At his best, Albert Murray is a thinker passionately in love with thinking, a virtuoso of verbal music, an American to his core.
Albert Murray, Collected Essays and Memoirs, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. & Paul Devlin. Library of America, 1049 pages. $45.00.
By Steve Elman
In the recent months of discontent and turmoil, I have had little to cheer my spirits about the American body politic. But whenever I thought, “It just can’t get any worse,” I dug into to a 2016 collection of the most important non-fiction by the late Albert Murray, published by the Library of America, and his words never failed to inspire. He blows away the clouds of blather more effectively than any other observer of American life that I can think of. If you are looking for something to put your mind right, this tonic of beautiful prose, good sense, righteous anger, and optimism about America could be just what you need to read in a time of trouble.
I know: most people reading this will say, “Albert who?” I tried to answer this question in a previous Arts Fuse post about Murray Talks Music, a posthumous publication that came out early last year. But reviewing this more recent anthology gives me the chance to appreciate him more comprehensively.
In these pages, more than 900 of which are packed with pungent Murray observations, he wears a haberdasheryful of hats, and they all fit smartly: artist; autobiographer; novelist; storyteller; philosopher; advocate for all the arts; ambassador for the blues and for jazz, which he called “the fully orchestrated blues statement”; “a Remus-derived, book-oriented, down-home boy (now middle-aged)”; an “ever nimble and ever resourceful mythological Alabama jackrabbit in the no less actual than mythological Alabama briarpatch”; “an all-purpose literary intellectual”; an “omni-American.”
As for his ethnicity, he says, “I don’t like being called ‘black American,’ because it so often implies less American. And I absolutely despise being called ‘African-American.’ I am not an African. I am an American . . . All of my values and aspirations are geared to the assumption that freedom as defined by the American social contract is my birthright. Man, ain’t nothing African about that kind of birthright.” [The quotation marks and italics were derived by interviewer Charles H. Rowell from Murray’s vocal emphasis when they spoke in 1997].
Perhaps you can see why I’m tempted simply to fill the rest of this review with quotations. Murray’s voice was as distinctive as that of any of the artists he so admired – Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, photographer Gordon Parks, painter and collagist Romare Bearden, Ernest Hemingway, and a handful of others – and his written work is as rewarding to read as that of any of the thinkers and writers he so admired – social critic Constance Rourke (1885 – 1941), Thomas Mann, William Shakespeare, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Andre Malraux, Saul Bellow, W. H. Auden, James Joyce . . . all of whom he credits over and over again in these pages for their impact on his thinking and his life.
Murray’s writing voice cannot be imitated, and no summary can do it justice. So I’ve compiled a companion piece to this review, another post that consists entirely of the sentences that struck me hardest as I read through the anthology. I’ll point you there as a way of giving you some starting reasons to read this book and to own it.
What can I add to what Murray says so well himself? Maybe I can offer a bit of grounding, touch on some of his grand themes, and open a couple of doors into his house of words for those who need those doors.
I have to be humble about this. Murray himself offers these chastening words: “White reporters write about jazz for other white people. . . . they write about the Negro idiom in U. S. music as if U. S. Negro readers don’t exist.” [Murray’s italics] Ouch! Well, I’m stuck with my identity, I guess, but whatever I write about for the Fuse, I write through jazz-colored glasses, and I try to write from the heart. So be it, and maybe Murray’s ghost can forgive me for my impudence.
The first of those grand themes I might point to is that ever-perplexing dynamic between what Murray likes to call “brownskin folks from down home” and those who are not brownskin folks from down home. Murray exhorts otherskins not just to accept the presence of brownskin folks within the American family, not just to let them vote and to vote for them and to accept them as sons- and daughters-in-law, but to understand, acknowledge, and embrace the fact that every otherskin American – even Steve Bannon – holds in his or her heart some element of brownskinness, just as every brownskin holds in his or her heart chunks of Yankee pot roast and pioneer jerky / native-American pemmican. (I might take Murray’s view a bit further and argue that the American recipe in the twenty-first century has more than a dash of Latin salsa and more than a hint of Asian cilantro, and that it already incorporates a lot of Middle Eastern za’atar.) In essence, he says, you can’t be an American without this colloid of influences within you. The American cocktail has already been shaken, and there’s no way you can unshake it.
At the same time, Murray celebrates the brownskin essence in no uncertain terms. He turns the otherskins’ grudging acceptance of black language, black names, black attitude and all the rest on its head. These cultural touchstones aren’t the pathetic attempts of the underclass to give itself some dignity, he says. These are part of what he calls “an orientation to elegance.” They are glorious manifestations of Style, the quality of celebration in the face of hardship that only brownskins really understand.
