It goes without saying that some of the most beautiful and enduring writing about music often comes not from critical books devoted specifically to musical forms or music history. Many of the most memorable passages about the power of music comes from literature, whether it’s the blind bard Homer singing of arms and men, the Hindu Gitas, the Psalms in the Hebrew Bible, or Milan Kundera’s musical descriptions of the metaphysical differences in lightness and weight in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Twentieth-century Southern novelists turn to music as ways of providing identities for their characters, who live in a culture saturated by gospels and spirituals. Harry Crews’ roaringly funny The Gospel Singer features a protagonist—a gospel singer, of course—who uses his musical talent in revivals to seduce the women of the town; his siren song sings of the always torturous grappling of the spirit and the flesh, and of the ways that spirituals can be subverted. That’s Crews’ point, after all, but without a culture already drenched with such terminal paradox, his fiction would clearly resonate with generations who grew up going to revivals and wondering just what those clean-looking men and women really did after the camp meeting after singing “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”
Southern literature is replete with characters such as Crews’, but for writers such as Crews or Clyde Edgerton—whose first novel, Raney, got him kicked out of the small Baptist college where he was then teaching for his depiction of the power of music to move a young Baptist woman in lustful ways—music functions as a tool they can use to depict the ironic, the humorous, the salacious aspects of their culture. They might be interested in some fashion in illustrating the power of music to redeem suffering, but music in these novels often becomes a tool for humor, a way of making fun of a culture not quite urbane, but struggling to show itself to be, but in the end settling very often for the comfortable dichotomies.
Some of the most powerful scenes in literature, though, come from African-American novels and stories and from writing about music by poets. Any novel or essay or short story James Baldwin wrote reeks of musicality. The threshing floor scene in his novel Go Tell It On the Mountain, for example, features a young John Grimes struggling to come to terms with the mysteries of salvation in the midst of a community that glorifies the ethereal and supernatural over the earthly. His very name, of course, as countless critics have reminded us, marks this struggle: John, the reference to a biblical character who himself was wild yet also felt unworthy; Grimes, a reference to impurity that needs to be washed. The scene itself plays on the glories of transcendence, yet it is also disturbing since John does not experience the freedom he’s been promised by his community. Nevertheless, Baldwin’s depiction of the scene moves like a jazz spiritual, riffing on these themes until the music reaches its climax and then comes spiraling back down.
Perhaps one of the most enduring musical scenes is from Baldwin’s 1965 short story “Sonny’s Blues.” The entire story has a certain beauty to it, and it features a young man who yearns to be a great jazz musician but whose family does not believe in him and whose own heroin addiction mires him sometimes in an unfree world. By the end of the story, Sonny has convinced his brother to come to a club to hear him play. It’s in these final scenes where we see the power of music to redeem, to overcome, to make whole, as his brother realizes: “It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his … freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us be free if we would listen, and that he would never be free until we did.” The narrator brings the arc full circle by closing the story with a reflection on the power of music: “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”
Yet Baldwin is not the only novelist to illustrate this power; poet and essayist Amiri Baraka, writing in 1963 as LeRoi Jones, published a cultural essay that moved into free flights of poetic fancy now and again titled Blues People (Harper). Reading it now is like entering another time and place, since Jones was writing even before the Civil Rights Act was passed. Yet his description of the cultural impact of the blues—the ways that the music is the substance of the culture and the ways that the culture forms the music—remain required reading even now. In his introduction, Jones poetically declares his purpose: “As I began to get into the history of the music, I found that this was impossible without, at the same time, getting deeper into the history of the people … the music was the score, the actually expressed creative orchestration, reflection, of Afro-American life … an orchestrated, vocalized hummed, chanted, blown, beaten, scatted, corollary confirmation of history … explaining the music. And the history as history was explaining the music. And that both were expressions and reflections of the people.” Jones’ testimony clears the way for the later testimonies of James Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues and Toni Morrison’s Jazz.
Moving always in concentric circles of culture and music, Jones describes the rise of what he calls “classic blues”: “Socially, classic blues and the instrumental styles that went with it represented the Negro’s entrance into the world of professional entertainment and the assumption of the psychological imperatives that must accompany such a phenomenon. Blues was music that arose from the needs of a group, although it was assumed that each man had his own blues and that he would sing them. As such, the music was private and personal … classic blues took on a certain degree of professionalism. It was no longer strictly the group singing to ease their labors or the casual expression of personal deliberations on the world. It became a music that could be used to entertain others formally. The artisan, the professional blues singer appeared.” While primitive blues grows out of field shouts and hollers—much in the same way that spirituals do—classic blues moves the culture to a new place, and as Jones points out in his conclusion, the music continues to evolve with the culture even as the roots of the music go deep and will forever provide the sustenance necessary for survival.
Both Baldwin and Jones offer stand as starting points for a reading list to celebrate the power of music and literature during Black History Month. I would love it if readers would add their own suggestions here, but here are a few books that can get you started:
James Baldwin: start with “Sonny’s Blues,” but you could as easily start with Go Tell It on the Mountain or Blues for Mister Charlie
Toni Morrison, Jazz
James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues
Albert Murray, Train Whistle Guitar, as I indicated in an earlier column, Murray’s collected writings have been published now by the Library of America as Albert Murray: Collected Writings
Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act
Claude MacKay, Amiable with White Teeth
Langston Hughes, Simple Tells the Truth
Ernest Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
Zora Neal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God