Friday, 11 February 2011

JAMES BALDWIN ( 25/8/24 - 1/12/87. ) Of the Sorrow Songs: The cross of redemption.




A writer whose ouevre I have admired for a long time is James Baldwin, who was a brilliant, often controversial , novelist, poet, playewright and essayist. He was also a fierce crusader for equal rights, political thinker and black activist, friend to many. black and white, American, French and British. His books such as 'The Fire Next Time ,' 'Go Tellit on the Mountain' and 'Giovanni's Room ' have become modern classics. He was born in New York in 1924. Here he found his first public success as a lay preacher. His essays and stories began getting published in New York's leading intellectual journals.
By 1948, however he was living in poverty in Paris, where he had gone to escape American racism and homophobia, but in a strange twist it was in France that he discovered his American identity.When he felt he could no longer ignore the problems of his own country he returned to America, where he flirted with the Black Panthers and formed a strong bond with Martin Luther King, whose death profoundly affected him.
He spent more relaxed times in Turkey where he lived and in the South of Francewhere he spent his subsequent days. Baldwin wrote the following piece in 1979 for a small Scottish magazine.Ostesibly a review of James Lincoln Collier's ' The Making of Jazz'. It follows its own beat and becomes a sort of meditation. Writen a while back so some of parts might have got lost in the passages of time, but I feel still stands strong. Enjoy.


29 July 1979

I will let the date stand: but it is a false date. My typewriter has been silent since July 6th, and the pieces of paper I placed in the typewriter on that day has been blank until this hour.
July 29th was - is - my baby sister's birthday. She is now 36 years old, is married to a beautiful cat, and they have a small son, my nephew, one of my many nephews. My baby sister was born on the day our father died: and I could not but wonder what she, or our father, or her son, my nephew, could possibly make of this compelling investigation of our lives.
It is compelling indeed, like the nightmare called history: and compelling because the author is as precise as he is deluded.
Allow me, for example, to paraphrase, and parody, one of his statements, and I am not trying to be unkind.

There has been two authentic geniuses in jazz. One of them, of course, was Louis Armstrong, the much loved entertainer, striving for acceptance. The other was a sociopath called Charlie Parker, who managed... to destroy his career- and finally himself.

Well. Then: There have been two authentic geniuses in art. One of them was, of course was Michelangelo, the much beloved court jester, striving to please the Pope. The other was amisfit named Rembrandt, who managed... to destroy his career- and finally himself.

