BookLife Talks With Gregg Andrews
Q&A with the author of ‘My Daddy’s Blues’
August 31, 2020
Andrews’s unique memoir, My Daddy’s Blues, examines his childhood in a poverty-stricken, alcoholic family in Missouri through the lens of Mark Twain’s characters Huck Finn and Jim.
Why did you decide to write your memoir now?
The timing reflects my maturation as a retired labor history professor, songwriter, National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, and award-winning author. After a quadruple bypass and 50 years with type 1 diabetes, I chose at age 69 to share an intimate lyrical journey through the ups and downs of my hardscrabble childhood in an alcoholic family. A tiny house without indoor plumbing and a dusty cement plant in the Mississippi River bottoms was my lookout perch on the American dream. Recently, it has been fashionable for writers, film directors, and pundits to dismiss white working-class culture as hopelessly self-destructive, racist, and even pathological. My memoir offers an important counter-narrative in which storytelling drives the interpretive framework.
How do you make sure you are telling “the truth,” or how do you refresh your memories when writing?
As a historian, I’ve researched and written other scholarly books, including two (Insane Sisters and City of Dust) on the history of Ilasco, Mo., the immigrant town where I came of age. I don’t trust memory alone. I cross-check memories against documentable sources that provide historical context and enrich the narrative. Plus, I come from a family and community steeped in rich storytelling traditions. A lifetime of telling and retelling stories has further refreshed my memories.
My Daddy’s Blues is entwined with some of Mark Twain’s most famous characters. Can you talk a little bit about your decision to focus on Huck Finn and Jim?
I grew up in the crumbling remains of a rural company town two miles south of the cave popularized in Mark Twain’s classic novels. Like many, I was introduced to Tom, Huck, Jim, and Becky at an early age. Although Hannibal’s commercial identity is tied to the entrepreneurial Tom Sawyer, my political identity is tied to Huck Finn because of class and because of his transformation on the raft with Jim. I connect my transformed personal struggle against economic barriers and pervasive childhood racism to Huck’s transformation on the raft when he chooses Hell over slavery’s conventional morality and elevates Jim’s humanity.
How do you think readers will connect to My Daddy’s Blues?
Readers will appreciate its spare prose, storytelling, poeticism, honesty, and lack of preachiness in tackling serious issues such as alcoholism, PTSD, poverty, racism, and sexual exploitation. Readers will fight back tears in one passage but laugh in the next. I tell my story in three voices, as a child, a songwriter, and a historian. They capture a riverbank childhood, which despite its dark, dangerous aspects, fueled creativity and was grounded in family and community networks guided by a strong working-class mother. Set to a bluesy songwriter’s rhythms and rhymes, the narrative celebrates belly laughs, education, resilience, resistance, and struggle against adversity.
What’s next for you?
I have a project underway to study long-forgotten shanty boat settlements on the Mississippi River in St. Louis. As a child, my grandmother lived on a poor shanty boat on the Hannibal levee when “Ukulele Ike,” the voice of Walt Disney’s Jiminy Cricket, was born in a boat next door. I’m interested in the roots of these settlements, their clashes with city authorities and waterfront commercial interests, and their role in the cultural transmission of river lore in the Mississippi Valley. I also plan to continue writing songs and performing with my central-Texas band, Doctor G and the Mudcats. My music comes out of my swampy origins and gritty childhood.
Distinguished historian and author Noralee Frankel’s five-star review of My Daddy’s Blues:
A Childhood Memoir from the Land of Huck and Jim
“Painfully Real and Yet Hopeful”