Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Louisiana Lit: The Music of Ernest J. Gaines

Ernest J. Gaines. Source: Academy of Achievement interview, 2001.

Alcoholic Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, as channeled through author James Lee Burke, was an important cultural guide for my first year in South Louisiana. 

For my second year in South Louisiana, author Ernest J. Gaines was my guide. 

Like Dave, Mr. Gaines receives inspiration from music

Of the classics, he likes Mozart, Hayden, Brahms, Chopin, Bach, and Schuman. In Mozart and Leadbelly, he reports: ".. Mozart and Haydn soothe my brain while I write ..."

In Mozart and Leadbelly, in the first essay, "Miss Jane and I," Mr. Gaines says:   
I think I have learned as much about writing about my people by listening to blues and jazz and spirituals as I have learned by reading novels. The understatements in the tenor saxophone of Lester Young, the crying, haunting, forever searching sounds of John Coltrane, and the softness and violence of Count Basie’s big band – all have fired my imagination as much as anything in literature. But the rural blues, maybe because of my background, is my choice in music.


In the second essay in Mozart and Leadbelly, he says: 
I started collecting blues records while attending San Francisco State College in the mid-fifties and inviting friends to my room to listen to the music. Most of the whites would listen to the records out of curiosity; this was before the Rolling Stones of England had made white America aware of the art and value of black blues singers. The white boys and girls of San Francisco wanted to listen because it was “exciting.” However, very few of my African American friends from the college wanted to listen to it at all because they wanted to forget what those ignorant Negroes were singing about. They had come to California to forget about those days and those ways.


. [classical music can’t] tell me about the Great Flood of ’27 as Bessie Smith or Big Bill Broonzy can. And neither can [Mozart or Haydn] describe Louisiana State Prison at Angola as Leadbelly can. And neither can tell me what it means to be bonded out of jail and be put on a plantation to work out your time as Lightnin Hopkins can [as in Mr. Tim Moore's Farm]. William Faulkner writes over one hundred pages describing the Great Flood of ’27 in his story “Old Man.” Bessie Smith gives us as true a picture in twelve lines [in Backwater Blues]. ….

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