07 July 2008
South To A Very Old Place
Oxford American Magazine
"Best of the South"
The Best Book About the South
7 July 2008
Charlottesville, Virginia, fall of 1995: I’m a twenty-three-year-old grad student from Indiana, and Charles Rowell, my professor and the editor of the literary journal Callaloo, sits behind his desk, going over the inadequacies of my semi-passable essay on Ralph Ellison’s use of the blues in Invisible Man. His message is that I know nothing about the South, the blues, or blackness. “How can you write about the blues without absorbing all of Albert Murray?” he asks, incredulously. When I explain that I’ve never heard of Murray, Rowell passes me a look over the rim of his glasses that signals: end of meeting.
In response, I devour both Murray’s fiction (Train Whistle Guitar and The Spyglass Tree) and his nonfiction (The Omni-Americans, The Hero and the Blues, Stomping the Blues, and The Blue Devils of Nada) and am invigorated by his critical disquisitions on the power of Negro cultural rituals. But for all of Murray’s Armstrong-invented, Basie-orchestrated, Ellington-refined, gutbucket stylistic elegance and brio and his ever-so-thorough theorizing on modernist literature, it’s the alchemical improvisational-sounding vernacular of South to a Very Old Place that constantly revolves on the Charlottesville soundtrack of my memory.
Murray’s theme is that one can’t go home again because “things ain’t what they used to be…[and] things never are (and never were) what they once were.” This is a Thomas Wolfean cliché that Murray effectively pits against a Faulknerian cliché: that the past is always present. In structure, South to a Very Old Place is a travelogue and memoir, wherein Murray charts the physical regions of his youth and the invisible locations of his imagination. But it is really an exuberant amalgam of history, sociology, cultural studies, and fieldwork. In Atlanta, Murray spies Hank Aaron looking “barber-shop-sharp,” walking “that old be-sports-shirted, high-shine morning-before-the-game” gait, writing in a rhythm that evokes Earl Hines’s unfettered piano mastery. At Tuskegee, where street names and campus buildings are “faulknerian as in faulknerian landscape, faulknerian character and situation,” Murray recalls the beginnings of both his lifelong friendship with Ellison and his modernist literary education. In Mobile, what he calls his “briar patch,” Murray renders the brass-section “call and response” repartee of the Negro barbershop with plunger-muted, wha-wha zeal, recording the rejection of Black Power racialism and decoding the various linguistic meanings and uses of “nigger.” At the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Murray delivers a “mood indigo” elegy for the Reverend King and the Movement’s disintegration.
For Murray, the next step after achieving the moral high ground of non-violent politics is to promote individual “existential improvisation.” Reading the South’s historical complexity with intelligence and sensitivity, Murray explains that African-American identity is not fait accompli, but rather the realization that personal identity, like a long Coltrane solo, is always in the process of being improvised from one’s relation to history and cultural context. While some will argue with Murray’s assumptions and conclusions, his thinking is never simpleminded and always compelling.
Rereading Murray’s pages now, I remember cutting across the verdant waves of the Lawn toward the Rotunda, heading to the Corner, that zone of grad-school names that resound like whistle-stops on a daily route: Littlejohn’s, White Spot, the Rising Sun Bakery, The Biltmore Grill, Higher Grounds, Café Europa, and Plan 9. I imagine Jefferson at Monticello, surveying Charlottesville, sketching designs for the University, young Sally Hemings in his thoughts. I recall seeing, through summer’s bourbon haze, Faulkner’s ghost rattling doorknobs along Rugby Road (or was it Poe wandering the Lawn’s West Range?). And among variously hued Charlottesvilleans, I see Negro features cross-faded with Welsh profiles, products of previous generations, of slaves and gentlemen farmers reaping the Commonwealth’s precious fecundity.
If Professor Rowell’s finger-wagging imperative to learn the functions of the blues and the meaning of the South in order to fully comprehend African-American identity makes sense (and it does), then South to a Very Old Place is an essential guide, an all-comprehending handbook for negotiating the South and understanding African-American identity.