Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature
Publication Year: 2013
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. In Black 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 Resonance reveals 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 of Native Son, Mahalia Jackson’s gospel music and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible 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 Resonance offers new ways of reading and hearing some of the twentieth century’s most beloved and challenging voices.
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
Introduction: Black Resonance
Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new . . . in Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues; Billie Holiday, Lady Day; Maha-lia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel; Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. As these artists? titles suggest, black women singers have dominated the ...
1. Vivid Lyricism: Richard Wright and Bessie Smith's Blues
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 Although Wright?s fiction often depicts black song as a feminized threat to black male resistance, his unpublished 1941 essay ?Memories of My Grand-...
2. The Timbre of Sincerity: Mahalia Jackson's Gospel Sound and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
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 ...
3. Understatement: James Baldwin, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday
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 insurgen-cies. James Baldwin takes his place in this musical-literary tradition at a ...
4. Haunting: Gayl Jones’s Corregidora and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”
By claiming in the previous chapter that James Baldwin?s writings not only transmit but also create musical meaning, I have proposed a recip-rocal relationship between black music and literature. In this view, black music is not a stable authenticating source of inspiration for black writ-ers; instead, it is a force that writers such as Baldwin use their own lit-...
5. Signature Voices: Nikki Giovanni, Aretha Franklin, and the Black Arts Movement
Those of us in the Black Arts Movement . . . wanted our poetry to be black The main thing that I think my work offers is a singular voice. . . . I really don?t think that there?s a whole lot of confusion. If you hear my poem you?ll know it?s me. And I think I have as much a signature voice for what By reading Corregidora as a text that instigates new stories about Bil-...
Epilogue. “At Last”:Etta James, Poetry, Hip Hop
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 interven-tions in scholarly conversations about them; my aim to craft a historical narrative that leads up to (and back to) the Black Arts Movement; and, ...
About the Author
Emily Lordi is an assistant professor of English at the University of ...