Hey, Buddy Bolden


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 Poetrycame 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.

DSC03863The 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.

DSC03852My 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).

DSC03868In 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.”

Wade in the Water

The biblical story of Exodus is a foundational narrative in many black diasporic spiritual traditions. The story of the Jews’ redemption from Egyptian slavery represents a powerful allegory for the promise of freedom from captivity in the New World. Zora Neale Hurston’s 1939 novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain, for example, is a typological reading of Exodus that translates the historical context of the narrative and transforms it by incorporating black American folklore and African-derived storytelling and religious traditions.

“Many men could climb mountains. Anyone could bring down laws that had been handed to them. But who can talk with God face to face?” Hurston asks, “Who has the power to command God to go to a peak of a mountain and there demand of Him laws with which to govern a nation? What other man has ever seen with his eyes even the back part of God’s glory? Who else has ever commanded the wind and the hail? The light and darkness? That calls for power, and that is what Africa sees in Moses to worship.”

Hurston remarks the links between Moses and the premiere god in the Haitian pantheon, Damballa, whose origins lie in West Africa. “So all across Africa, America, the West Indies,” she writes, “there are tales of the powers of Moses and great worship of him and his powers. But it does not flow from the Ten Commandments. It is his rod of power, the terror he showed before all Israel and to Pharaoh, and THAT MIGHTY HAND.”

Spirituals like “Wade in the Water,” “Go Down Moses,” and “Elijah Rock,” deal extensively in the tropes of Exodus. Professional black singers have long had a complex relationships with the spirituals, yet the persistent relevance of the songs still works something like alchemy. Listen to Mahalia Jackson. Her sublime faith transforms historical suffering into something meaningful, lasting–I dare say universal.

This year we’ll be hosting the first night Seder and to accompany the festive meal, I’ve made a playlist of black diasporic spiritual music that deals with slavery, redemption, and the perpetual striving to chant down Babylon–to fight the forms of oppression that still shackle people around the world. Tonight, the Exodus happens to each of us individually. We repeat, as Hurston did, the narrative of enslavement and freedom in order to suffer and survive together, again.