Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature

Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature

Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature

Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature

Synopsis

Ever since Bessie Smith's powerful voice conspired with the "race records" industry to make her a star in the 1920s, African American writers have memorialized the sounds and theorized the politics of black women's singing. In Black Resonance, Emily J. Lordi analyzes writings by Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Gayl Jones, and Nikki Giovanni that engage such iconic singers as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, and Aretha Franklin.

Focusing on two generations of artists from the 1920s to the 1970s, Black Resonance reveals a musical-literary tradition in which singers and writers, faced with similar challenges and harboring similar aims, developed comparable expressive techniques. Drawing together such seemingly disparate works as Bessie Smith's blues and Richard Wright's neglected film of Native Son, Mahalia Jackson's gospel music and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, each chapter pairs one writer with one singer to crystallize the artistic practice they share: lyricism, sincerity, understatement, haunting, and the creation of a signature voice. In the process, Lordi demonstrates that popular female singers are not passive muses with raw, natural, or ineffable talent. Rather, they are experimental artists who innovate black expressive possibilities right alongside their literary peers.

The first study of black music and literature to centralize the music of black women, Black Resonance offers new ways of reading and hearing some of the twentieth century's most beloved and challenging voices.

Excerpt

Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about
anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new … in
order to find new ways to make us listen
.

—JAMES baldwin, “SONNY’S blues,” 1957

Just listen to what the woman can do with a line.

—NIKKI giovanni, speaking to margaret walker
about aretha franklin, 1974

Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues; Billie Holiday, Lady Day; Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel; Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. As these artists’ titles suggest, black women singers have dominated the major forms of twentieth-century American music. Revered as black royalty and also cited with the familiarity of kinship—as simply “Bessie,” “Billie,” “Mahalia,” “Aretha”—these singers occupy a unique place in the national imagination.

This book centralizes their place in the African American literary imagination. It highlights the fact that, ever since Bessie Smith’s improbably powerful voice conspired with the emerging “race records” industry to make her “the first real ‘superstar’ in African-American popular culture,” black writers have memorialized the sounds and detailed the politics of black women’s singing. and it uses these engagements to tell a new story about how the African American literary tradition is made, who makes it, and how it sounds. I show that black women singers are not just muses for writers but innovative artists whose expressive breakthroughs illuminate literary works, which in turn reattune us to music. So the mode of analysis, and indeed the relationship between black music and literature that I propose here, is profoundly reciprocal.

Black Resonance chronicles two generations of African American artists from the 1920s to the 1970s, focusing on five writers’ respective engagements with Smith, Holiday, Jackson, and Franklin. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, and Gayl Jones have explored the non-narrative logic of Smith’s blues, the unmistakable . . .

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