Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

by

August Wilson

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Joe Turner’s Come and Gone can help.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone: Act Two: Scene Two Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Bynum and Seth sit in the parlor playing dominoes while Bynum sings an old blues song. “They tell me Joe Turner’s come and gone,” he sings, eventually drawing Herald into the room. “Why you singing that song?” he asks. “Why you singing about Joe Turner?” Bynum claims he’s just entertaining himself by singing this song, which he learned years ago while traveling near Memphis. “I don’t like you singing that song, mister!” Loomis shouts. “You ever been to Johnstown, Herald Loomis?” Bynum asks, remarking that he looks like somebody he knew in that area. “That’s around where I seen my shiny man,” he adds. Going on, he asks if Herald has ever picked cotton, remarking that he looks like he’s done a fair amount of farming. Interjecting, Seth proudly announces that he hasn’t ever picked cotton.
“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is an old blues song written in the years after slavery about the black men who disappeared after having been framed and captured by a renegade law enforcer capitalizing on the South’s racism. By singing this, Bynum evokes the tension running rampant throughout the South after the fall of slavery. The fact that this song draws Herald into the parlor suggests once again that he and Bynum occupy a similar spiritual wavelength, as Bynum seems to know something about Herald. In this moment, it’s rather clear that Bynum is trying to get to the bottom of Herald’s personal history and his experience in the South. Of course, Seth appears utterly unaware of Bynum’s efforts and is merely proud to be able to claim that he has never picked cotton in his life.
Themes
Racism in Post-Slavery America Theme Icon
Spirituality Theme Icon
Herald asks how Bynum knows so much about him, and Bynum says his father taught him this skill. “Say when you look at a fellow, if you taught yourself to look for it, you can see his song written on him.” He adds that Herald looks like a person who’s forgotten his song. “Now,” he says, “I used to travel all up and down this road and that…looking here and there. Searching. Just like you, Mr. Loomis. I didn’t know what I was searching for. The only thing I knew was something was keeping me dissatisfied.” He explains the feeling of finding his song, asserting, “See, Mr. Loomis, when a man forgets his song he goes off in search of it…till he find out he’s got it with him all the time. That’s why I can tell you one of Joe Turner’s niggers.”
Bynum provides some insight into why people often are so drawn to lives of migration and transience, suggesting that the desire to travel often arises from a feeling of “dissatisf[action],” some kind of abstract discontentment that keeps a person moving from in search of something to give life meaning. This meaningful thing everyone is searching for, Bynum upholds, is a “song” that will solidify a person’s purpose. A person without a song, he says, must go “off in search of it.” At the end of his brief monologue, he says he can tell that Loomis was a victim of Joe Turner, revealing what the audience has no doubt already suspected: that he does in fact know more than Herald would expect about his life.
Themes
Migration and Transience Theme Icon
Racism in Post-Slavery America Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Spirituality Theme Icon
“How you see that?” Herald asks. “I got a mark on me? Joe Turner done marked me to where you can see it?” In response, Bynum merely sings the old Joe Turner blues song, which encourages Herald to tell the story of how he was captured by Joe Turner and forced to labor for him for seven years. “Joe Turner catched me in nineteen hundred and one. Kept me seven years until nineteen hundred and eight,” he says. He explains that he was walking on a road outside Memphis and came upon a group of gamblers. Because he was a deacon, he decided to preach to these sinners, hoping he could “turn some of them.” Suddenly, “Joe Turner, brother of the Governor of the great sovereign state of Tennessee, swooped down” and captured him. 
Herald’s backstory aligns with the actual history of Joe Turner, a man also known as Joe Turney, who was indeed the brother of the Governor of Tennessee. In charge of transporting prisoners to the penitentiary, Joe Turney would purposefully frame black men for crimes—such as gambling—so that he could then have total control over them as prisoners without rights. On his route to the penitentiary he often sold these prisoners to farms and plantations along the Mississippi River. The blues song that originates from his name is called “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” because this is what people used to say when somebody would ask why all of the black men in a given town had disappeared.
Themes
Racism in Post-Slavery America Theme Icon
Still telling his story to Seth and Bynum, Herald says that Joe Turner let him go after seven years of forced labor, at which point he went back to the place he and his family had been sharecropping, but Martha and Zonia were gone. When he went to Martha’s mother’s house, he discovered that Martha left Zonia with her and went off of her own, so he took Zonia with him and has been searching for his wife ever since. This was four years ago, and now the only thing he wants is to “see her face” so that he can get “a starting place in the world.” Elaborating, he says, “I been wandering a long time in somebody else’s world. When I find my wife that be the making of my own.”
When Herald says he’s been “wandering a long time in somebody else’s world,” he reinforces Wilson’s original notion that Loomis is unable to “harmonize” his “song” with the external world, which he wants to “recreate” so that it “contains his image.” Indeed, the world doesn’t contain his image because it is “somebody else’s”: Joe Turner’s. Because Joe Turner so flagrantly derailed Herald’s life, his influence looms large even after he released the poor man, so large that Herald feels like he’s still living in Turner’s world. By seeing his wife’s face, then, he will essentially be able to pick up where he left off, thereby making his own world.
Themes
Migration and Transience Theme Icon
Racism in Post-Slavery America Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Spirituality Theme Icon
Get the entire Joe Turner’s Come and Gone LitChart as a printable PDF.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone PDF
Bynum asks Herald why Joe Turner captured him, but Loomis says he never even got physically close enough to the man to ask such a question. He resolves that he must have had something Turner wanted, but Seth interrupts to say, “He just want you to do his work for him. That’s all.” Bynum disagrees with this, saying, “What he wanted was your song. He wanted to have that song to be his. He thought by catching you he could learn that song.” He also adds, “Now he’s got you bound up to where you can’t sing your own song.” Looking at Bynum, Herald says one more thing before the lights go off: “I know who you are. You one of them bones people.”
Bynum’s assertion that Joe Turner has Herald “bound up” is interesting, considering that Bynum himself binds people together. But whereas Bynum binds people to others in an attempt to forge unification and love, Joe Turner binds people in a more literally inhibiting sense, preventing somebody like Herald from being free and singing his “song.” Furthermore, when Herald says that Bynum is “one of them bones people,” he finally acknowledges that he and Bynum share a spiritual connection, since the “bones people” are the ones he saw in his vision. This is perhaps why Bynum was able to partake in the telling of this vision—after all, he seems to have lived it himself.
Themes
Racism in Post-Slavery America Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Spirituality Theme Icon