The narrator (unnamed) and her cousin Cathy are playing at their Granny’s house along with Terry and Tyrone, the twin boys from next door. The house is out in the country, sitting next to fields of crops.
A camera crew has been lurking in a nearby meadow for some time, and Granny eventually tells the kids to shoo them away. The cameramen explain that they are shooting a film to promote the county’s food stamps program, and would like to get some footage of her house. Granny refuses.
Cathy begins to tell a story about how she saw a man try to kill himself by jumping off a bridge. He attracted a crowd of onlookers, and a camera crew like this one began to film him. The twins and the narrator beg to know whether the man jumped, but Granny silently intimidates Cathy into stopping the story. Cathy instead launches into the story “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” The narrator describes how Granny becomes frustrated with her surroundings every few years, and forces the family to move.
Granddaddy Cain returns from hunting with a large hawk, a hammer, and his hunting gear in tow. The cameramen rush up to film him, but he politely forces them away. When they refuse to honor his request, he holds out his hand for the camera. Intimidated, they hand it to him, and he removes the top so that their film is ruined. He then points out that they are standing in his wife’s flower bed. He gives the camera back, and they leave. Cathy says that one day, she will write a story about this incident, and that the story will describe “the proper use of a hammer” (136).
Published in the magazine Another I/Eye in 1971, “Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird” was one of the last stories that Bambara wrote before collecting her short work in Gorilla, My Love the following year. The story shows a willingness to experiment with setting that was absent in Bambara’s earlier work. It takes place in the rural South, a very different geographical and cultural setting from those set in her hometown of New York City. Although “Mississippi Ham Rider” and “The Survivor” both have rural components, this is the first of Bambara’s stories to truly invest in a rural setting, without placing an outsider character into the landscape.
In “Blues,” all of the characters are natives of the South. The story’s setting allows Bambara to investigate certain peculiarities of the African-American experience that would not be possible in her New York stories. In many of her New York stories – especially “The Lesson” – Bambara emphasizes the insularity of Harlem. Residents rarely interact with people from another neighborhood, let alone from another race. This is not true in “Blues,” which centers around a fraught confrontation between the narrator’s grandparents and some white cameramen who wish to film on their farm.
When the story was published, the discord between black and white Southerners, exacerbated by the Civil Rights Movement, was very recent. The violence and resentment of that period informs the distrust that all these characters have for each other. The camera crew probably means well; they are making a promotional film for the state’s food-stamp program. However, Granny and Granddaddy Cain view their attempts to film on their farm without permission as an unwelcome intrusion, regardless of their motives. Further, the camera crew expresses a sense of entitlement that belies their professed sympathies, filming even after they are denied permission.
In Cathy, “Blues” features a young woman with an eye for language and storytelling – perhaps a young surrogate for the author herself. Like many of Bambara’s other stories that feature young characters, this one portrays the narrator and her friends progressing toward maturity as a result of the plot events. While stories like “Sweet Town” and “Raymond’s Run” are fairly explicit about the ways their characters have developed, “Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird” is more opaque. In this story, the reader is left to interpret the significance these events have for the young children. Clearly, this incident has an effect on them, but the narrator cannot articulate what that effect is.
Another unique characteristic of “Blues” is the role of the narrator. In most of Bambara’s stories, the narrator is a main character, and her choices affect the plot. The narrator of “Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird” is more of an observer; in fact, she plays the smallest role of any of the characters in driving the story’s action. Bambara also uses this conceit in “Playin with Punjab,” which is narrated by Violet, a mostly passive character. Despite this change in the narrator’s role, there is some continuity between “Blues” and Bambara’s other famous stories. The most important of these continuities is the use of regional vernacular. Although the narrator of “Blues” uses certain vocabulary and grammatical irregularities that are specific to the American South, her creative voice and emphasis on African-American vernacular are similar to those of the narrators in “Gorilla, My Love” and “The Lesson.”