The Self, As Ensemble, The Prose, Like Jazz—On Albert Murray’s South to a Very Old Place
Editor’s note: We wish to thank Greg Thomas for serving as a guest editor and advisor for this essay. Greg is an author and founder of the Jazz Leadership Project, which brings the creative and collaborative principles of jazz music to innovative companies and organizations. Also see Greg’s 2017 piece for more on Albert Murray’s concept of the “Omni-American.”
Albert Murray’s South to a Very Old Place appeared in 1971. The book’s inventive mix of memoir, journalism, and criticism by a largely unknown Black American intellectual prompted many appraisals in major newspapers—among the most compelling, one by the Times book critic Anatole Broyard and another by Toni Morrison. Broyard, a brilliantly incisive reviewer, was a “one-drop” Black man who passed for White; Morrison would become, her “race” aside, the finest American novelist of the twentieth century’s second half. (Yes, I know: Oates, Roth, Bellow, Updike, Baldwin, Cormac McCarthy are all in the run for the roses. But, in my Derby, Toni wins.)
South to a Very Old Place is one African-American’s multi-voiced expedition, which its author takes from his hometown of Harlem, briefly to the Northeast, then across the South, Atlanta to New Orleans to Memphis. Along the way, he visits sites of his past—childhood in Mobile, college at the Tuskegee Institute—as well as checks in with several contemporary Southern writers in their locales, among them Robert Penn Warren at Yale, Walker Percy in New Orleans, and several well-regarded White newspapermen.
The great delight of the book is its style, a jazz orchestra-like multimodality in which Murray’s self as “I,” as “you,” as “we” steers the wild ride. (I use the term multimodality to evoke the medieval musical modes, seven diatonic notes whose seven orders emphasize modes of feeling. Mode means manner or method, not substance.) South exemplifies Murray’s half-century of musical, literary, and military experience: Born in 1916, he retired an Air Force Major in 1962 and died in 2013 at the age of 97. The sung result is a hyper-original speech-like prose, an unparalleled example of American memoir before the explosion of the form in contemporary literature. Moreover, it’s seasoned by Murray’s freely chosen European and White American literary forebears (among them, Thomas Mann, Andre Malraux, and Ernest Hemingway) and his syncopated prose rhythms that echo the formal music and extended creations of Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie. The Times’ critic Broyard calls Murray’s masterpiece, “a riffing, up-tempo stomp of a book.”
Broyard gets Murray’s theme, namely, that “the majority of blacks have something most whites who write about them don’t seem to have noticed. They have an instinctive sense of self and place that no amount of sociological double talk can change.” What’s the sociological issue? That Black life in America, despite the civil rights movement and the Black Power counterattack of the 1960s, remained a White-defined sensibility with so much emphasis on its downtrodden dead-end being that only economic escape and academic degrees might ameliorate. No, writes Broyard. Mere economic progress misses or degrades or cannot quantify Black culture. According to Broyard, the “crazy mixed-up ‘mulatto’ quality of American life,” that is, our hybridized Black-Whiteness, is the touchstone of American culture. (How seldom is heard that word mulatto in our stay-in-your-lane times!)
Morrison, after praising all the above qualities (and more) of Murray’s elegance and savoir-faire, comments that “it is black music no less than literary criticism and historical analysis that gives his work its authenticity, its emotional vigor and its tenacious hold on the intellect.” Still, I sense that Morrison doesn’t quite hear the thunder of Murray’s prose, the relentless motion of a fast Kansas-City 4/4 rhythm, which he calls “the velocity of celebration.” In 1972, Morrison was awakening to the Afro element in Afro-American; she faults Murray for not writing about what she thought he should write—the African roots of Black life, in her estimation, far more telling a tale than the mulatto farrago.
