August Wilson, 1945-2005
By Mark Dalton
A great American Bluesman has gone. August Wilson died here in his adopted hometown of Seattle, of liver cancer, last Sunday morning, October 2nd, at age 60. He wasn't known as a singer, or as an instrumentalist - Wilson's ax was the stage. He wrote an amazing cycle of ten plays about being Black in our country that spanned the 20th century. Wilson was a great story teller, and his plays were all informed by and infused with the Blues. All of them.
He is quoted in the Seattle Times as saying "The Blues is the best literature Black Americans have. It's our cultural response to the world, an emotional reference point. Five million years from now, if people have these records they'll be able to piece together a lot about us." In the New York Times, an interview quoted Wilson on his influences, which he labeled the "four B's" - the first and primary influence being "The Blues." (The other "B's" were the "magical realist" writer Jorge Luis Borges, the playwright Amiri Baraka, and the painter Romare Bearden.) NYT reviewer Frank Rich wrote that Wilson's work "floats on the same authentic artistry as the blues music it celebrates."
Two of Wilson's plays, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "Seven Guitars" celebrated the Blues directly, recreating the world and the artistic struggles which created the music that so many people take for granted in today's profit-driven, disposable culture. Yesterday's news to some, the Blues formed the foundation of Wilson's magnificent body of work.
I saw Wilson once, standing on the steps of 600 First Avenue in Pioneer Square, the lovely old stone building behind the Pergola where his office was located. His name was on the building directory, and his name and office address were (and still are) in the phone book. Wilson liked being in Seattle, from all accounts, because he could avoid the trappings of celebrity here - he didn't need an unlisted number or a secret office here. He reportedly did some of his writing in a coffee shop on Capitol Hill. I was walking through Pioneer Square on a sunny spring day, and there was Wilson, standing on the steps, rapidly smoking a short unfiltered cigarette, smoke wreathing around his head, lost in thought. He was clearly taking a break, and in the space of about a minute, that cigarette was down to the nub, and he flicked it away, turning quickly back to the door, looking for all the world like a man chasing ideas with intense concentration.
The only comparable experience I've had was seeing Otis Rush, with his guitar, hop onto the El in Chicago at 2:30 am one morning when my pal Paul and I were on our way home from loading trucks at United Parcel Service. In both cases, it wasn't just that these guys had recognizable faces - it was the aura around them - that indefinable aura that somehow surrounds great Bluesmen - something about style, something about self-assurance, something about a stubborn insistence on living life on one's own terms. Whatever it was, August Wilson had it in spades. I walked away from that sighting feeling kind of proud of Seattle - our town, and August Wilson's town too. For all its shortcomings, its politically correct and trendy facade, there's still something here, some real heartbeat deep in Seattle somewhere, that understands and is capable of nurturing the Blues.
Originally from Nebraska, Mark Dalton moved to Seattle in the early '70s. He is an accomplished bassist and stalwart bluesman. He currently plays with the Chris Stevens Band. Photo by Ronda Lee.