Reach Out: the depth of music
After I finished my first draft of this piece, country music legend Merle Haggard died, and I knew I had to start over. If I was going to write about the books that inspired me to write about Mary J. Blige, I had to start with the book in the University of Texas Press series that is its direct precursor, David Cantwell’s Merle Haggard: The Running Kind (2013). Rejecting the constraints of celebrity biography, Cantwell tackled Haggard’s significance by listening hard and making connections between the man’s art and the world around it. By doing this, The Running Kind taught me volumes about the depth of music I’d heard all my life, and it helped me to better understand the northeast Oklahoma culture that raised me.
That book reached beyond the limits of an ongoing conversation Cantwell and I have been engaged in for over a quarter of a century. We connected due to our shared passion for music and the vision of certain music journalists such as Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh. It’s safe to say, if Marcus and Marsh hadn’t written their first books in the 1970s, Cantwell and I wouldn’t have met and dreamed of writing the books we’d one day write—books that sought to hold a conversation about the call of music, a concept we’d discover defined as musicking by Christopher Small in his book Music of the Common Tongue (1992). Craig Werner’s A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America (1999) expanded upon Ralph Ellison to give us a language for talking about the ways the black experience tied together all of the music we loved. Our dialogue partially explains why Cantwell’s book about a white male Californian is at least as much about communicating across boundaries of race, class and gender as my book about a black woman from Yonkers, New York.
Though music itself continuously transforms my understanding of the world around me, books have played a key role explaining this reach and its effects. In some ways the audacity of a little-known Okie like myself writing about the Queen of Hip Hop Soul has roots in Marcus’s Dead Elvis (1991), an intimate tribute to the King of Rock and Roll focused on the cultural remnants of his existence, and Marsh’s Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream (1985), a troubled tribute that began as a job-ending open letter for Rolling Stone. Those books were risks that taught me to trust the possibility that comes with a strong sense of purpose.
But then, all kinds of literature has taught me the surprising power of the artistic reach. I remember reading S.E. Hinton’s novel Rumble Fish (1975) as a teenager and being shocked that this woman who lived forty-five miles away in Tulsa echoed the most private and rough-and-tumble details of the adolescent male experience I was living. Decades later, Jewell Parker Rhodes would use her novel Magic City to plunge me into a secret history of Greenwood, the black community destroyed by the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots. In this case, a black woman from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was teaching me the secrets of my own neighborhood, and she was helping me to understand that history through the eyes of my black neighbors.
In college, I fell in love with a similar style of writing in the tales of Homemade Love (1986) by J. California Cooper, who I would eventually meet and even work with on a couple of occasions. Cooper would lead me to her great inspirations, most pointedly Zora Neale Hurston. If Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) taught me nothing else, it would be invaluable as a primer on reaching beyond what words might be able to say. Hurston’s perpetually risk-taking language plays harmony to protagonist Janie’s search for love and identity. As I worked on the Blige book, bell hooks’ All About Love: New Visions (2000) recalled Hurston’s braiding of form and function and helped me grasp the fresh terrain Blige began to navigate at the turn of the century, casting off false dreams and embracing love as a call to action, not simply a need to be met. (I still wonder if hooks’ book wasn’t a direct influence on Blige.)
The specific call to write about Blige came through any number of books about black men and women and the concept of rock and soul. However, among the reading experiences that most directly guided my focus was Ruth Brown’s autobiography Miss Rhythm (1996), which shows the artistic (and personal) choices made by the young woman whose talent launched Atlantic Records. Similarly, Gerri Hirshey’s wonderful portraits in Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music (1984) filled my head with characters who, even if household names, are not known near well enough—particularly vivid is the portrait of Martha Reeves, the tough-minded and vibrant leader through many incarnations of Motown’s Vandellas. Then, my own sense of what was happening with women in hip hop and R&B in the early 90s was validated and transformed by Tricia Rose’s brilliant Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994), especially its crucial chapter “Bad Sistas: Black Women Rappers and Sexual Politics in Rap Music.” At that point, I’d been convinced for close to six years that the commercial rise of black women artists was the most significant cultural movement I was likely to experience in my writing career….Rose’s work told me I wasn’t insane.
Of course, I had further rationale. At the point I encountered Rose, I’d spent some time reading Nelson Peery, a black World War II veteran and lifelong revolutionary activist who first caught my attention with a pamphlet entitled African American Liberation and Revolution in the United States (1992). In that short book, he would treat Elvis Presley as an inheritor of African-American culture who transformed the cultural dialogue between the races. Peery’s 70 years of experience are best summed up in his book The Future is Up To Us: A Revolutionary Talking Politics with the American People (2002), his perspective on class, race and gender all invaluable to my own.
However, I knew to pay tribute to Mary J. Blige’s art the way I hoped to, I needed to avoid writing from too many preconceptions. Crucial to this understanding was a book by Daniel Wolff, The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back (2012). A textual complement to an ongoing film project by Jonathan Demme, Wolff’s book told the story of the all-but-destroyed Lower Ninth Ward, as residents fought to hang onto their only possessions—sometimes just a piece of land—and rebuild. Wolff is an effaced narrator, allowing wonderful characters—among them Carolyn Parker (who repeatedly challenged the city in its efforts to kill her neighborhood); her formerly college-bound daughter, Kyrah; a Black Nationalist named Suncere and his Confederate flag waving Cajun friend Mike—to speak for themselves. Their stories, told in their voices, reach out to readers with questions about the meaning of home in a world of post-industrial decline. Wolff’s book focuses on granting these fighters their full dignity and listening for the stories that want to be told. Because of all the books above, I trusted an unusual variety of speakers—some famous, just as many obscure—to reach out and take my book where it needed to go. Rooted in lessons learned through these books and so many more, I wrote from the fingertips of my outstretched hand.
Danny Alexander has worked as an associate editor for Dave Marsh’s music newsletter Rock & Rap Confidential and covered rock, hip hop, and soul for various publications. His most recent book is Real Love, No Drama. The Music of Mary J. Blige (University of Texas Press, March 2016).
The image at the beginning of this post is by WEBN-TV.