Both assessments seem to trail what is alive today in African-American lit. Post-Morrison, there’s been an explosion in mapping the creative interiority of Black characters in fiction. This still sounds, to my ear, indebted to Murray’s European-sourced ideas, which I’ll examine shortly. But as one example, take James McBride’s tale of the John Brown-Harper’s Ferry showdown in The Good Lord Bird. It’s retold from the world-weary perspective of an adolescent and unwitting Black narrator who joins the Brown family on their raids and survives by dressing as a girl. He’s an emblem of those masterful tale-tellers whose honesty challenges the world’s tragic idealism, Huck Finn, Holden Caufield, and Scout Finch.
Essential to Murray is his literary interest in the melt-a-tude character and culture of Americans rather than hoeing Black/White divisions. He’s a missionary who orates with deconstructive finesse that antagonism between the races in literature and music is ridiculously overrated and stoked for political, not artistic, reasons. Because of literary modernism, the Harlem Renaissance, and the enthrallment of swing music, Murray believes the artistic realm we are heir to has been over-racialized and under-Americanized. His love of the blues declamation in Hemingway’s prose and the biting joyousness of Louis Armstrong’s solos deflates the categorical imperatives and race-based suppositions we supposedly live by.
Among Murray’s thirteen books, nine on literary and musical aesthetics and four novels, is his masterpiece, South to a Very Old Place. This essayistic memoir came in the wake of his stone-cold original first book, The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy, a collection of essays, profiles, and reviews, many of which appeared in the New Leader, their focus on Black American culture and literature. These pieces, which he put together in 1970 when he was fifty-four, reframed America’s mestizo culture into a movement of cultural unity, first articulated by Ralph Ellison. In his selections, Murray went further, hammering against “the folklore of white supremacy and the fakelore of black pathology,” diseases he saw that falsely epitomized most Whites’ and some Blacks’ social-science stereotyping of Black life in America.
Instead, Murray affirms two truths in this famous declaration from The Omni-Americans:
“After all, someone must at least begin to try to do justice to what U.S. Negroes like about being black and to what they like about being Americans.”
The book’s radical conceit is that intrinsic to American music and writing is an improvisatory mode of collective expression, which issues from and creates variations on African-Americans’ creation and development of the blues. There, as listeners of Ma Rainey hear or readers of Zora Neale Hurston intuit, a storytelling genius appears that merges risk and roughness, vernacular speech and rhapsodic style. Murray termed this genius the “blues idiom,” and argues that from its artistic roots in Black life it has become contagious and ubiquitous in American culture, from Charley Patton to Charlie Parker, from William Faulkner to Audre Lorde.
In a 1996 interview, Murray offered a formal definition of the idiom: “It’s an attitude of affirmation in the face of difficulty, of improvisation in the face of challenge. It means you acknowledge that life is a low-down dirty shame yet confront that fact with perseverance, with humor, and above all, with elegance.” Twenty-five years earlier in South, he had qualified its essence as “a SECULAR form of existential improvisation.” [Murray’s CAPS and italics]
The blues is what’s American about our music and literature, in particular, and about the art of the New World, in general. It was the result not of racial separateness but of separateness acknowledged, confronted, bent, blended, overcome, preserved, inter-blooded and interpolated. Murray sums up the idea in what’s become another Murrayism: “You can’t be an American unless you’re part us, and you can’t be an American unless you’re part them.” Note that neither us nor them is identified, nor is you. It’s fine to insist on “your” or anyone’s identity as primary as long as identity is also viewed geographically, miscegentically-fluid, hyphenated, and teetering descriptively between us and them—making versus a meaningless conjunctive.
Willie Morris, editor-in-chief of Harper’s from 1967 to 1971, read Murray’s reviews and commentaries and commissioned him to take his horn on the road for a long blues solo—to hybridize ideas bursting from The Omni-Americans with autobiography. The essay didn’t appear because Morris, courting too many liberal writers, had overindulged his independence and quit before the owners fired him. Murray extended the essay, however, to book-length, finding myriad ways to pull an audacious rabbit out of the South’s hat. At the time, most Black critics—Sterling Brown, Alain Locke, Ralph Ellison—focused on books, music, and ideas from their urban or university perches in the North. On his journey, Murray wanted to rub elbows with some representatives of the South’s intellectual milieu—White men like C. Vann Woodward, Robert Penn Warren, Walker Percy, Jonathan Daniels as well as newspaper editors and Southern literary scholars. It’s these stalwarts that Murray buttonholes on his tour, interrogates, and, as necessary, takes down a notch or two.
