From the Briarpatch File: On Context, Procedure and American Identityby Albert Murray
In From the Briarpatch File—a gathering of erudite, provocative, and iconoclastic essays, reviews, and interviews—Albert Murray approaches contemporary America through its artistic expressions of itself and through the inventiveness of his own thinking and experience. He writes about New York in the 1920s and about the beginnings of his career as a writer. He gives us profound assessments of the achievements of Duke Ellington and William Faulkner. He outlines the responsibilities of the black educated elite and discusses the near-tragic, near-comic essence of the blues. His subject is no less than the life of America today; the clarity and the singularity of his vision, thought, and language are no less than stunning.
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Part 1- The Briarpatch
One - Antagonistic Cooperation in Alabama
In the remarks I made on April 16, 1988, at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where I was a participant in a symposium on "The American South: Distinctiveness and Its Limitations," I began by stating that as a writer of fiction which I hoped would be read as serious literary statement of universal appeal above all else, my primary concern was not with recording, reporting, or documenting sociopolitical data as such about the South.
But then I went on to point out that the universally appealing in art, which is to say aesthetic statement, is always achieved through the extension, elaboration, and refinement of the local details and idiomatic particulars that impinge most intimately on one's everyday existence. So the point was not that I was not at all concerned with writing about the South, but rather that I have always been more interested in ultimate metaphors about the South than in social science surveys about it. Because whereas sociopolitical reports in effect give circumstances which amount to predicament all of the advantages over incentive and ambition, the metaphor may be employed as a pragmatic device that functions as our most basic equipment for living, by which of course I mean self-fulfillment.
The metaphor represents how we feel about whatever facts and figures are used to describe or define the concrete circumstances of our existence wherever we are. And how we feel adds up to our outlook or horizon of aspiration, which is the source of our incentive or lack of incentive.
In brief, how I felt about the socioeconomic and politicalcircumstances in the Alabama in which I grew up during the 1920s and the 1930s added up to me thinking of myself as having to be as the ever nimble and ever resourceful mythological Alabama jackrabbit in the no less actual than mythological Alabama briarpatch. Thus I have never thought of myself as a victim or a villain. I was always, but always, the fairy tale hero who would marry the fairy tale princess.
All of which is also why I've written so much about the blues (and about jazz, which is the fully orchestrated blues statement). To me, blues music has never been the misery music that the ever so benevolent social-science-survey-oriented do-gooders and uplifters of the downtrodden seem to think it is. To me it has always been good-time music, music that inspires you to stomp away low-down blue feelings and stomp in an atmosphere of earthy well-being and affirmation and celebration of the sheer fact of existence.
Yes, the ever so blue lyrics are indeed about problems, troubles, disappointment, defeat, loss, and unhappiness. But the music, with its locomotive beat and onomatopoeia, not only counterstates and counteracts the complaint that life itself is such a low-down dirty shame, it also goes on to transform the atmosphere (of the juke joint, honky-tonk, or even the rent party) from that of a purification ritual to a fertility ritual! A juke joint, honky-tonk, or any blues dive is a good-time place, and I've never seen, heard, or heard of a blues musician who was not primarily interested in making the good times roll.
Anyway, to me blues music is an aesthetic device of confrontation and improvisation, an existential device or vehicle for coping with the ever-changing fortunes of human existence, in a word entropy, the tendency of everything to become formless. Which is also to say that such music is a device for confronting and acknowledging the harsh fact that the human situation (the human situation as such) is always awesome and all too often awful. The blues lyric never lets you forget that.
And yet the blues statement is neither a matter of commiseration nor of protestation as such. According to Kenneth Burke's book Attitudes Toward History, aesthetic statement falls into one or the other of two rhetorical frames of reference. On the one hand, there is a frame of rejection within which the basic statement is that life should not be a matter of tribulation. Hence the plaint, the complaint, the protestation, the grotesque, the burlesque, the satire, the caricature, the elegy, and so on. But on the other hand there is the frame of acceptance of the obvious fact that life is always a struggle against destructive forces and elements whether seen or unseen. Thus the aesthetic statement takes the form of the ode, the hymn of praise, the epic, the tragedy (of noble defeat), the comedy (of insightful resolution), the melodrama (of resolution through effective engineering); and then there is farce, which is where I place the blues and jazz because such music presents life as a matter of perpetual readjustment and improvisation.
