- “Pass It On!”:Legacy and the Freedom Struggle in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon
Oh, I wish I could flyLike a bird up in the skyAnd then wake up one morningTo find out for myself, ohYou don’t even have to die
Listen, I’d fly if I could fly, you seeTo the sun and then downTo the deep blue seaThen I’d sing, yesI’d sing about freedom—Solomon Burke (“I Wish I Knew”)
Toni Morrison has written often about the relationship between her writing and black music. In “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” the novelist explains that “[f]or a long time, the art form that was healing for Black people was music. That music is no longer exclusively ours … Other people sing it and play it … So another form has to take its place, and it seems to me that the novel is needed by African-Americans now in a way that it was not needed before” (58). Morrison does not specify when that shift occurred; Craig Werner, however, hears it happening in the mid-1960s. In A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race, and the Soul of America, he tracks a key change from Mahalia Jackson’s soulful gospel performance at the 1963 March on Washington to Diana Ross’s unprecedented commercial “crossover” [End Page 90] success in the final years of that decade. Nina Simone provides backup for Werner’s claim in her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, effectively connecting this key change to shifts in political vision. Simone identifies 1963 as a pivotal year in the civil rights movement, a time when activists like her felt compelled to choose between two very different ways forward—the integration and passive resistance model advocated by Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the black power vision promoted by Stokely Carmichael and other young militants increasingly at odds with SCLC as well as members of their own group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It is into this space—a crossroads in the freedom struggle—that Morrison’s Song of Solomon enters.1 And it does so by referencing slavery and Jim Crow, linking characters to historical figures in the civil rights movement, and conjuring up the spirit of a gospel singer named Solomon Burke.
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A Pulitzer Prize-winner and Nobel laureate, Toni Morrison has occupied a wider circle of influence than has Solomon Burke, a soul singer with gospel [End Page 91] roots who never achieved the name recognition of Otis Redding, James Brown, or Aretha Franklin. Called the King of Rock and Soul in the 1960s, Burke grew up in his grandmother’s church, where at the age of seven he would begin preaching. At fourteen, he was singing in a gospel quartet, and at fifteen, he signed his first contract with Apollo Records. Burke’s music merges the spiritual with the secular, his albums provoking the same kind of emotional response his sermons at Solomon’s Temple inspired. A charismatic figure and native of Philadelphia, Burke lived most of his life near Danville, Pennsylvania and Shalimar, Virginia—the homes of the ancestors of Song of Solomon’s protagonist, Milkman Dead. Burke’s godfather was Father Divine, mentioned in the novel’s opening scene: when Mercy hospital personnel go outside to find out why a crowd has gathered and a black woman is singing, “[s]ome of them thought briefly that this was probably some form of worship. Philadelphia, where Father Divine reigned, wasn’t all that far away” (6). And in a parallel that simply cannot be a coincidence, Solomon Burke, just like Milkman’s great-grandfather Solomon, had twenty-one children.2
Burke’s spirit permeates Morrison’s novel from the title to the final scene at Solomon’s Leap. When Milkman journeys south, he confronts the name Solomon everywhere: “Everybody in this town is named Solomon, he thought wearily. Solomon’s General Store, Luther Solomon (no relation), Solomon’s Leap, and now...