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Black Resonance

Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Black Resonance
    Book Description:

    Ever since Bessie Smith's powerful voice conspired with the "race records" industry to make her a star in the 1920s, African American writers have memorialized the sounds and theorized the politics of black women's singing. InBlack Resonance, Emily J. Lordi analyzes writings by Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Gayl Jones, and Nikki Giovanni that engage such iconic singers as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, and Aretha Franklin.

    Focusing on two generations of artists from the 1920s to the 1970s,Black Resonancereveals a musical-literary tradition in which singers and writers, faced with similar challenges and harboring similar aims, developed comparable expressive techniques. Drawing together such seemingly disparate works as Bessie Smith's blues and Richard Wright's neglected film ofNative Son, Mahalia Jackson's gospel music and Ralph Ellison'sInvisible Man, each chapter pairs one writer with one singer to crystallize the artistic practice they share: lyricism, sincerity, understatement, haunting, and the creation of a signature voice. In the process, Lordi demonstrates that popular female singers are not passive muses with raw, natural, or ineffable talent. Rather, they are experimental artists who innovate black expressive possibilities right alongside their literary peers.

    The first study of black music and literature to centralize the music of black women,Black Resonanceoffers new ways of reading and hearing some of the twentieth century's most beloved and challenging voices.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-6251-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Music, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-XVI)
  4. Introduction: Black Resonance
    (pp. 1-26)

    Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues; Billie Holiday, Lady Day; Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel; Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. As these artists’ titles suggest, black women singers have dominated the major forms of twentieth-century American music. Revered as black royalty and also cited with the familiarity of kinship—as simply “Bessie,” “Billie,” “Mahalia,” “Aretha”—these singers occupy a unique place in the national imagination.

    This book centralizes their place in the African American literary imagination. It highlights the fact that, ever since Bessie Smith’s improbably powerful voice conspired with the emerging “race records” industry to make...

  5. 1 Vivid Lyricism: Richard Wright and Bessie Smith’s Blues
    (pp. 27-65)

    This chapter highlights Richard Wright’s alignment of his work with Bessie Smith’s, thus establishing the relationship between male writers and female singers that the next two chapters will also explore. Although Wright’s fiction often depicts black song as a feminized threat to black male resistance, his unpublished 1941 essay “Memories of My Grandmother” attunes us to moments in Wright’s work when feminized lyricism itself functions as a medium of resistance. Wright uses such lyricism to protest black alienation from U.S. society in general and from the domain of the literary in particular. His widely neglected film ofNative Son(1951)...

  6. 2 The Timbre of Sincerity: Mahalia Jackson’s Gospel Sound and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
    (pp. 66-98)

    Thanks to Ralph Ellison’s writings on music, eloquent style, and self-mythology designed to promote this view, literary critics have often seen Ellison’s writing, like Zora Neale Hurston’s, as an expansive lyrical answer to Richard Wright’s hardboiled naturalism.¹ I hope the previous chapter has shown that dichotomy to be misleading, if not false. A more appropriate distinction between Wright and Ellison is that, whereas Wright often anticipates a readership that will misread his use of black music—and thus needs to leave the States and even the medium of fiction to bring his engagement with Bessie Smith’s blues to fruition—Ellison...

  7. 3 Understatement: James Baldwin, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday
    (pp. 99-136)

    Thus far I have argued that Richard Wright’s and Bessie Smith’s shared expressive techniques both protest and embrace social exclusion and that Ralph Ellison’s and Mahalia Jackson’s techniques ask us to conceive complex black expressive acts as central rather than marginal insurgencies. James Baldwin takes his place in this musical-literary tradition at a moment when black music is assuming center stage in American culture. As the nation moves fitfully toward integration in the 1960s, Baldwin pushes back against the national embrace of black music by reasserting the music’s marginal status and privileging black listeners. His writings about Bessie Smith and...

  8. 4 Haunting: Gayl Jones’s Corregidora and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”
    (pp. 137-172)

    By claiming in the previous chapter that James Baldwin’s writings not only transmit but also create musical meaning, I have proposed a reciprocal relationship between black music and literature. In this view, black music is not a stable authenticating source of inspiration for black writers; instead, it is a force that writers such as Baldwin use their own literature to re-create. Indeed, this may be precisely what it means to say that writers are inspired by music: that they are moved or instigated to use their literary art to shape how music is heard. I want to turn now to...

  9. 5 Signature Voices: Nikki Giovanni, Aretha Franklin, and the Black Arts Movement
    (pp. 173-208)

    By readingCorregidoraas a text that instigates new stories about Billie Holiday’s music, I have also implicitly offered a new story about the legacy of the Black Arts Movement: that writers like Jones sustain the movement’s aesthetic principles (e.g., the power of black music) precisely by questioning its truisms (e.g., “Billie Holiday sang her life”). Here I apply this mode of inquiry to the Black Arts Movement itself in order to tell a new story about this complex moment. I begin by positioning “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin and “Princess of Black Poetry” Nikki Giovanni as key participants in...

  10. Epilogue. “At Last”: Etta James, Poetry, Hip Hop
    (pp. 209-226)

    I have focused on the nine artists in this book due to the depth of the writers’ engagements with singers; my desire to analyze artists with whom many readers are likely to be familiar and to make some interventions in scholarly conversations about them; my aim to craft a historical narrative that leads up to (and back to) the Black Arts Movement; and, of course, personal preference. However, Nikki Giovanni’s attention to the backup singers “behind” the stars also prompts reflection on the many artists behind or beyond the ones this book has featured. As my introductory catalogue of literary...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 227-274)
  12. Index
    (pp. 275-286)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 287-287)