Study Guide

You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down Story 1: Nineteen Fifty-Five

By Alice Walker

Story 1: Nineteen Fifty-Five

1955

  • The narrator of the story (we later learn she's called Gracie Mae Still) sits on the porch with her partner, J. T. They see a fancy red Cadillac pull up, and two white men get out.
  • One guy is old (Gracie Mae calls him "the deacon"), the other young. Gracie Mae thinks they want to sell her something. But that's not it.
  • The deacon tells Gracie Mae that they want to buy one of her songs. The young man, Traynor, is a HUGE fan of Gracie Mae and would like to record one of her songs.
  • The deacon gives Gracie Mae a check for $500, and she's in disbelief.
  • Right after the men leave, the deacon comes back. He also wants to buy up all of Gracie Mae's recordings of the song.
  • In the end, Gracie Mae gets a check for another $500. J. T. is way impressed that his lady can make so much money without even trying.
  • Gracie Mae tells us that J. T. loved the days when she was on the road, singing her heart out and looking fine.

1956

  • In 1956, Gracie Mae's grandchild tells her that Traynor is on TV singing her old song. Gracie Mae is surprised—but not too happy about the gyrations Traynor is doing on the stage to please the girls.
  • Still, Gracie Mae thinks that Traynor really gets the song—it could have been her up there singing it.
  • Gracie Mae can't get away from Traynor and the song anymore. He's famous, and he's everywhere. White people think he's amazing because of that song—but they have no idea where it actually came from.
  • Gracie Mae is really okay with it. She's got money in the bank, even if she's having to battle weight and high blood sugar.

1957

  • By the beginning of 1957, no one in Gracie Mae's family even remembers that the song Traynor made famous originally belonged to her. Her name is on the record, but big deal.
  • Traynor comes to visit Gracie Mae and her family. He really wants to ask her one question: what does the song mean?
  • Gracie Mae tries to tell Traynor that it's just a song. It's about her experience of bad love from bad, bad men.
  • Traynor tells Gracie Mae that he thinks she's an awesome singer, and he gives her a present that she can't open until he leaves.
  • Traynor gives Gracie Mae directions to walk down the street and open the little box he's handed to her. When she and her family get to the spot on the street, they find a brand-new Cadillac—the keys are in the box.
  • Gracie Mae and J. T. get in the car and disappear for two days.

1960

  • By 1960, Traynor is super famous, even though he's not yet 20. But then he's drafted by the military and has to serve overseas in Germany.
  • Traynor writes letters to Gracie Mae to tell her that he's fine and feeling better with all the exercise. Gracie Mae writes back.
  • It's clear that Traynor has been showering her with gifts from overseas, and it's been nice—but she's ready for him to stop.
  • When Traynor writes back, he tells Gracie Mae that he wants to write his own songs. But it's hard for him to find something in his life to write about. And he still wants to know where "the song" came from. Specifically, he wants to know what part of her life it belongs to.

1968

  • In 1968, Gracie Mae notes that in this big space of time when she didn't see Traynor, just about every important person had died or been killed. Even J. T. was gone.
  • Now Gracie Mae is with a man named Horace, a good friend of J. T.'s. And then Traynor appears with a huge entourage of white men and flashy cars.
  • Gracie Mae can see Traynor has put on weight and looks a little like a sultan. When Traynor sees Horace, he thinks it's J. T. Awkward.
  • But Gracie Mae can't be critical of Traynor's weight. She's reached new heights on the scale herself and doesn't really care anymore.
  • Traynor invites Gracie Mae to dinner at his place and asks her whatever happened to the 500-acre farm he bought her.
  • It's clear that Gracie Mae has been doing just fine in the city, probably through the gifts sent by Traynor.
  • It turns out that Traynor has been brooding on "the song" all these years. He says he knows that Gracie Mae and her BFF, Bessie Smith, got into it over that song.
  • Gracie Mae is freaked out over Traynor's knowledge about her life. He also tells her he knows about her other husbands. She winds up laughing about it, but still.
  • Gracie Mae thinks that something isn't right with Traynor's eyes. She can't put her finger on what it is.
  • Traynor tells Gracie Mae that he also didn't find happiness in marriage. He tried to act the part—like singing someone else's song—but it flopped.
  • Gracie Mae tells Traynor that there are other fish in the sea ("no need to grieve"), and Traynor picks up on this. He realizes this is what "the song" is about.
  • Gracie Mae confesses that she didn't believe everything would work out all right when she sang that song, but her life has proved it to her. Traynor isn't old enough yet to see the proof.
  • We learn about the Bessie Smith incident. Bessie had wanted to sing Gracie Mae's song, but Gracie Mae didn't let her. In the end, Bessie was glad she didn't. She got famous all on her own.
  • When Gracie Mae leaves to have dinner with Traynor, she tells Horace that "the boy" wants to give her a new house. She just knows it.
  • Traynor's mansion is all that, for sure. In fact, there's too much of the muchness: it's like Gone With the Wind on steroids.
  • There's an awkward moment when Traynor introduces the wife who doesn't make him happy, but then she skedaddles.
  • Traynor and Gracie Mae wind up chatting on the porch. At dinner, Traynor tries to surprise her with a house, but Gracie is a step ahead of him.
  • Traynor learns a hard lesson here: more isn't always better. Gracie Mae doesn't want a mansion to clean, and she doesn't want strangers living around her to take care of it.
  • And then Traynor has more insight into "the song." His fans want the packaged tune, but they don't really want him. They don't want Gracie Mae, either.
  • Traynor says that his fans are like a "pack of hound dogs trying to gobble up a scent"—just in case you didn't get the references to Elvis and "Hound Dog" earlier.
  • What a singer really needs, Traynor thinks, is an honest audience. Gracie Mae says that her audiences were smaller, but they got her.
  • Traynor decides he's got to make honest people out of his audience. So he gets himself and Gracie Mae on The Johnny Carson Show two weeks later.
  • And things go spectacularly badly on TV. Traynor wants to force the audience to love Gracie Mae, who is the real deal. But the audience of middle-aged white ladies just isn't respecting the 350-pound Black singer. They want the package they've been sold: they want Traynor.
  • So when Traynor sings the exact song—even screws it up—the audience loses its mind in ecstasy. Traynor hates the whole thing.
  • Gracie Mae tells Traynor to chill. Traynor only needs to worry about impressing the people who matter.
  • Traynor wonders if that is part of "the song," too. Gracie says maybe.

1977

  • Almost nine years have passed, and by 1977, Gracie Mae hasn't heard from "the boy" much. But Gracie Mae is fighting her fat, and it takes all her concentration.
  • One night, Gracie Mae has a bad dream about Traynor. He's divorcing his 15th wife and feels empty and unfulfilled. In the morning, she tells Horace that Traynor is in some kind of trouble.
  • Then, Gracie Mae finds out that Traynor is dead. No one knows what caused it.
  • One of Gracie Mae's kids calls to say that fans are losing their minds in grief over Traynor—but Gracie Mae doesn't want to look. She's sure they don't know what they're actually crying for.

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