Such is the context within which I place my blues-derived literary statement. When Scooter, the protagonist of Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree, and The Seven League Boots, says "My name is Jack the Rabbit because I was bred and born and brought up in the briarpatch," he is speaking in terms of the idiomatic particulars of a brownskin boy from Alabama, but his actions should add up to the anecdotes that represent the basic ancestral American outlook on what life is all about.
As a frame of acceptance the blues as literary statement also functions in terms of the dynamics of antagonistic cooperation! In a blues composition or anecdote, a key structural device is the break, a cessation of the established rhythm and temp which jazz musicians regard and respond to not as a detrimental or trauma-inducing disruption not unlike the abrupt intrusion of the villain or some other personification of disaster, but rather as an opportunity to exercise their personal best.
What makes the Alabama jackrabbit so nimble, so resilient, so elegantly resourceful? The briarpatch!
Two - Context and Definition
At Mobile County Training School on the outskirts of Mobile, Alabama, where I was a high school junior in the spring of 1934, you had to compose, memorize, and deliver an essay in the annual juniors' oratorical contest, a major event of the commencement season, of greater importance and only slightly less popular than the annual junior-senior prom. It was an occasion when next year's seniors not only showed their promise but also began their competition for college scholarship grants, without which during those stark days of the Depression many of the most promising among us would not have been able to go to college.
It was while collecting materials in preparation for my oration that I came across a poem by one Langston Hughes. It was in an anthology of writings from the so-called Harlem Renaissance entitled The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke. The poem was called "Youth," and not only did I memorize it and use it as the outchorus for my statement, I also appropriated the title of Alain Locke's anthology as the theme and title of my presentation.
Well, Langston's poem didn't win the juniors' oratorical contest for me. But along with Locke's theme it did lead the sponsors to choose me as the lead-off speaker, which meant that faculty support for my college scholarship grant status was already very strong indeed.
I can't say that Langston Hughes or anybody else from the so-called Harlem Renaissance as such inspired me to be a writer. Once I got to college and became involved with literature as existential equipment for living rather than as academic exercises and ceremonial-recitation fluff stuff, nothing in The New Negro struck me as being in the same league as such world-class twentieth-century writers as James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, André Malraux, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and Ezra Pound, among others. Which is to say there was nothing from my idiomatic American context in literature that was comparable to what Jack Johnson, Joe Gans, Sam Langford, and the up-and-coming young Joe Louis represented as world-class prizefighters, or Eddie Tolan, Ralph Metcalfe, and Jesse Owens as Olympic-class track stars; nor was there any question in my mind that segregation kept Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson from being unsurpassed in the world of baseball. And that Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington represented the very best that America had to offer in music went without saying. In other words, segregation was no excuse.
The point here is that, taking my clue from the world-class aesthetic, sophistication, and profundity of Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Basie, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and other definitive masters of what I refer to as the blues idiom (the ultimate extension, elaboration, and refinement of which is jazz), I decided that I would try to produce a literary equivalent of the world-class fine art music that they had processed from the idiomatic particulars of my most immediate and intimate American context.
You, of course, know that the ambition to produce world-class literature involves the matter of processing or stylizing idiomatic folk and pop particulars, which is to say extending, elaborating, and refining folk and pop material up to the level of fine art. Thus the jazz musicians that I am forever referring to were indispensable to me as an apprentice writer because what they did was develop the technique and sophistication necessary to transform folk and pop music into aesthetic statement that qualified as fine art and that has had the universal appeal, impact, profundity, and endurance of fine art.
As for my personal existential and literary point of view, the main thing is not some putative subtext that some academics seek out as if the writer has either hidden it or really doesn't know that it is there. The indispensable thing is the rhetorical context, the basic frame of reference that conditions the nature of the aesthetic statement that one's stylization of actuality adds up to.
