- James Baldwin and The Sound of Soul
Many of James Baldwin’s readers will know how often he claimed black music as an influence and instigation. In his 1959 essay “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American,” he declared that blues singer Bessie Smith’s recordings helped him to write his first novel (1993a, 5); he championed the work of jazz and blues artists in countless essays and interviews; and he featured black musicians in several works of fiction. The steadiest stars in Baldwin’s literary cosmos were Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Miles Davis, but for the last two decades of his life he also invoked soul singers Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and his friend Nina Simone. Scholarship on Baldwin and music foregrounds his engagement with jazz, blues, and gospel, whereas scholarship on soul fails to mention him; yet I want to suggest that Baldwin has something specific to teach us about soul music and politics as they emerge in the mid-1960s. To read Baldwin as a soul theorist is to glean a [End Page 31] unique understanding of soul as a performative practice that makes its own claims about black spirituality, sexuality, and survival. It is also to recognize not only Baldwin’s literary debt to black music but also the ways that our listening might be indebted to him. We can use music to read his work, that is, but we can also use his work to rehear music.
To that end, I begin with another unsung soul writer, Phyl Garland. A music journalist who would become the first black tenured professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 1981, Garland was an editor and music critic at Ebony magazine when she published her first book, The Sound of Soul, in 1970. This brilliant yet critically neglected work includes several profiles of black musicians, from B. B. King to Nina Simone, but it begins with a long preface that Garland calls a “concise natural history of soul” (1970, 42–97). Garland narrates this “natural history” from the slave trade to the present while gracefully eschewing a definition of soul itself. But the closest she comes is by quoting a passage from Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), a passage that she calls “perhaps the most eloquent and concise definition of soul and all it entails ever to be set down on paper” (27).
Baldwin does not define soul in that passage. Instead he defines sensuality—significantly, as a process: “To be sensual,” he writes, “is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread” (Baldwin 1993b, 43, quoted in Garland 1970, 27). Baldwin arrives at this definition by making a point about black music, which he, like a long line of African American thinkers before him, represents as indexing deep undercurrents of African American life. I will say more about the passage shortly, but for now I will venture that although Baldwin seldom wrote about soul per se, Garland’s use of Baldwin’s work illuminates the meaning of this famously elusive term. At a moment when “soul” was emerging as a keyword of Black Power politics as well as an object of curiosity on the part of the white American public, Baldwin’s work enriched the discourse that established its meaning by suggesting that soul, like sensuality, was best understood as process and practice. His work thus encourages us to apprehend soul less as a musical genre, a marketing ploy, or, as so often, a racial essence that resists or submits to appropriation and marketization, and more as the process through which “the tale of how we suffer, and how we [End Page 32] are delighted, and how we may triumph,” as Baldwin writes in “Sonny’s Blues” (1957), gets told and retold through story and song (1995, 139).
Garland figures Baldwin as her key soul theorist by constellating his writings on Pentecostal worship, African American vernacular music, and black sensuality. She explains that, although Baldwin “soon shed [the] Pentecostal robes...