If one can believe the first statement, there is absolutely no reason to doubt the second. Which may be why no one appears to learn anythig from history- I am beginning to suspect that no one can learn anything from the nightmare called history - these are my reasons anyway, for attempting to report on this report from such a dangerous pint of view.
I have learned a great deal from traversing, struggling with, this book. It is my life, my history, which is being examined -defined: therefore, it is my obligation to attempt to clarify the record. I do not want my nephew - or, for that matter, my swiss godson, or my Italian godson - to believe this 'comprhensive' history.
People cannot be studied from a distance. It is perfectly possible that we cannot be studied at all: God's anguish, perhaps, upon being confronted with His creation. People certainly cannot be studied from a safe distance, or from the distance which we call safety. No one is, or can be, the other: there is nothing in the other, from the depths to the heights, which is not to be found in me. Of course, it can be said that 'objectiely' speaking, I do not have the temperment of an Idi Amiin. or Somoza, or Hitler, or Bokassa. Our careers do not resemble each other, and, for that, I do hank God. Yet, I am aware, that at some point in time and space, our aspirations may have been very similar., or that had we met, at some point in time and space- atschool, say, or looking for work, or at the corner bar - we might have had every reason o think so. They are men, after all, like me; mortal, like me; and all men reflect, are mirrors for, each other. It is the most fatal of all delusions, I think, not to know this: and the root of cowardice.
For, neithr I, nor anyone else, could have known, from the beginning, what roads we would travel, what choices we wouldmake, nor what the result of these choices would be: in ourselves, in time and space, and in that nightmare we call history. Where, then, is placed the 'objective' speaker, who can speak only after, and never before, the fact? Who may, or may not, have percieved (or recieved) the truth, whatever the truth may be? What does it mean to be objective? What is meant by temperament? and how does temeramentrelate to experience? For I do not know, will never know, and neither will you, whether it is my experience which is responsible for my temperament, or my temperament which must be taken to task for my experience.
I nationam attacking, of course, the basis of the language - or perhaps the intention of the language - in which history is written - am speaking as the son of the Preacher-Man. This is exactly how the music called jazz began, and out of the same necessity: not only to redeem a history unwritten and despised, but to checkmate the European notion of the world. For until this hour, when we speak of history, we are speaking only of how Europe saw - and sees - the world.
But there is a very great deal in the world which Europe does not, or cannot, see: in the very same way that the European musical scale cannot transcribe - cannot write down, does not understand - the notes, or the price, of this music.
Now, the author's research is meticulous. Collier has had to 'hang' in many places - 'has been there', as someone predating jazz might put it: but he has not, as one of my more relentless sisters might put it, 'been there and back'.
My more relentless sister is merely, in actuality, paraphrasing, or bearing witness to , Bessie Smith: "picked up my bag, baby, and I tried it again". And so is Billie Holliday, proclaiming - not complaining - that "my man wouldn't want me no breakfast/wouldn't give me no dinner/squawked about my supper/and threw me out doors/had the nerve to lay/a matchbox on my clothes.
"I didn't, " Buillies tells us, "have so many. But I had a long, long ways to go.
Thus, Aretha Franklin demands respect: having 'stolen' the song from Otis Redding. (As Otis Redding tells it: sounding strangely delighted to declare himself the victim of this sociopathological act.) Aretha dared to 'steal' the song from Otis because not many men, of any colour, are able to make the enormous confession, the tremendous recognition, contained in try a little tenderness.
And: if you can't get no satisfaction you may find yourself boiling a bitch's brew while waiting for someone to bring me my gun! or start walking toward the weeping willow tree or ramble where you find strange fruit - black, beige, and brown - hanging just across the tracks where it's tight like that and you don't let the sun catch you crying. It is always: farewell to storyville.
For this celebrated number has only the most passing, and, in truth, impertinent, reference to the red-light districy of New Orleans, or to the politician for whom it was named: a certain Joseph Story. What a curious way to enter, briefly, history, only to be utterly obliterated by it: which is exactly what is happening to Henry Kissinger. If you think I am leaping, you are entirely right. Go back to Miles, Max, Dizzy, Yard-Bird, Billie, Coltrane: who were not, as the striking - not to say quaint - European phrase would have it, improvising: who can afford to improvise, at those prices?
By the time of Farewell to Storyville'. and long before that time, the demolition of black quarters - for that is what they were, and are, considered - was an ireducible truth of black life. This is what Bessie Smith is telling us , in 'Back Water Blues'.This song has as much to do with the flood as 'Didn't it Rain' has to do with Noah, or as 'If I had my way' has to do with Samson and Delilah, and poor Samson's excess of hair. Or, if I may leap again, there is a song being born, somewhere, as I write, cocerning the present 'boat people', which will inform us, in tremendous detail, how ships are built. There is a dreadful music connnecting the building of ovens with the activity of contractors, the reality of businessmen ( to say nothing of business) and the reality of bankers and flags, and the European middle class, and its global progeny, and Gypsies, Jews, and soap: and profit.
The music called Jazz came into existence as an exceedingly laconic description of black circumstances: and, as a way, by describing these circumstances, of overcoming them. It was necessary that the description be laconic: the iron necessity being that the description not be overheard. Or, as the indescribably grim remnants of the European notion of the 'nation-state' would today put it, it wac absolutely necessary that the description not be ' decoded'. It has not been 'decoded', by the way, any more than the talking drum has been de-coded. I will try to tell you why.
I have said that people cannot be described from a distance. I will, now, contradict myself,and say that people can be described from a distance that they themselves haveestablished between themselves and what we must, here call life. Life comes out of music, and music comes out of life: without tusting the first, it is impossible to create the second. The rock against which the European notion of the nation-state has crashed is nothing more- and absolutely nothing less- than the question of identity. Who am I? and what am I? and what am I doing here?
This question is the very heart, and root, of the music we are discussing: and contains ( if it is possble to make the distinction) not so much a moral judgement as a precise one.

The Irish, for example, as it now, astoundingly, turns out, never had he remotest desire to become English, neither do the people of Scotland, or Wales: and one can suppose thepeople of Canada, trapped as they are between Alaska and Mexico, with only the heirs of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny between themselves and these two definitely unknown ports of call, distract themselves with the question of whether they are French or English only because their history has now allowed them the breathing space to find out what in Giod's name (!) it means to be Canadian. The Basques do not wish to be French, or Spanish, Kurds and Berbers do not wish to be Iranian, or Turkish.
If one travels from Naples, to Rome, to Torino. it can by no means be taken for granted that the nation- hammered into a nation, after all, quite recently- ever agreec, among themselves, to be that. The same is true of an egually arbitrary invention, Germany: Bavaria is not Berlin. For that matter, to e in Haifa is not at all like being in Jerusalem, and neither place resembles Nazareth. Examples abound: but , at this moment, the only nations being discussed are those which have become utiitarian but otherwise useless, Sweden, for examole, or Switzerland, which is not a nation, but a bank. There are those territories which are considered to be 'restive' (Iran, Greece) or those which are 'crucial' and 'unstable'. Peru, for the moment, is merely 'unstable', though one keeps on it a nervous eye: and though we knoe that there's a whole lot of coffe in Brazil, we don't know who's going to drink it. Brazil threatens to become. as we quite remarkably put it, one of the 'emeging' nations, like Nigeria, because those decisions, in those places, involve not merely continents, but the globe. Leaving aside the 'crafty East' - China, and Russia - there are only embarrassments, like the British colonial outpost, named for a merciless, piatinical murderer/colonizer: named Cecil Rhodes.
What, indeed, you may ask, has all this to do with 'The Making of Jazz? A book concernrd, innocently and earnestly enough with the creation of black American music.
That music is produced by, and bears witness to, one of the most obscene adventures in the history of mankind. It is a music which creates, as what we call History cannot sum up the courage to do, the response to that universal question:


