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The Experience of Dislocated Listening

“It is only in his music [. . .] that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear,” so wrote James Baldwin in “Many Thousands Gone.” Throughout his career, James Baldwin returned to this incomprehension of African-American experience. He continually privileged music in his literature, crafting his own literary blues to address it. Baldwin’s blues resonated even more powerfully and painfully for its emotional and geographical dislocation. In this article, Rashida K. Braggs argues that it was the combination of music, word, and migration that prompted Baldwin’s own deeper understanding. Exploring her term dislocated listening, Braggs investigates how listening to music while willfully dislocated from one’s cultural home prompts a deeper understanding of African-American experience. The distance disconcerts, leaving one more vulnerable, while music impels the reader, audience, and even Baldwin to identify with some harsh realities of African-American experience. Baldwin evokes the experience of dislocated listening in his life and in “Sonny’s Blues.” Braggs also creates an experience of dislocated listening through her video performance of Baldwin’s words, thus attempting to draw the reader as well into a more attuned understanding of African-American experience.

James Baldwin Review
Open Access (free)
Jazzing the Blues Spirit and the Gospel Truth in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”

The webs of musical connection are essential to the harmony and cohesion of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” As a result, we must explore the spectrum of musical references Baldwin makes to unveil their delicate conjunctions. It is vital to probe the traditions of African-American music—Spirituals, Blues, Jazz, and Pop—to get a more comprehensive sense of how Baldwin makes use of music from the sacred and secular continuum in the African-American community. Looking more closely at the variety of African-American musical genres to which Baldwin refers in the story, we can discern even more the nuances of unity that Baldwin creates in his story through musical allusions, and shed greater light on Baldwin’s exploration of the complexities of African-American life and music, all of which have as their core elements of human isolation, loneliness, and despair ameliorated by artistic expression, hope, and the search for familial ties. Through musical intertextuality, Baldwin demonstrates not only how closely related seemingly disparate (in the Western tradition) musical genres are, but also shows that the elements of the community that these genres flow from and represent are much more in synchronization than they sometimes seem or are allowed to be. To realize kinship across familial (Creole), socio-economic (the brother), and most importantly for this paper appreciation and meanings of musical genres advances to Sonny the communal cup of trembling that is both a mode and an instance of envisioning and treating music in its unifying terms, seeing how they coalesce through a holistic vision.

James Baldwin Review
Open Access (free)

As this essay notes, James Baldwin, his words and metaphors, pervade public space at countless numbers of intersections. Lines from his plays, novels, and essays have always been an easy and handy reference for writers and artists seeking ways to ground their intentions with deeper meaning and magic. Even in a minority opinion on 22 June 2016 written by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, she cited several authors, including Baldwin, to underscore her point on the Court’s abrogation of the Fourth Amendment.

James Baldwin Review
Open Access (free)
Space and the Speculative in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”

In a 1961 interview with the journalist Studs Terkel, James Baldwin offered a riveting assessment of Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues.” “It’s a fantastic kind of understatement,” Baldwin tells Terkel. “It’s the way I want to write.” Baldwin hears something in Bessie, a sonic and discursive quality he aspires to and identifies as “fantastic.” This essay considers the speculative undertones of Bessie’s blues and Baldwin’s literary realism. I argue that Bessie’s doubled vocalization in “Backwater Blues” lyrically declares her immobility and circumscription, while tonally staging freedom and boundlessness. Baldwin is drawn to this dual orientation and enunciation, a vocalization that in its iteration of the real transcends the social, spatial, and imaginative limitations of that order. If we read “Sonny’s Blues” the way Baldwin hears Bessie, as a fantastic kind of understatement, we discern subtle sonic and spatial iterations of the irreal. Attending to microtonal sounds in “Sonny’s Blues”—screams, whistling, jukeboxes—I show that the speculative emerges in Baldwin’s story when the sonic overrides the racialized inscription of space.

James Baldwin Review
James Baldwin and Ray Charles in “The Hallelujah Chorus”

Based on a recent, archival discovery of the script, “But Amen is the Price” is the first substantive writing about James Baldwin’s collaboration with Ray Charles, Cicely Tyson, and others in a performance of musical and dramatic pieces. Titled by Baldwin, “The Hallelujah Chorus” was performed in two shows at Carnegie Hall in New York City on 1 July 1973. The essay explores how the script and presentation of the material, at least in Baldwin’s mind, represented a call for people to more fully involve themselves in their own and in each other’s lives. In lyrical interludes and dramatic excerpts from his classic work, “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin addressed divisions between neighbors, brothers, and strangers, as well as people’s dissociations from themselves in contemporary American life. In solo and ensemble songs, both instrumental and vocal, Ray Charles’s music evinced an alternative to the tradition of Americans’ evasion of each other. Charles’s sound meant to signify the history and possibility of people’s attainment of presence in intimate, social, and political venues of experience. After situating the performance in Baldwin’s personal life and public worldview at the time and detailing the structure and content of the performance itself, “But Amen is the Price” discusses the largely negative critical response as a symptom faced by much of Baldwin’s other work during the era, responses that attempted to guard “aesthetics” generally—be they literary, dramatic, or musical—as class-blind, race-neutral, and apolitical. The essay presents “The Hallelujah Chorus” as a key moment in Baldwin’s search for a musical/literary form, a way to address, as he put it, “the person and the people,” in open contention with the social and political pressures of the time.

James Baldwin Review