The recent death of Amiri Baraka gets us looking back at the 1963 publication of his important and enduring study of jazz and and blues, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. Two pieces to turn interested readers to…The first, “The Blues,” by Ralph Ellison, first appeared in the February 6, 1964 edition of the New York Review of Books, and features Ellison’s classic line of criticism, “The tremendous burden of sociology which Jones would place upon this body of music is enough to give even the blues the blues.” The second, “Black History Meets Black Music” ‘Blues People’ at 50″ is a July 26, 2013 piece by Eugene Holley, Jr. published on NPR’s “A Blog Supreme,” in which Holley seeks opinion on the book from key contemporary critcs and musicians, including Harvard educator Ingrid Monson, who says that “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.”
You can access both pieces below:
“The Blues,” by Ralph Ellison
In his Introduction to Blues People Mr. Jones advises us to approach the blues as
…a strictly theoretical endeavor. Theoretical, in that none of the questions it poses can be said to have been answered definitively or for all time, (sic!) etc. In fact, the whole book proposes more questions than it will answer. The only questions it will properly move to answer have, I think, been answered already within the patterns of American life. We need only give these patterns serious scrutiny and draw certain permissible conclusions.
It is a useful warning and one hopes that it will be regarded by those jazz publicists who have the quite irresponsible habit of sweeping up any novel pronouncement written about jazz and slapping it upon the first available record liner as the latest insight into the mysteries of American Negro expression.
Jones would take his subject seriously—as the best of jazz critics have always done—and he himself should be so taken. He has attempted to place the blues within the context of a total culture and to see this native art form through the disciplines of sociology, anthropology and (though he seriously underrates its importance in the creating of a viable theory) history, and he spells out explicitly his assumptions concerning the relation between the blues, the people who created them, and the larger American culture. Although I find several of his assumptions questionable, this is valuable in itself. It would be well if all jazz critics did likewise: not only would it expose those who have no business in the field, but it would sharpen the thinking of the few who have something enlightening to contribute. Blues People, like much that is written by Negro Americans at the present moment, takes on an inevitable resonance from the Freedom Movement, but it is in itself characterized by a straining for a note of militancy which is, to say the least, distracting. Its introductory mood of scholarly analysis frequently shatters into a dissonance of accusation, and one gets the impression that while Jones wants to perform a crucial task which he feels someone should take on—as indeed someone should—he is frustrated by the restraint demanded of the critical pen and would like to pick up a club.
“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.