- Hot Music, Ragmentation, and the Bluing of American Literature by Steven C. Tracy
Hot Music, Ragmentation, and the Bluing of American Literature is a lengthy, encyclopedic treatment of African American vernacular aesthetic influences in turn-of-the-twentieth-century American literature and beyond. While purporting to limit his study of vernacular aesthetics to so-called “hot music,” which emerges “from earlier African American musical genres such as minstrelsy and ragtime” and incorporates “elements of jazz improvisation and blues inflection” (84), Steven C. Tracy, professor of Afro-American Studies and blues musician, tends to color outside of the lines in his effort to recreate the dynamics of a vast musical inheritance. His study resembles the claim he makes about Zora Neale Hurston’s “Eatonville Anthology,” which he describes as a collage “much like a traditional improvisational blues lyric, which can be associational, and sometimes seemingly incoherent and non-thematic, while still forming a possible urtext for others to follow” (352).
His associative style, culled from an impressive familiarity with blues music recorded before 1930 and a command of a large body of literary and aesthetic studies, leads Tracy well beyond the parameters of American literature from the 1920s. Summoning a call-and-response approach (among many other African American vernacular aesthetic tactics), Tracy acknowledges many of the critical objections to previous black vernacular readings of American literature, such as the unanswerable questions of “influence, definitions, origins, syncretism, and adaptability to Euro-American literary uses” (57). He then responds with an abundance of possibilities, just as hot music itself does. Many of the possibilities take the form of interesting authorial interjections, such as, “Some, like Furry Lewis, can peep through muddy water and spy dry land; others, when their left eye goes to jumping, don’t know which way to go” (58). Each possibility is punctuated with exhaustive references to blues music (much of which was reissued by Austrian Johnny Parth and documented in Tracy’s “Appendix 1: Discography and Videography”), giving the reader a circuitous, ever-swelling impression of the complexity of the aesthetics undertaken here while offering few definitive theoretical pegs on which critics may “hang their hats” (49).
Tracy vamps until ready and then delivers his thesis:
How [the African American Vernacular] materials are used by and then subjected to work against the paradigm of the dominant culture—initially and in relation to [End Page 234] the co-opting and corrupting of those materials (as in minstrelsy) that then must be readjusted for appropriate social, artistic and political uses—and how the use of those materials enters into and reflects integrative notions of American literature and democracy is a major focus of this study.(61)
Readers will wade through nearly one hundred pages of an associative maelstrom of aesthetic possibilities to arrive at a focused discussion of literature that sometimes careens away from American literature written in the time frame promised. Divided into seven chapters that are subsequently subdivided, Tracy’s approach to the argument is thorough and inventive, if, at times, uneven.
Chapter 6, “Angels in Harlem: The Harlem Renaissance,” is a useful and inclusive example of Tracy at his best. Written in a style akin to typical literary criticism, the chapter is made up of seven subsections, which successfully unite the main threads of “hot music” and American literature. The chapter thoughtfully covers Langston Hughes’s “The Weary Blues” (1925), which Tracy calls “an auspicious beginning to the strongest, most nuanced vein of blues literature” (310) that offers a “complicated musical mixture of hard times and transcendence, life, and art” (319). Other writers of the “New Negro Renaissance,” including Countee Cullen, Carl Van Vechten, Zora Neale Hurston, Sterling Brown, Nella Larsen, and Rudolph Fisher, are also covered in this chapter. As Tracy points out, the case is not difficult to make since the “New Negro” writers created the most sustained use of the materials of hot music, which was “startlingly rooted and original, as well as instructive for future writers who might try their abilities at using the...