From the Blues to Jazz: Lewis Nordan's Fiction as "Equipment for Living"

By Maguire, Roberta S. | Southern Quarterly, April 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

From the Blues to Jazz: Lewis Nordan's Fiction as "Equipment for Living"


Maguire, Roberta S., Southern Quarterly


THE GOAL OF THIS STUDY is to offer a way of conceptualizing the arc of Lewis Nordan's career to date as a fiction writer, his development from short story writer to novelist. Nordan's discovery that he had a gift not only for seeing "the world in these smaller pieces," but also for seeing "a larger story," as he put it in a 1995 interview (Maher 115), coincides with a transition in his writing that, expressed in musical terms, is from the blues to jazz. Describing the progression in such terms has both stylistic and philosophical implications, and to explain those I will use primarily the ideas of two theorists: Albert Murray, the African American cultural critic, aesthetician, and authority on (black) American music; and Kenneth Burke, the (white) American rhetorician whose "sociological" approach to understanding art, which renders it "equipment for living," has had a profound impact on Murray's formulation of a contemporary blues-based aesthetic theory.

In choosing to focus on Nordan's fiction in musical terms-blues-derived terms at that-I am only following Nordan's lead, who has said his affinity for the blues goes back to boyhood: He "was a kid who hung out in blues bars long before [he] was able to order a drink," and the "rhythms and sounds" he heard there made such an impression on him that he has called the blues a "visceral and early literary influence" (Ingram 88). Indeed, listening to the blues has remained enough of a passion into adulthood that in 1999 he tracked down and wrote about the Delta blues for the Sophisticated Traveler, one of the occasional supplements to the New York Times Sunday Magazine, an article which reveals a subtle understanding of the blues. He begins by acknowledging the common view of the blues as synonymous with sadness and despair when he notes, "I needn't have worried about finding the blues. By driving around and talking to people I found more blues than I could handle" (86). But he ends the article with an important revision of that notion: one of his last stops on his Delta tour was the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, former home to Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, the blues legend whose recording career began while he was jailed there. After touring the prison museum, a monument to the institution's earlier incarnation housing displays of various tools of defense and destruction, including an electric chair and accompanying photographs of those whose last seat was on that chair, Nordan claims to have wondered "how . . . music of any kind [could] have flourished" there. But that thought is quickly superseded by a more powerful one: "how could these men have lived without it?" (90). This thought encapsulates what Albert Murray, for one, argues blues music really is-survival equipment, even for men on death row.

If blues musicians and aficionados such as Murray know the difference between the blues as feeling and the blues as music, it is not always a difference that the general public readily grasps. Aware of that fact, Murray has taken on the challenge of working the distinction into our consciousness in all of his books, ranging from cultural criticism to novels, and nowhere more clearly than in his seminal study of the blues and jazz, Stomping the Blues. First published in 1976, Stomping the Blues distinguishes between the blues as feeling and the blues as music by charting how the two move in opposite directions. The blues as feeling is a response to bad things happening on any level-personal, social, economic, political, ontological. The blues as music acknowledges that life seems to be one bad thing after another, but by acknowledging it in the lustiest of tones, the music is the direct opposite of resignation, retreat, and defeat. Therefore, according to Murray's system, blues music operates as "an experience-confrontation device that enables people to begin by accepting the difficult, disappointing, chaotic, absurd, which is to say the farcical or existential facts of life" (Hero 104). …

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