Who am I? What am I doing here?

How did King Oliver, Ma Rainey, Bessie, Armstrong- a roll-call more vivid than what is called History - Bird, Dolphy, Powell, Pettford, Coltrane, Jelly Roll Morton, The Duke - or the living, again, too long a roll-call: Miss Nina Simone, Mme Mary Lou Williams, Carmen McRae, The Count, Ray, Miles, Max,- forgive me, children, for all the names I cannot call- how did they, and how do they, confront that question? and make of that captivity, a song?
For, the music began in capyivity: and is , still, absolutely, created in captivity. So much for the European vanity: which imagines with a single word, history,it controls the past, defines the
present: and therefore, cannot but suppose that the future will prove to be as willing to be brought into captivity as the slaves they imagine themselves to have discovered, as the nigger they had no choice but to invent.
Be careful of inventions: the invention describes you, and will certainly betray you. Speaking as the son of the Preacher-Man, I know that it was never intended, in any way whatever, that either the Father, or the Son, should be heard. Take that any way you will:
I am trying to be precise.
If you know- as a black American must know, discovers at his mother's breast, and then, in the eyes of his father- that the world which calls itself white: and which has the further, unspeakable cowardice of calling itself free - if you will dare imagine that I, speaking now, as a black witness to the white condition, see you in a way that you cannot afford to see me: if you can see that the invention of the black condition creates the trap of the white identity; you will see what a blck man knows about a white man stems, inexorably, from the white man's description of who, and what, he takes to be the other: in this case, the black cat: me.
You watch this innocent criminal destroying your father, day by day, hour by hour - your father! despising your mother, your brothers and your sisters; and this innocent criminal will cut you down, without any mercy, if any of you dares to say a word about it.
And not only is he trying to kill you. He would also like you to be his accomplice - discreet and noiseless accomplice- in this friendly democratic, and, alas, absolutely indispensable action. I didn't, he will tell you, make the world.

You think, but you don't say, to your friendly murderer, who, sincerely, means you no harm:
Well, baby, somebody better. And, in a great big hurry.

Thus, you begin to see; so, you begin to sing and dance; for ,thoseresponsible for your captivity require of you a song. You beginthe unimaginable horror of contempt and hatred; then, the horror of self-contempt, and self-hatred. What did I do? to be so black, and blue?If you survive - as, for example, the 'sociopath'. Yard-Bird, did not, as the 'junkiei', Billie Holliday, did not - you are released onto the tightrope tension of bearing in mind: every hour, every second, drunk, or sober, in sickness, or in health, those whom you must not even begin todepend on for the truth: and those to whom you must not lie.
It is hard to be black, and, therefore, officially, and lethally, despised. It is harder than to despise so many of the people who think of themselves as white: before whose blindness you present the obligatory, historical grin.
And it is harder than that, out of this devastation - Ezekiel's valley: Oh, Lord. Can these bones live? - to trust life, and to live a life, to love, and be loved.
It is out of this, and much more than this, that black American music springs. This music begins on the auction-block.
Now, whoever is unable to face this - the auction-block; whoever cannot see that the auction-block is the demolition accomplished, furthermore, at that hour of the world's history, in the name of civilization: whoever pretends that the slave mother does not weep, until this hour, for her slauhtered son, that the son does not weep for his slaughtered father: or whoever pretends that the white father did not - literally, and knowing what he was doing - hang, and burn, and castrate, his black son: whoever cannot face this can never pay the price for the beat which is the key to music, and the key to life.
Music is our witness, and our ally. The beat is the confession which recognises, changes and conquers time.
Then, history becomes a garment we can wear, and share, and not a cloak in which to hide: and time becomes a friend.


Originally Published in the 'New Edinburgh Review' Autumn 1979

2 comments:

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  2. thanks, will take a look........ cheers and regards.

    ReplyDelete