Which brings us to the blues, an essential part of Murray’s worldview, and, in his opinion, the perfect expression of brownskin celebration, extended into the realm of fine art by its evolution into the music we call jazz. Murray sees blues music as much more than music – it is triumph over tragedy. He celebrates the form as a heroic contest with the futility of human existence: we’re all gonna die, but while we live, we have a choice between making things better and feeling sorry for ourselves. No contest. Blues music isn’t self-pity; it’s the exorcism of that melancholy. No wonder his masterpiece of jazz appreciation is called Stomping the Blues, which appears here almost in its entirety. (Regrettably, the Library of America could not publish a facsimile edition of the original. Ideally, such a republication would include Murray’s selection of historic photographs and Harris Lewine’s beautiful book design; even so, Gates and Devlin did manage to include all of Murray’s photo captions in the form of footnotes – text that adds richness to the main essays.)
In some ways, Murray’s fire of non-fiction was ignited by Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family: A Case for National Action (1965). Murray began constructing his first important collection of essays, The Onmi-Americans, in 1967, as a reply to Moynihan’s contentions about the inherent structural flaws of “Negro” family life. Murray railed against the decision made by Moynihan and other sociologists (Murray calls them “social science technicians”) to divide groups of people being researched along color lines, a decision that now goes virtually unchallenged, even when it is not particularly helpful or instructive. Why, Murray asks, should sociologists assume that the amount of melanin in people’s skins defines how they think or behave? Can’t the statistics be sliced any other way? The Onmi-Americans is, as he says, “about the inadequacy of images based on social science theory and categories rather than precise insight and hard-earned wisdom.”
(You would think from poll results and other data frequently published in the twenty-first century that this controversy is dead and done. And yet, there is an occasional bracing question that brings Murray’s concerns back to life. For example, in the wake of the November 2016 election, The Economist published a piece questioning the wisdom of attributing Donald Trump’s victory to “white voters without college degrees.” Economist researchers found that public-health statistics provided an even better metric: “the better physical shape a county’s residents are in, the worse Mr. Trump did relative to Mr. Romney [that is, when compared to those who voted for Mitt Romney in the same county in 2012],” or, as the article concluded, “the specific subset of Mr. Trump’s voters that won him the election . . . live in communities that are literally dying.” Nothing black or white about it.)
Murray takes the argument to another level in later writings. Why, he asks, if our goal is measuring the progress towards equality of all Americans, should demographers choose skin color as a way of differentiating various groups? Doesn’t this skew research before it begins by implying that people with “white” skin are the norm and people with different-from-“white” skin are different (read: inferior) in some way? Doesn’t every survey taken on this basis reinforce the impression of that inferiority until it becomes a given?
Demographers aren’t the only ones who will be challenged by Murray’s opinions. Fans of Malcolm X, Benny Goodman, William Styron, Nat Hentoff, George Gershwin, Richard Wright, Robert Penn Warren, James Baldwin, and even some American Jews supportive of the civil rights movement, beware! When Murray discusses any of them, he doesn’t pull his punches, and he probably will offend anyone primed to be offended. But a person who reads Murray with an open mind and stops to think about what might be offending him or her will realize that Murray sees things as they are and not as he or she may wish them to be. (In that vein, I have to include a special nod to editor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for swallowing hard and including a couple of paragraphs of not-very-flattering comments about himself! [They’re in Murray’s 1997 interview with Sanford Pinsker, on pages 843 and 844, if you want to look them up.])
What I admire most in Murray is his sureness, a confidence in his own ideas that in other writers might come off as arrogance. He is so thoroughly rooted in the wisdom of his antecedents, and so generous in his praise for them and his acknowledgements to them, that he sounds comfortable and secure even when he is pontificating.
Does he use too many parentheticals? Yes, he does. It seems like false modesty on his part to qualify perfectly strong statements with expressions like “of course,” “by the way,” “it goes without saying,” “to be sure,” and all the other ways in which a writer signifies that he feels he’s on ice that’s getting a bit thin. Whenever you hit one of those phrases, you’ll be better off ignoring it.
If nearly all of the essays and opinion pieces in this collection feel like part of a single grand landscape of thought, there is one section that is something else again, and it justifies the editors’ use of the word “Memoirs” in the title. Murray described South to a Very Old Place as “a poem, a novel, a drama – a literary statement – about being a Southerner.” It is a bit like James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a prose poem that began as an assignment from a magazine editor and grew into art. What was supposed to be a quick survey of southern cities Murray knew as a young man became a paean to the cultural richness that inspired his maturity. It is also the only successful long-form work I have ever read in which the author uses the second person throughout, as if he is telling himself a story about himself. He does not say, “I found time to listen to some of the old folks in Mobile talk politics.” Instead, it comes out like this: “You also find time to sit and listen to what some of the very oldest among the old heads from the old days want to tell you about the condition of contemporary man in general and about the state of the nation’s political well-being in particular . . . You never miss that part of it if you can help it.”
South to a Very Old Place is beautiful and rich, worthy of appreciation for itself, but inevitably, in this collection it is the backstory to Murray’s brilliant essays. Those rhapsodies of ecstatic prose can take your breath away. At his best, Albert Murray is a thinker passionately in love with thinking, a virtuoso of verbal music, an American to his core. As you read him, you come to love his company. By the time you finish, you feel honored to be in the presence of his greatness.
Steve Elman’s four decades (and counting) in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and currently, on-call status as fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB since 2011. He was jazz and popular music editor of The Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.