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Black History Meets Black Music: 'Blues People' At 50

The year 1963 saw the March on Washington, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evers, the bombing of the Birmingham church that resulted in the deaths of four black girls and the passing of W.E.B. Du Bois. That same year, LeRoi Jones — a twentysomething, Newark, N.J.-born, African-American, Lower East Side-based Beat poet — published a book titled Blues People: a panoramic sociocultural history of African-American music. It was the first major book of its kind by a black author, now known as Amiri Baraka. In the 50 years since, it has never been out of print.

"The book was originally titled Blues: Black and White," says Baraka, now 78, by phone from Newark, while he was working on his son Ras Baraka's mayoral campaign. "But I changed it because I wanted to focus on the people that created the blues. And that was the real intent of that title: I wanted to focus on them — us — the creators of the blues, which is still, I think, the predominate music under all American music. It cannot be dismissed, even though you might give it to some pop singer, they change it around. But it will come out. It will be heard."

Blues People argues that in their art, Louis Armstrong, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and countless other black bards confronted the forces of racism, poverty and Jim Crow. This gave birth to work songs, blues, gospel, New Orleans jazz, its Chicago and Kansas City swing extensions, the bebop revolution (which in turn spawned the so-called cool and hard bop schools), and the then-emerging avant-garde of the late '50s and early '60s, characterized by the forward-thinking artistry of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor. For Baraka, jazz is "the most cosmopolitan of any Negro music, able to utilize almost any foreign influence within its broader spectrum" — a cultural achievement Baraka says was downplayed and ignored by Eurocentric whites.

"They have to do that to make themselves superior in some kind of way: that everything has come from Europe, which is not true," Baraka says. "And if you study, you'll see [the Africanisms] even in the way Americans talk; it's quite unlike English [from Great Britain]. And certainly the music has been one abiding register of Afro-American influence."

Baraka wrote that Blues People was a "theoretical endeavor" that "proposes more questions than it will answer" about how descendants of enslaved Africans created a new American musical genre and turned "Negroes" into "African Americans" in the process. That message still resonates deeply with many scholars, including Ingrid Monson, a professor of African-American music at Harvard University and author of Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa.

"I assign portions of this book in virtually every course I teach," Monson wrote in Blues People: Amiri Baraka As a Social Theorist, a speech she delivered in 2004, "to remind my students that cultural studies and critical race theory didn't begin in the academy, but in 20th-century African-American thought and intellectual practice from DuBois to Garvey, Locke, Ellington, Ellison and Baraka."

You've Got To Be Modernistic

Baraka was certainly not the first black writer to write about African-American music. But it was his modern stance, propelled by the momentum of the Civil Rights Era, that made his analysis unique.

"[Early works by black authors] primarily focused on the written tradition of African-American music, as part of the Western art music tradition," says University of Pennsylvania professor Guthrie Ramsey, author of Bud Powell: Black Genius, Black History and the Challenge of Bebop. "The goals of those books were to position black music within Western culture. There weren't many black writers who had the platforms like Baraka was developing at that time. He wrote that book from [a contemporary] African-American perspective. And that's what made it unique at that time.

"Blues People was out there not entirely by itself — Ralph Ellison had written some essays on jazz here and there and a few others," says fellow historian A.B. Spellman, author of Four Jazz Lives. "But Blues People certainly was the first one to take a comprehensive look at the music: where it came from, the people who made it and the culture that produced it. So in that sense it was a trailblazing book. And still remains a strong read today."

Baraka — as LeRoi Jones — came from a middle-class upbringing, including university studies at Rutgers, Columbia and Howard Universities. But he also served in the Air Force, married Jewish writer Hettie Cohen and published a critically acclaimed 1961 work, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, which established him as a noteworthy figure among the Beat Generation. It was the influence of the late poet Sterling Brown, who taught generations of Howard students — including Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison and conservative economist Thomas Sowell — who gave Baraka the impulse to investigate the older folk traditions of African-American music.

It took me a decade to find that those records told a story: Every voice, every title is telling you the story of Afro-American history. I really latched onto that idea. And I went back and started listening to the blues.

"I always liked jazz," Baraka says. "And my people liked the old blues, race records and the doo-wop and all that. But when I went to Howard, the great Sterling Brown was a great influence on many of us. A.B. Spellman and I, Toni Morrison ... a lot of us sat up under Brown. And so, you can always tell that influence.

