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James Baldwin Digs Into the Roots of American Music

James Baldwin’s writing about music illuminates the significance of racial slavery for all American music.

 Interpretations Out of Sync

Interpretation of black American music becomes a recurrent theme in Baldwin’s essays and his short story, “Sonny’s Blues”. Baldwin comments in “Sermons and Blues” (found in Collected Essays), a 1959 review of a collection of Langston Hughes’ poems: “… as the white world takes over this vocabulary—without the faintest notion of what it really means—the vocabulary is forced to change. The same thing is true of Negro music, which has had to become more and more complex in order to continue to express any of the private or collective experience.”

This relates to the passage in The Fire Next Time because when Baldwin says, “Only people who have been ‘down the line,’ as the song puts it, know what this music is about,” he is referring to the increasing complexity of black American music, becoming illegible to whites “in order to continue to express any of the private or collective experience” of blacks in this country, making misinterpretation of the music increasingly common.

In “Last of the Great Masters” (found in Collected Essays) a 1977 review of a book about jazz piano great Earl Hines, Baldwin argues, “The men and women in this book were creating the only musical vocabulary this country has. They were creating American classical music. There isn’t any other, and the American attempts to deny this have led, among other disasters, to the melancholy rise and fall of the late Elvis Presley, who was so highly paid for having a black sound in a white body. Utter madness, of course, but it does a lot to illuminate the economic situation of black musicians, who have, alas, black sounds in black bodies.”

From reading his argument in “Of the Sorrow Songs”, it is clear that Baldwin views jazz as of a larger black American musical tradition; therefore, when he writes of jazz musicians creating “American classical music”, he is not speaking only of jazz; like W. E. B. Du Bois writing about spirituals in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, Baldwin is arguing that black Americans have created a larger tradition that is original to America in a way that other traditions are not. He cites Elvis Presley’s appropriation of “a black sound in a white body” as evidence that “the American attempts to deny this” have led to creating something supposedly original and instead derivative of black American music and lives.

As D. Quentin Miller notes in his chapter on Baldwin and music in A Historical Guide to James Baldwin, one way that Baldwin showed his love of music was in the frequency of musician characters in his fiction, including in novels like Another Country. The most famous example is in his short story “Sonny’s Blues”, originally published in 1957. The title character is a black jazz musician arrested for using heroin, and his unnamed brother, admittedly oblivious to what music means to Sonny, narrates the story. In a key passage, the narrator says,

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

Although the narrator knows less about music than Baldwin (despite Baldwin’s claim in “The Uses of the Blues”), Baldwin writes this passage as if the narrator is stumbling upon a great truth. Indeed, Baldwin’s claims in The Fire Next Time and “Of the Sorrow Songs” show that he agrees with the narrator that “not many people ever really hear it.” The narrator, however, is black, so the passage reveals that to Baldwin, whites are not the only people who misunderstand music, including black American music.

Nonetheless, like Ralph Ellison’s nameless narrator in Invisible Man, published in 1952, the narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” believes that music is deeply misunderstood by the dominant white capitalist culture: Ellison’s narrator asserts, “I know now that few really listen to this music,” while Baldwin’s narrator argues similarly in the above passage. That both narrators assert this point as a form of certitude (“I know”, both write) suggests that this is a particularly strong conviction for the texts’ authors, regardless of the level of identification Ellison and Baldwin hold with their narrators.

For Baldwin, in the above passage, he writes that music, specifically jazz and other black American forms, is both social and individual in its meanings—public and private, as Pavlic notes in Who Can Afford to Improvise?—and like his argument in “Sermons and Blues”, the music becomes more complex from the musicians, and to the listeners, when those “personal, private, vanishing evocations” become more than abstractions: something personally “evoked in” the musicians becomes harder to decipher and more important to express “because it has no words” which makes it “triumphant, too”.

When Baldwin writes that “his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours”, he is writing of a racial “ours”—the triumph is of an instrumental utterance being understood by others, regardless of its complexity, and as Baldwin argues in The Fire Next Time and elsewhere, not everyone understands this music.

Recorded misinterpretation of black American music go at least as far back as the mid-19th century, for example, in Frederick Douglass’ Narrative from 1845, when Douglass describes whites misunderstanding spirituals (sorrow songs) as evidence that blacks were happy being enslaved. Many black American authors and critics in the decades and centuries since, including Amiri Baraka, Nelson George, and Tricia Rose, have written about white misinterpretations of black American music, including in jazz, R&B, and hip-hop.

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