Literary theories, the blues and understanding America


Albert Murray (1916-2013) was a wholly remarkable man, a novelist, literary critic, Air Force major, sometime professor of literature and a writer on jazz so essential that Duke Ellington himself blurbed one of his books. Again and again, writing on subject after subject, Murray returns to the idea of the blues as a model for American aesthetic statement – a “valid, reliable, comprehensive, [and] sophisticated frame of reference for defining and recounting heroic action” – and to the corresponding idea that the blues, and black art generally, is misread when taken as a kind of protest music. “I do not hear the blues as a simple lamentation . . . and certainly not as any species of political torch song. I hear the music counterstating whatever tale of woe (or worse) the lyrics might present for confrontation as part and parcel of the human condition.” It’s art, not protest.

Those quotes come from The Blue Devils of Nada (1996), which along with From the Briarpatch File (2001) appears late in the LOA volume. However, I’d recommend that the new Murray reader skim through these books first. Many of the pieces appearing here are short essays, speeches or book reviews, and they give simple and blunt statements of his abiding preoccupations and central ideas. They’re like maps that help the reader keep the extended arguments in the other books clear in the mind.

From there, go to The Omni-Americans (1970), a collection of early magazine pieces that, taken together, offer Murray’s account of “U.S. culture” writ large. Against racists and black separatists alike, Murray argues that the American – any American – is inescapably hybrid. Black people and white people can’t escape each other. (He doesn’t have much to say about other ethnic groups, though the idea can probably be extended.) Some readers, at the time and afterward, misread Murray’s emphasis on hybridity as a kind of sop to white people. If you think this, you really don’t know white people. To truly acknowledge the ways that black geniuses shape and improve your life as a white person requires an inner humbling just as dramatic, and far more protracted, than Huck’s famous apology to Jim on the raft. And that humbling, if it’s real, will have material consequences. If you genuinely respect the black people in your life, you tell them when the house next door is for sale. You stand up for them when the neighbours get squirrely. And you don’t get in the way when they stand up for themselves. One of the best pieces in The Omni-Americans looks at an activist organization in Mobile, Alabama, the Neighborhood Organized Workers. They’re integrating racist labour unions, organizing Christmas boycotts, and getting themselves jobs at the local airport. They’re also good shots. They are not who we think of when we think of “black militants,” but I wouldn’t mess with them, and insofar as they exemplify what Murray considers admirable, I think they trouble any reading of Murray as a pull-up-your-pants-black-people accommodationist.

Murray’s next book, South to a Very Old Place (1971) is sui generis. The title suggests that it’s going to be a kind of autobiographical travel writing, but Murray doesn’t spend much time lovingly describing scenery (thank God); rather, he profiles the people who represent the South to him. The book avails itself of all the freedoms we associate with “creative nonfiction,” and with the essay-fiction hybrid artists of the past 15 years – it has composite characters, invented dialogue, a predominance of commentary over quotes and an elastic relationship to its stated topics. But Murray’s innovations predate both of these literary movements (if we date “creative nonfiction” from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in 1974), and his book doesn’t have the self-involved aftertaste you get from those of Geoff Dyer or, worse, John D’Agata or David Shields. Murray tells you when he’s making things up; his inventions contribute to a portrait of a subject that is other than himself.

Hero and the Blues (1973) is Murray’s account of literary aesthetics, and Stomping the Blues (1976) his Big Book on jazz. I’ve listened to early blues and jazz on and off my whole life, but Stomping the Blues taught me to actually hear it. For the first time, I have a clear notion what a “vamp” is, or what “riffing” means. As with any critic, the distinctiveness of Murray’s taste is defined in part by what it doesn’t cover; he distrusts jazz when it moves too far from the dancehall and, with some exceptions, he isn’t terribly interested in soul and R&B. (When I try to imagine what he thought of rock or hip-hop, I just hear a low rumbling of cuss words.) But this book will send you back to Basie, Leadbelly, Bessie Smith, Jimmy Rushing, Ma Rainey, Pops and Duke with an educated ear. As for Hero, any book that succinctly describes what literature is, and what it’s for, while also (almost parenthetically) linking this account to an account of the arts in general, in just over a hundred pages, is worth a look. His theory (which draws on Joseph Campbell among others) is that of antagonistic cooperation: in life, there are dragons, and we must fight them. In doing so, we achieve spiritual and moral, and sometimes material, victory. Literature provides us with “equipment for living” (a phrase he steals from Kenneth Burke) by providing models of such antagonistic cooperation.

Like most sweeping theories of literature, Murray’s is true as far as it goes. You can stretch it to accommodate anything, but the more you stretch it the thinner it gets. As a Christian, I also wonder what happens when you put this theory in dialogue with that entire strain of contemporary theology (see James Allison or Debbie Blue, among others) that draws on Rene Girard’s work. For Girard, as for Murray, every human story could be reduced to one of overcoming evil – uniting to kill the dragon. But the Christian story is a parody or subversion of this single meta-story. In the Gospels, Christ is the apparent evil that everyone unites against, the dragon that must be slain – he’s so threatening he brings Romans, Jews, and even one of his own disciples (Judas) together. And yet the dragon turns out to be the hero, sacrificing himself so that his vanquishers can be reconciled to God. This puts dragon-killing in a somewhat different light.

Can Murray be the last word on any of these subjects? Of course not. Studies have shown that the attempt to “heroically overcome” white supremacy (or “antagonistically cooperate” with it) has real costs for black people. Killing dragons can really run up your blood pressure. When the “sociologists” and “social workers” that so irritate Murray have ideas for how to breed fewer dragons, I think it’s worth listening to them. But dragons as a species aren’t going away anytime soon, and neither is art; nor are the writings of Albert Murray.

  • Phil Christman writes and teaches in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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