“Tiny But Eternal”

“I also remember thinking that these men know something about music I’ll never know, even if I practice and study all my life. You have to be born into it. That way, every note and word and gesture has meaning, and your notes and sung words line up with those of your friends and make a whole statement about life that is tiny but eternal.”

— Ry Cooder on the passing of Doc Watson in today’s NYT. A glance back at the UCLA Folk Festival, 1963

(image via Amazon.com)

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“When Bessie sang and James P. Johnson plays ….”

I JUST stumbled upon this interview — a coincidental boon since a book I’m reviewing deals with much of this subject matter and will give me a way to frame the piece.

The link is an audio conversation: James Baldwin speaking with Studs Terkel about writing his novel Another Country and the then just-published collection of essays “Nobody Knows My Name and the process of reconnecting with the voices of his youth — the “things I saw and felt” as a child.

Baldwin explains how cut-off from himself he felt both in the States, and later in Europe where he had travelled to begin writing the book. Listening to records while writing in the icy white of Switzerland, he tells Terkel, didn’t just help him to reanimate home — but to understand something about a long, steady process of devaluation he had been experiencing all of his life.

“I realized it was a cadence, a beat, …. it was a question of the beat really … and Bessie had ‘beat’… I played Bessie everyday. …. A lot of the book is in dialogue, I corrected things according to what I was able to hear when Bessie sang and when James P. Johnson plays. It’s that tone, that sound — it’s within me.”

This epiphany sets him on a road to consider other things “lost” or obscured of elided. It’s both poignant and powerful, his revelations, all told in his very own unmistakable cadence:

All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it’s a terrible,terrible thing to be….And in order to survive this you really have to dig down deep into yourself and recreate yourself really according to no image which yet exists in America . You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you and not this idea of you.