My basic working assumption is that all literary statements fall into one or the other of two categories or frames of reference that represent two opposite attitudes toward experience or the circumstances of human existence: (1) the frame of acceptance or (2) the frame of rejection. These attitudes condition literary responses.
In other words, you can either accept the harsh facts of life and do what you can to counteract or ameliorate them, such as what has been done to counteract bad weather. Or you can cry and shiver and feel sorry for yourself. Thus, on the one hand you have the literary image-statement of the questing and conquesting storybook hero who is still a hero and merits celebration even when he fails. Hence the epic, tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and farce. Whereas on the other hand what you have is the lamenting, protesting, perpetually pissed-off rebel who rejects the all too obvious fact that life is not always fair, weatherwise or otherwise, and who sees himself not as a potential self-made hero but as a victim of foul play!
All of my books are about the basis and possibilities of heroic action that are endemic to life in the United States in our time. That is why the name of my storybook hero in Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree, and The Seven League Boots is Scooter and why he refers to himself as Jack the Rabbit and says that he was bred, born, and raised in the briarpatch and realizes that his possibilities of survival, not to mention achievement, are predicated on his perpetual nimbleness, which means that he must always be ready to swing as if he were a competent jazz musician in the ever unpredictable circumstances of a jam session and also always be ready to riff or improvise on the break.
In the early-twentieth-century Viennese mythology of Sigmund Freud and others, the break may well have been regarded as a sudden disruption in the established cadence, the effect of which was very likely to be shocking, traumatic, and even disabling. In American legend, however, although the break is a matter of jeopardy, it is also regarded as a matter of opportunity. In the blues idiom it is also the moment of truth and of proof!
And now, one more bit of signifying about Scooter as Brer Rabbit in the complexities of the contemporary American briarpatch. The one thing that faked Brer Rabbit out was a phony image of his people! What I see when I look at social science surveys and profiles of "my people" (which is to say, my idiomatic American relatives) is a bunch of social science fiction tar babies!
Down-home boy that I am, I have never been so unhip, so unbelievably square, as to mistake a tar baby for the me I think I should be, certainly not because some social science head-counting racial one-upman decides that a tar baby stands for all rabbits.
My rabbit, it turns out, is not literally the same as the one that old Uncle Remus used to tell the little bright-eyed boy over in Georgia about. My rabbit is the Alabama jackrabbit version of the one that Duke Ellington had in mind when he orchestrated the concerto for tenor saxophone entitled Cotton Tail.
When I graduated from Tuskegee in 1939, it was as if the soundtrack of the world of adult adventure that I was finally entering on my own authority was Count Basie's "Doggin' Around," a Kansas City 44 stomp number that may well have been a variation on an earlier shout tune entitled "Messin' Around" ("All over Town!") recorded by Trixie Smith and Freddie Keppard back in the 1920s. What was so profoundly impressive to me about this particular version of it was the elegant ease of each solo instrumentalist, who not only coped with the pressure of the band's up-tempo environment but also established and maintained his own distinctive individuality at the same time. Every time I remember the challenges of the uncertainties I faced that summer after college as I waited to find out what my first job offer was going to be, I also remember that old ten-inch, 72-rpm recording on the other side of which was a very melancholy instrumental torch tune entitled "Blue and Sentimental." I wondered if I would ever be able to respond to the pressures and requirements of the twentieth-century world at large as if dancing to Count Basie's "Doggin' Around."
That was in 1939. Then in 1940 came Duke Ellington's "Cotton Tail." I had been personalizing Ellington's music since 1927 when I was eleven years old, and my most intimate playmate and I realized that we could do our notorious, sporty limp walk to Ellington's "Birmingham Breakdown" with the same sneaky cuteness with which we were already doing it to old Jellyroll Morton's "Kansas City Stomp."
Meet the Author
Albert Murray was born in Nokomis, Alabama, in 1916. He was educated at Tuskegee Institute, where he later taught literature and directed the college theater. He is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Seven League Boots, The Blue Devils of Nada, and The Spyglass Tree. He lives in New York City.
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