The fourth issue of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature is dedicated to technology and black poetry, guest-edited by SIUE Professor Howard Rambsy. Howard’s excellent book, The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry, came out in 2011 and was crucial to my dissertation research on Black Arts poetry. His work in digital humanities, visual culture, and black American literature exemplifies an important, evolving conversation in African American literary studies. His blog, Cultural Front, is also a prolific and highly relevant resource on contemporary culture and politics.
The back cover of the issue features a photograph, “The Blues Mural, Clarksdale, MS,” depicting a formidable trio: John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Bessie Smith.
My contribution to the issue is titled “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say: Recording the Prehistory of Jazz.” The essay examines mythology surrounding Buddy Bolden, the musician who is said to have invented jazz in New Orleans around the turn of the century.
In early jazz criticism, the Bolden myth functions as an allegory for a paradigm shift in modern music. The invention of jazz is harnessed to new technologies that record, duplicate, and replay sound. Yet even as critics lamented the loss of pre-technological authenticity, they claimed recordings as the objective texts of jazz improvisation. Although no recording of Bolden has ever been found—or likely will be—his status as a folk hero is reinforced by each iteration of his story. The legend of Buddy Bolden is retold by musicians as a way to write themselves into the historical record of jazz’s origins. Because Bolden’s sound is not captured by phonographic technology, he becomes a symbol of the oral tradition—one inscribed everywhere in the written history of jazz.
I compiled a playlist for my Jazz Literature course last spring featuring tunes written by and about Buddy Bolden, as well as interviews with musicians who knew him. Jelly Roll Morton gives a colorful, but largely accurate recollection of Bolden’s life and times in his Library of Congress sessions with Alan Lomax. Duke Ellington boasts about King Bolden’s place in the heroic tradition in his spoken-word history of diasporic music, A Drum is A Woman (1956). And, more recently, Wynton Marsalis surveys the myth derived from Bunk Johnson’s letters and interviews with the editors of Jazzmen (1938).
In his introduction, Rambsy writes that these wide ranging articles “explore aspects of music history, science fiction, hip hop, Afrofuturism, digital collections, contemporary poetry, and data analysis. The articles affirm the diverse manifestations of scholarly work on black poetry and technoculture.” Without such work, according to Rambsy, “the discourse about one of our most important art forms would lack essential upgrades.”