Though South is chockablock with references to the Blackness of music (a term like Negritude Murray didn’t care for), he is more interested in critiquing his and America’s cultural identity via colloquies with White-identified thinkers. They are the establishment against which, circa 1971, there are few Black critics writing. In addition, these men at his tour stops are Southerners through and through—shaped by slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, economic disadvantage, and so on. Murray realizes that their milieu, for better and worse, still drives the current arguments about American culture, that is, until the social movements of the 1950s and 1960s widen the field and invite in new voices, brazen intellectuals and novelists like himself. South is his volley.
The result is a half-mad textual party—rhetorical flourishes, book-smart analysis, vernacular speech, swaths of italics, elusive contexts, nothing dumbed down. Murray’s critical language—part memoir, part high-brow, part mime-and-jive—is an operatic flight of the moment and of his chameleonic experience, mixing his ideas with and against everyone he encounters.
Oddly, the newspapermen Murray lunches with are eager to talk, but the author doesn’t let the words of these New Critic kings and Fugitive School princes intrude on his thinking. Rather, he uses them mostly as foils, so he can concentrate on his reactions to what they’ve written and the old South they represent, much of which he, and readers, already know. In effect, he wants to toss their positions into the air like clay pigeons then rifle his own perspective. Why this ploy? Because Murray’s side, as much Black as American, is seldom heard. What transpires is as unwieldy as it is mapped, confessional as it is conversational, which, like Proust, when I reread it, occasions a kind of surprised awe at its impudent tangents and extended choruses.
In South, Murray moves a lot, listening for—and rendering—the “vernacular imperative,” a kind of oral, off-the-cuff language his interviewees attune to as he presses them with his gift for gab. It’s a speech-based language, Southern to be sure, which rattles through feature stories, song lyrics, essays, editorials, coffeehouse talk, fiction, the tales of Brer Rabbit and Langston Hughes. It exists because it’s spoken first, then echoed in writing. Its musical idioms and figurative dozens revivify Murray’s ear. Such speech dexterity is in the American grain (William Carlos Williams’s phrase) and embodies what Whites think they know about Negroes but what (again, in 1971) most Whites don’t know they don’t know.
Chapters and sections leap about on these dimes: from hardcore literary analysis to an Alabama-accented patter to an interior-probing longing (usually for his salad days in Mobile and Tuskegee) to an often racy dialogue (between him and his aging buddies, again in Mobile and Tuskegee and quoted at length) to author encomiums (he respects Robert Penn Warren for insisting that Frederick Douglass with Emerson and Thoreau are members of the 19th-century literary canon) to attacks on the Greats (one on Mr. Faulkner, the segregationist, not the writer) to invective against the “social-science” view that literature is about “repairing society” to jeremiads against words like “ghetto” to paragraphs of self-quotation, as if, like the God of the Bible, he is both the teller of the tale and the divinity’s conscience, second-guessing himself.
It’s all rather like a seven-night residency at the Apollo—the performance of an “irrevocably composite” mind, one which fences with every White and Black received opinion, demonstrates the democratic directness of European and White-American authors, and red-carpets the burgeoning midcentury influence of Black musicians and writers.
Having articulated the blues idiom in The Omni-Americans, Murray uses the “processed and stylized” texture of existence to make South’s argument. For style to become the argument, he scores several distinct voices to alternate with each other in a kind of pluralistic polyphony. The idea is to begin with the blues, a singular song form, and then hybridize its call-and-response form as an ensemble of players, typically instrumental and marked by solo (sax, trumpet, piano) and group (orchestral) virtuosity. The virtuosity of an instrumentalist begins in New Orleans, which we hear on the early blues and jazz records of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Murray the writer finds rhythmic and tonal links between jazz and prose and develops a rhetoric all his own in what I call the jazz phrase and the jazz sentence.
