South to a Very Old Place
The first time I encountered the idea that prose could mimic music was during my Jack Kerouac obsession. Time and again I’d come across the assertion that his goal was to capture on the page the rhythms, textures and fluidity of a Bop solo.
I didn’t, couldn’t really see it. The jazz I knew was the music of the Swing era, and its purpose was dancing. If I held any opinion about the jazz of the 1950s it was second-hand, acquired from Chuck Berry.
My ignorance and obsession have long since passed. Some days, though, Chuck still seems wise and I have a hard time finding music on the page. When I do, it’s usually in a poem. Prose is not without rhythm and melody, it’s just harder to find, though I count myself a part-time searcher.
If that describes you, and you’d care to take a break from looking, this book offers a perfect example of what the fruits of your search should resemble.
Albert Murray is the real deal. Around here that phrase always means the same thing: a writer of immense talent who has invested time in honing their craft and whose erudition is apparent. That last bit is important because, for me, erudition goes beyond an ability to quote Classics or 19th Century German philosophers at will.
While either of those examples might impress me, I take an expansive view of knowledge. A student of the streets is no less knowledgeable than a PhD and often in a better position to attest to truth. Nor does a writer need to be deeply immersed in one subject. Synthesis is what really bowls me over again and again.
Allow me to sketch a quick biography of the present author. Born in Mobile County, Alabama, in 1916, Murray was of the same generation as Rosa Parks, born into a segregated society soon after the birth of the NAACP and the death of Booker T. Washington. Murray attended Tuskegee Institute, from which he graduated in 1939, where he became lifelong friends with Ralph Ellison.
Murray joined the Army Air Force and served during World War II and remained in the reserves after the war ended. Though he tried to earn his living teaching he returned to active duty in the 1950s and rose to the rank of major before retiring, about the time I was born. He then moved to New York, completed his education with an MA from NYU and took up writing.
Always a music lover, his beat included writing about jazz and he moved in an orbit that included Duke Ellington and Count Basie, whose biography he would later write. The present book emerged from an assignment he accepted from Willie Morris, the legendary editor of Harpers in the 1960s. Morris, a man who brought Mississippi with him when he moved north and who later returned home, had a simple request: Go home to the post-Civil Rights Act South and see what’s really going on.
You and I, faced with such a task, would probably hop in the car or book a flight to Hartsfield. Murray caught the New Haven Railroad and headed further north. It’s really no small act of genius to begin an inspection of the contemporary South with a visit to the precincts of Yale.
But Robert Penn Warren was there ensconced. And what better place to begin than with an apostate apologist for segregation–a man who not only changed his mind but became an advocate for civil rights? That Warren wrote one of the classic novels set in the South–based loosely on one of the South’s real, larger-than-life characters–was icing on the cake.
The book–I’ve no idea if it was ever published as an article or series of articles–reminds me, structurally, of a jazz number. There is a head (the prologue and New Haven section) that sets the theme, and a coda (the New Orleans, Greenville, Memphis section). In between, it’s all riffing, a term I use in the best sense of the word. For a jazz player, composing riffs and melodies out of raw material is the name of the game.
Murray hits his stride in those middle choruses named Greensboro, Atlanta, Tuskegee and Mobile. The first two represent different battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement. If Greensboro is famous for the sit-ins, Atlanta, home of Morehouse College and Dr. King‘s family, was famously the self-declared ‘City too Busy to Hate.‘
Much of the book is dialog, placed in the mouths of locals, some Murray has known since boyhood. The closer he gets to home, the more the words fly, the rhythms pound and the truth flows. I never find it difficult to identify a writer whose background is lower than middle class. You can’t fake your way into the knowledge and trust of people just like you who stayed at home. That the truths revealed may be uncomfortable to those who would establish the proper narrative is part of the fun.
In an epigram, Murray warns us “Not everything in this book is meant to be taken literally” a point he immediately undercuts by saying he has changed names. The best way to convey the language, and the insider honesty, is with an extended quote sure to piss off almost everyone with an ax to grind on the subject of race relations. The speaker is an unidentified Mobile resident who has known Murray since boyhood:
“I’m talking about the goddamn white folks now. They come up and figure out how they can let a lot of loudmouth hustlers in there that don’t belong in there. Because they know good and well these the ones ain’t going to study. So that’s what we got now. We send them up there to learn what them white boys learning about running the goddam world and they up there out marching and wearing all that old three-ring circus stuff and talking about how they got to study about Africa. Now what I say is if that’s all they want to know they ain’t got no business up there. That’s what I say. Because the white man only too glad if they rather learn about Africa instead of how to run the world. I say them Africans already known about Africa, and what good is it doing them?” (pp. 182-183)
I can’t be certain if a transcript or recording of this, or any of the other reported conversation, exists but I don’t think that’s the point. This is Joseph Mitchell reportage and if the truth on the page is a work of artful construction rooted in fact I can live with that.
That last sentence used the words art and truth and I selected neither lightly. By the time you reach this quote you’ve traveled quite a ways with Murray. Your BS radar would have, should have pinged if you found him less than truthful. Was the above speech excerpt, with its accelerating rhythm and rising frustration, spoken verbatim? I’m not sure it matters because it has the same ring of truth as conversations I hear when I return to the neighborhood of my blue-collar youth.
I can offer no higher accolade than Albert Murray, great American writer.