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The Piano Lesson | Study Guide

August Wilson

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The Piano Lesson | Epigraph | Summary



For readers of the play The Piano Lesson, the script begins with this epigraph:

Gin my cotton
Sell my seed
Buy my baby
Everything she need

These lines are from the song "Illinois Blues" by Skip James.


In a play called The Piano Lesson, it is not surprising music opens the work and is its central motif. August Wilson set the play in the Hill District of Pittsburgh—a district famed for its jazz clubs. And the Charles family comes from the Mississippi delta, the home of the blues.

The lyrics quoted in the epigraph are from "Illinois Blues," the first song written by the Mississippi blues guitarist Skip James (1902–69). Born in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and raised on a plantation where his mother worked as a cook, James was at various times a piano player in a brothel, a logger, a sharecropper, a gambler, and a minister, among other things. He was also a successful recording artist. So James's life parallels the lives of several of the characters in The Piano Lesson.

The words of the epigraph reflect the experiences of the Charles family. "Gin my cotton" evokes the work done on plantations during and after slavery. "Sell my seed" echoes two very different events in the family history. Slave owner Robert Sutter acquires the piano by trading two of his slaves for it: a woman and her young son. He has sold "the seed" of his enslaved workers. In the play, the son of the young boy traded for the piano, Boy Willie, talks about buying his own farm, raising his own crops, and selling his produce, which might well include seed.

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