"We thought we knew so much about jazz. [Brown] said, 'Why don't you come on by my house, I'll show you some things.' We went by there, and he had the whole wall full of records, by chronology and genre, and he said to me, 'That's your history.' So it took me a decade to find that those records told a story: Every voice, every title is telling you the story of Afro-American history. I really latched on to that idea. And I went back and started listening to the blues."

"[Professor Brown] knew the music very well — particularly the great heroic bands like [Duke] Ellington, [Don] Redman, [Jimmie] Lunceford and [Count] Basie, and so forth," Spellman says. "And he was always very insistent that we know the music of the founders, and to know why their music endures, and what made that music. He was a terrific mind: a person with a good, clear and solidly based intellect."

Call And Response

Inspired by Brown, Baraka's Blues People spoke forcefully about the art black people produced — and the pain they endured in this country — and was well-received by black and white critics. Langston Hughes hailed it as "a must for all who would more knowledgeably appreciate and better comprehend America's most popular music."

Not everyone was convinced. In his 1964 book of essays Shadow and Act, novelist Ralph Ellison wrote that "[t]he tremendous burden of sociology, which Jones would place upon this body of music, is enough to give even the blues the blues."

"He put my book down in his book," Baraka says, still stinging from Ellison's criticism five decades later. "I came with a sociological analysis of the blues that he didn't want to accept. He had a romantic kind of conception: The blues is just music that comes out of... But I was trying to find out why. [Sterling] Brown said if you study the actual music and the lyrics, they're talking about their lives. What do you think they're talking about? Some fantasy world? They're talking about their lives in America. And for Ralph not to understand that I think was a fundamental flaw in his understanding."

Today's scholars might take issue with the exact nature of Baraka's argument. Ingrid Monson's paper points out the author's "tendency toward social determinism [that] is particularly obvious in Baraka's discussion of class — which, to me, is where his argument is most undermined by essentialism. Here, middle-classness is the ultimate marker of cultural inauthenticity, because the black middle class, according to Baraka, dedicated itself to assimilation."

But Monson offers praise for the book in general. "Blues People is a brilliant and path-breaking book, not because all of its factual information is correct, or because all of its interpretive perspectives are unassailable, but because of the sheer audacity, scope and originality of its interpretive perspective," she wrote.

Becoming Baraka

Amiri Baraka in the 1970s.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Getty Images
Amiri Baraka in the 1970s.

Blues People outlined a black experience in sound, and it marked the beginning of LeRoi Jones' social and personal metamorphosis. His drama and fiction works grew increasingly centered on African-American themes. He moved from Manhattan's Lower East Side to predominantly black Harlem. He founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School in 1965 and, along with poet and critic Larry Neal, kick-started the Black Arts movement — a cultural arm of the Black Power movement. And, in 1968, Jones changed his name to Imamu Ameer Baraka, and later dropped Imamu (meaning "spiritual leader") and changed Ameer to Amiri. He would later move from Harlem back to his hometown of Newark, participate in the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., and reject the narrow confines of cultural nationalism for Marxist-Leninist doctrines.

From the '70s to today, Baraka remains prolific, and has written an autobiography, essays and poetry. He's continued to publish books about music. But by far, Blues People remains his most influential work about music.

"You'd be hard-pressed to think about who has not been influenced by that book — anyone from Sterling Stuckey to Samuel Floyd, Ingrid Monson, Scott DeVeaux and myself," Guthrie Ramsey says, listing fellow scholars. "That book created a space in what I call the literary community theatre for all kinds of ruminations on black music." For Ingrid Monson, "[t]he speculative history of African-American music that [Baraka] presented in Blues People in 1963 successfully articulated a number of crucial issues that foreshadow recent work in cultural studies, post-structuralism, anthropology and ethnomusicology."

A.B. Spellman says a 2013 version of Blues People would naturally be different, but the focus on black experiences would remain. "A young writer trying to do a comprehensive book on African-American serious music would want to have a clear look at the sociopolitical environment of the music today," Spellman says. "It's a different one from the environment Blues People was written in, but no less exploitative; no less cynical, and it needs a different analysis. And you'd want to have a sense of pride, because African-American music has affected the culture of the world, and continues to do so. I would not attempt to be neutral."

As for the author, Baraka himself notes with satisfaction that the music and culture of "blues people" enjoys a wider influence in the 21st century than it did in 1963. "My own thinking has evolved," Baraka says. "You find Africanisms in American speech. You find an African influence on United States culture. There are all kinds of Africanisms in America, as you would expect, if you really thought about it. ... That whole thing is much broader; the influence is much broader than I first understood."

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Eugene Holley, Jr.