On one level, jazz is a language of changing emotions and emotional expression. Jazz prose is a music-like language of the improvisatory intellect. A jazz prose style must first sound on the lips—on the mind’s lips—then say something by way of elaboration and accumulation. Jazz sentences are harmonically tied to their sounding contexts; but once finished vocalizing several paragraphs or a section, they disrupt that harmony by adopting a new pattern and direction. The movement from one tonal tier to another may be smooth or jarring and is most intensely alive in the moment of its passing—asserting the question over the answer: Where is the creator going?
In jazz, say a solo by Dizzy Gillespie on a 32-bar tune, there is both the maintenance of a melodic line and its development or disruption by altered tones, values, and rhythms. But this journey takes place over time—time enough for something new to be created, developed, and maintained. In the finest improvisers the amalgam sounds as though all three of those things occur in short, tightly woven segments, sometimes all at once.
The same happens in Murray’s prose. He extends himself by a) creating and developing a commentary and b) by shifting it to another commentary but with a different texture and sound. He might write a detailed literary analysis, analyzing a passage from a Walker Percy novel, which then triggers a soliloquy about a remembered dinner in the French Quarter years ago with the live Percy. In this way, he declares his freedom from typical prose restraints, chief of which is a consistency of style. Murray excels at a kind of consistent inconsistency. The result in South is any number of “inappropriate” or unexpectant flights of fancy, in which he is saying, I declare my independence constantly; now listen to what I’ve liberated.
A first stylistic technique (these do not comprise a rubric but are observations): sentences are punctuated and freely rhythmized by hyphenated compounds that push, roll, bounce, and hold-back-a-bit the cumulative getting somewhere momentum. Jack Kerouac, a Beat improvisor, had a telling term for the style: spontaneous bop prosody:
Your [Murray’s] conception of the blues as an idiom . . . as a frame for definition within [and] in which Aunt Hagar, the earth-dark coziness of whose bosom is the wellspring of all mother-wit, is the supreme big mamma of those blue-steel cradles out of which endlessly rocking (and cooling it too) come all “taffy and chocolate”-colored wayfaring forth-farers.
A second technique: sentences are syncopated by slaphappy, street-smart voices (on the corner, in the pew, over coffee or lunch, Murray confessing to us post-interview what he was thinking and should have said)—Murray adopts you, the second person breaking free from “I” and colors his Wild Other with italics:
In all events you have picked up the Harper’s Magazine advance against expenses and are enroute south, this time not as a reporter as such and even less as an ultra-gung-ho black black spokesman but rather as a Remus-derived, book-oriented downhome boy (now middle-aged) with the sort of Alabama buster brown-hip (you hope) curiosity “that implies impression that knits knowledge that finds the nameform that whets the wits that convey contacts that sweeten sensation that drives desire that adheres to attachment that dogs death that bitches birth that entails the ensuance of existentiality.”
A third technique: sentences are rapped and ranted, again with additive, compounding fury, as he builds a kind of community voice, rushing forth like a spinning top. He often works performatively off of W.E.B. DuBois’s double consciousness—how I’m seen is as self-making as how I see myself—a central tenet from The Souls of Black Folk. Murray demonstrates this intimate and appropriated vernacular, in passages that are silly, sweet, and serious. He goes on for several pages in sermonic riffs that characterize, in the next example, how the N-word is used as a term of opprobrium and fellowship. WARNING! Murray employs the word liberally in dialect throughout the book.
