to cope with things that happen in life and teaches her students to put feeling into their music. She has taught Janis Joplin, Benny Goodman, Les Paul, the Andrews Sisters, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, the great Elvis Presley, and, most recently, Coyote Springs to sing and play their instruments better. At one point, Big Mom makes Coyote Springs replay a chord that is described as, “the loneliest chord that the band had ever heard” (206). Big Mom’s ability to effectively channel emotions into music makes her expertise as a music teacher essential to her students. In fact, the talent she bestows upon her students has produced some of the “great musicians who shaped the twentieth century” (201); however, the talent she proclaims is a gift can also cause destruction in the lives of her students. Before Coyote Springs leaves Big Mom, she says, “You make your choices” (216). Coyote Springs, like former students, have the talent to become big rock stars, if they want. The things they do after they leave Big Mom’s is their choice. In her opinion, Big Mom says, “Music is supposed to heal” (208). Big Mom uses music to mourn for the slain horses (10) and Junior (281). At the end of the book, Big Mom also, “sang a protection song, so none of the Indians, not one, would forget who they are” (306). In these ways Big Mom uses music to teach her students and those who listen closely to her songs that music is more than noise. It is a part of the person who sings it. For Big Mom, music is a way to express feelings through noises of all originality. When a person is feeling a certain way music is heard in just about everything: loneliness may sound like a single foot step on a creaky hardwood floor, a feeling of wanting to be closer to nature may sound like several horses neighing, being content would sound like the wind blowing, and a sad point in life may feel like the whispering of an Edgar Allen Poe poem. When music is thought of in this way, it can and does have a profound impact on people of all races.
Before assembling Coyote Springs, Thomas Builds-the-Fire has a somewhat similar view of music but it gradually changes throughout the story. At one point near the beginning of the book, it is said, “Thomas heard music in everything” (23). Thomas hears music while driving down the interstate without the radio on (90) and his stomach keeps his rhythm while he writes Coyote Springs’ first original song (47). Later, Thomas thinks, “He wanted the songs, the stories, to save everybody” (101). In this way, Thomas’ shares some of Big Mom’s thoughts on what defines music. If music is heard in everything, and he wants songs to save everybody then emotions must be conveyed through music. This is how music heals. This is how music saves people. But, as the story progresses, Thomas begins to lose these ideals. He says, “I hope we don’t make it…Maybe we don’t deserve it. Maybe we should have something better in mind. Maybe something bad is going to happen to us if we don’t have something better on our minds” (72). At this point, Coyote Springs has the potential to make money off their music. Thomas is noticing that he and the band are no longer making music to help people. They are making music to help advance themselves in society. The Spokane fans they once had while practicing in Irene’s Grocery Store are replaced by primarily white fans who are acquired while Coyote Springs competed in the Battle of the Bands in Seattle. Furthermore, their once devout Spokane fans are almost evenly divided amongst those who want Coyote Springs to leave the reservation and those who do not mind of they stay. Thomas is conscious that instead of saving everybody, Coyote Springs is dividing them. Finally, when Chess asks Thomas why he started the band, Thomas responds, “I like the attention. I want strangers to love me. I don’t even know why. But I want all kinds of strangers to love me” (213). As Big Mom would say, this is a choice Thomas made to change his mind about why he started making music in the first place. For Thomas, in the beginning, the music was about saving people, in the middle, the music is all about Thomas, and, in the end, Coyote Springs no longer makes music. Although Coyote Springs’ music had many American Indian and Anglo followers in the beginning, their music drove the two races farther apart and self destructed in the end.
Unlike Thomas and Big Mom, Phil Sheridan and George Wright are uninterested in how music affects American Indians but greatly aware of how music is enjoyed by Anglo people. In a fax to a head executive at Cavalry Records, Mr. Armstrong, Sheridan and Wright say, at most, five sentences about Coyote Springs’ musical talent and spend the rest of the letter describing physical features and their effect on potential fans (189-90). Furthermore, while at the Cavalry Records recording studio in New York, the sound engineer is described as being able to “make the music sound exactly like she wanted it to sound” (224). It is obvious that Sheridan and Wright’s primary focus on music is purely physical. They just have to make sure the band can sing fairly well and has enough physical appeal to draw in prospective music followers. In addition, since, as Sheridan put it, “People want to hear Indians” (269), Sheridan and Wright want to put more emphasis on the band’s ethnicity by using “war paint, feathers, etc., and really play up the Indian angle” (190). Sheridan and Wright exemplify the commercial Anglo world as providing to primarily Anglo listeners in a way that the listeners expect stereotypes of Indians should be. Consequently, the music produced by Cavalry Records, as a result of Sheridan and Wright’s work, is purely for the pleasure of an Anglo audience with no regard to what Indians may think about it.
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Sheridan and Wright’s contradictory view of music and Big Mom and Thomas’ insight illustrate how music can be regarded as a sound that can be found in almost anything and how it can also be seen as a sound that can be commercially produced. Music embedded with emotions, like the kind Big Mom sings, deeply affects its listeners. New, controversial music, like the music Coyote Springs produced, can bring people together but, as in this case, drive people apart. Still, commercially produced music, like that recorded at Cavalry Records, also affects all people, primarily Anglo, with both positive and negative moods; however, commercial music is only made if the record company likes it. When a record company rejected Coyote Springs, they stated, “Indians?...You mean like drums and stuff? That howling kind of singing? We can’t afford to make a record that ain’t going to sell. Sorry” (187). They never even listened to a demo tape. Music impacts American Indians and Anglo people differently because Indian music and Anglo music are considered different. It is hard for people to accept crossbreeds, even in music. Indian music is supposed to be spiritual and heard in everything, like Big Mom thinks. Anglo music is usually commercialized. Indian music is supposed to be Indian music and Anglo music is supposed to be Anglo music. However, if an Indian feels a certain way when listening to Indian music is it not possible for an Anglo person to feel the same way? And vice versa? Does music really impact Indians and Anglo people differently? Why do the affects of different musical styles have to be different from one race to another? These questions do not confirm or deny that music affects races differently, but they may be able to help overcome the prejudice surrounding certain genres of music.
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