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Northwestern University

Uncle Tom’s Blues

Captivated by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Weinberg College freshman Luke Peterson pens an original blues composition that underscores literature’s power to ignite creativity

In the midst of reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Luke Peterson got the blues — and then wrote the blues.

Inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s seminal work, Peterson, a first-year student in Associate Professor Jay Grossman’s “Big Books” seminar, rushed to the piano and crafted a short blues composition titled “Feelings of Living Property,” a nod to the novel’s fifth chapter in which the title character is brutally sold from one slave owner to another.

“It’s thrilling to see a student have such a creative response to such an historically important novel,” Grossman says of Peterson’s inspired musical composition. “The fact that Luke would take Uncle Tom’s Cabin so seriously shows how literature and the humanities can be at the very center for understanding our world.”

Peterson, a mathematics and physics major from Minnesota, discusses how Uncle Tom’s Cabin stirred his soul and his creative energy.

What caught your attention about Uncle Tom’s Cabin?

A few chapters into reading the book, I realized just how different life was for members of these two societies — the slave and the slave owner — and how one was so oblivious to the other’s plight. Reading this book for hours every day over five weeks changed my view on this part of American history.

What inspired you to turn your fascination for the novel into a blues composition?

As a senior in high school, I learned about the storytelling ability of the blues. I wanted to express how I felt about the things happening in the book and how the book’s characters must have felt as well. Blues seemed fitting because it was common for slaves to sing together and a lot of gospel and blues music flows from those experiences.

And this was completely of your own accord?

Yes, though about two weeks after completing the song, I got a blues assignment in my jazz improvisation course. I was able to use this song for that assignment, so there was a happy crossover.

How does your musical composition reflect Tom’s journey?

The song starts on a long pick up that’s high and then falls down rather suddenly. In the middle, then, there’s a sizable leap in melody. It’s symbolic of Tom’s life. He’s a man who starts in a relatively stable place before getting pushed down multiple times throughout the book until his ultimate death. When the melody picks back up, I wanted it to represent his flight back home to heaven.

Has composing music previously helped you navigate your emotions?

Last April, my grandfather passed away on a Friday morning. That day at school, I went to the piano in the school’s music room and wrote a song called “At a Loss” which I wrote to express feelings that I could not articulate with words alone. That’s probably the only thing I could compare to this experience with Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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