When you were looking into the mirror you were the me of I am; and you were always Mamma’s little mister misterman, Momom itchem bitchem mitchem buttchem bwown man and Pappa’s big boo-boo bad gingerbread soldier boy; and in the neighborhood you were the you of whichever one of your nicknames somebody happened to like; and in school you were the you of your written name. Nothing was more obvious than all of that. Nor was it any less obvious that when somebody called himself or somebody like himself a nigger he was not talking about not being as good as white people or somebody rejected by himself because he is rejected by white people—not at all. He was talking about being different from white people all right, but ordinarily he was mainly talking about being full of the devil and stubborn to boot: as stubborn as a mule, mule-headed, contrary, willfully different, cantankerous, ornery, and even downright wrongheaded. When somebody said, “Don’t make me show my nigger”—or “don’t bring out the nigger in me,” he was bragging about having the devil in his soul. And when som-body said that somebody else “started acting like a nigger” he was not talking about somebody acting like a coward or a clown. The word for that in those days was darky: “acting like a good old darky.” When homefolks said that somebody was playing the darky they meant he was putting on an act like a blackface stage clown, either to amuse or to trick white folks. But when they said you were being an out-and-out nigger they were almost always talking about somebody refusing to conform, and their voices always carried more overtones of exasperation than of contempt: “Everybody else was all right and then here he come acting the nigger.” Or: “Then all the old nigger in him commenced to come out. You know how mean and evil some of us can get to be sometime.”
And a fourth technique: sentences are laced with rhetorical pith as Murray sasses academics, shrugs off reporters, jaws with pool-hall hustlers, pedestals black mammies, and swaps yarns with friends from Mobile and Tuskegee. In crafting these identities, he voices or re-harmonizes each speaker’s simple triads by adding minor-third or major seventh notes, liberally applying modal turns and bent notes, until we hear the carny’s flap and critic’s wail, the preacher’s spiel and sideman’s tale. It’s Whitmanesque, this Omni-Murray, and, voilá, in totality, we find Buddy Bolden in literature alive:
If you could only get enough spokesmen and leaders to consider the possibility that the dynamics inherent in the blues idiom might be extended further than [Martin Luther] King was able to take those derived from the downhome church. Not that you did not celebrate the effectiveness of King’s methods, as far as they went. But as a political device they were limited as all moral outcry is bound to be limited. So what you hoped was that the blues idiom, being of its essence a SECULAR form of existential improvisation, could produce something better.
If you could only get a few key spokesmen and leaders to help you tee off on some of those hypocritical white do-gooders and one-up-men who misrepresent it as being something you should either outgrow or be cured of. If you could do that maybe you could also get a few of them to realize that when they confused Uncle Remus with Uncle Tom they were probably allowing themselves to be faked out by superficial political rhetoric instead of relying on their actual experience. Maybe you could even get a few to realize what they were doing when they let some third-rate con man jargonize them into denying Aunt Hagar—as if who if not Aunt Hagar is the source of all stone foxiness! (“Man, if you go to the Waldorf to see Lena Horne and don’t realize that what she’s riffing on is Aunt Hagar, you’re wasting your money!”)
Who then is the author of South to a Very Old Place? One such “Albert Murray” alternates and plays with his writerly personas: a blues philosopher, a music biographer, a critical essayist, a jazz theorist and scholar, and, as we’ve heard, a secular pastor. Another aggregates a range of competitive voices, the leader of the Albert Murray Big Band. He is an eighteen-piece ensemble itself, orchestral sections, instrumental textures, at times, the consonance of sound so fine that the horn lines, rhythm section, and upfront singer merge with the culinary blend of jambalaya. Still another Albert Murray is the masked manipulator of whom we glimpse a master puppet-master as he restrings each speaking persona.
The critic Pete Kuryla says Murray “gathers up experience by representing it in dialogue with another self.” So, one more ensembled self is the wide-ranging and insistent polemicist who, especially in South, blends freely and competitively with the improvisational stylist. This Murray mines two seemingly opposed positions. One says that Black music has an autochthonous autonomy because the uniquely devastating experience of slavery forms this racial group’s artistic aesthetic; the other says that even if this autonomy is true, its aesthetic, writ large as the blues idiom, has evolved with other musical tropes (ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, pop, jazz) into the acme of American music, its mulatto identity the expression of a democratic ideal. Murray was unafraid of living with the crazy quilt musical joy of what he called music’s “antagonistic collaboration,” which we might also label “inclusionary difference.”
To accompany the four stylistic techniques above are four shifty and shifting narrators who appear, often willy-nilly, in South. Most books of memoir and criticism follow a single style; without that singularity, it’s hard to tell whether there’s a main pilot flying the plane or just a cabal of copilots. Indeed, Murray’s book is so beguilingly memoiristic with its many narrative spokesmen that one feels a core author or singular perspective is, perhaps off-stage but in control. He, again writ large, is all three: theater, actors, play. These far-ranging turns let us to hear what one A.M. imagines others are thinking about him and what another A.M. imagines about them through any one of his collective selves.
Nowhere does this four-part counterpoint of styles and voices ring more strongly than in his second-person rendered Chapter Five, “Mobile,” subtitled, “Mister Buster Brown back in Tell-Me-Tale-Town.” Note already the levels of characters in the title, his beloved boyhood home; Buster Brown, a comic character, a white-boy practical jokester, and one of Murray’s affectionate and mischievous childhood personas, who left Mobile and now has returned to find the locals who tease that he’s been “desegregated”: “You live in Harlem and make a living by writing?” This weird group-reflexive identity combines the many selves from his idyllic hometown, most of whom escape to the North but then come back. And when they do, they take on the town’s voice (Mobile, Alabama, another extension of Murray’s “I”) and tell tales of where they’ve been and how where they’ve been embodies how Murray now speaks.
Here, for example, is Murray riffing off his old friends, Murray mixing several of their voices in an italicized soliloquy:
Yes; man is indeed what he achieves and this is what you are making of yourself—but whoever would have thought that the little boy—the itchem bittchem baby boy we all knew when he was no bigger than a minute—would become if not quite our glory yet, at least a part—if only a modicum—of our hope!
Next, he adds another voice, one of playful disapproval, about his Nu Yawck life:
Folks counting on you and there you up there tearing your black ass in front of everybody and showing everybody’s raggedy-butt drawers because you ain’t ready. Hell, if you ain’t ready yet don’t be jumping up there in front of somebody that is. Just let it alone, and stay out of the way. Boy, you too light behind. Hell, boy, you don’t even know how to hold your mouth right to be grabbing hold to this stuff. (Mista Buster Brown how you going to town with your britches hanging down?)
In the end, I’m left wondering, does Murray’s style overwhelm the argument that all that glitters is the golden surface? Does style-as-argument require a different way of reading? Does the velocity of acceleration stay balanced with the vernacular imperative and the existential improvisation? Whatever the answer is, Murray’s value to us as a writer comes with the seamlessness that he transcends strategies, firing their varying properties into a single alloy.
I think Murray’s literary multiplicities in South are like a music because he understood that the most soulful art of a people (many of whom for three to four centuries are still rooted in a very old place) is clearly heard in music where its soundings supersede our need for representational categories. Music is often burdened by composers, critics, and listeners who expect or force it to possess a literary or a storytelling or an ethnic identity, that is, traits common to literature. To ask music to do the work of language, that is, be the thing music is not, is folly. You may get music to represent a context or an idea or a point in time but that then robs it of its separable and abstract nature.
What is the blues? Is it the blue note, the melancholic joy, anguish rising above bitterness, sorrow made happy/sad or slightly more bearable? Is it the practitioners, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Miles Davis, Amy Winehouse, Adele? Isn’t it the one-hundred-and-forty years of its evolution (captured live and in recordings), a river whose tributaries are reborn in each musician who attempts to sing or solo bluely? The blues is its played essence when you hear it, not when you study it or identify it. And yet our historical examination of this American art form, founded and spurred by Murray’s protean intellect, also expresses our need to experience the broadest cultural and aesthetic dimensions of the form as well.
Murray sets a very high bar for his writing: to sound and sway like a jazz band, its competitive contradictions and consonances a kind of symbol for the self and its profusion of roles. Thus, as a swing band creates striking colors and sounds, riffs and melodies, alternating written arrangements and improvised solos, in each tune, so, too, does Murray mimic this elegant synthesis on the page. His expert technique and soulful bounce in phrases, sentences, and sections brings out the best of Black orality and the journalistic inquisitiveness of an author. That author—the best literary ear I know—speech-writes his way through America’s sonic landscape, sounding its pulse by tapping its plurality.