Singing in the Shower: Ralph Ellison and the Blues

Jim Merod

[April 2002.]

Ralph Ellison’s commentary on jazz and blues in his now-legendary volume of essays, Shadow and Act [Random House, 1953], presents a case for black musical creation as a universally representative art form. When he asserts that his “desire, beginning at a very early age, to be more fully a part of the larger world which surrounded the Negro world into which I was born” (3), Ellison gives us a glimpse of his generous intellectual scope.1. His cultural outlook sought out previously well-marked racial boundaries so they could be crossed or demarcated differently. These essays reveal an engaging, sometimes humorous, always steadfast ambition to experience the world as a voyage across the barriers of division.

In his robust cultural criticism, Ellison illuminates the profound influence of African-American culture upon life, thought and expression in the United States. In particular, Ellison felt “that the most authoritative rendering of America in music is that of American Negroes” (255). This swerve from an aesthetic emphasis upon black cultural influence to the potentially problematic assertion of a general human representation molded by blues and jazz informs the subtext of the seven essays that comprise the middle section, “Sound and the Mainstream,” of Shadow and Act. Ellison’s exploration of that larger theme draws upon signifying misdirections, rhetorical and descriptive understatements that tease his difficult awareness. How comfortable was it for many, even among his most educated and sophisticated readers in the late ’50s and early ’60’s, when these essays were written, to embrace Ellison’s provocative yet somewhat covert theme? How comfortable is such an awareness forty years later?

In the 1961 interview that opens Shadow and Act, Ellison points to “the old universal urge toward freedom” (22). That phrase anticipates but obscures specific experiences that embody freedom appropriately considered not as a political and economic condition alone, but as a spiritual state of transcendence, an improbable but triumphant personal achievement.

A great deal is at stake in Ellison’s valorization of experience and its artistic mediations. That becomes apparent when he discusses blues singer Jimmy Rushing, in performance, in Oklahoma City where the writer and the vocalist both lived:

In those days I lived near the Rock Island roundhouse,where, with a steady clanging of bells and a greatgroaning of wheels along the rails, switch enginesmade up trains of freight unceasingly. Yet often in the late-spring night I could hear Rushing as I lay four blocks away in bed, carrying to me asclear as a full-bored riff on “Hot Lips” Paige’shorn. Heard thus, across the dark blocks linedwith locust trees, through the night throbbing withthe natural aural imagery of the blues, with high-balling trains, departing bells, lonesome guitarchords simmering up from a shack in the alley –it was easy to imagine the voice as setting thepattern to which the instruments of the BlueDevils Orchestra and all the random sounds ofnight arose, affirming, as it were, some idealnative to the time and to the land. (242-3)

Perhaps one needs to know how beguiling Jimmy Rushing’s voice truly is in order to feel the full thrust of these remarks. No voice has ever sounded like gravel stirred in a jar of molasses, as Rushing’s does. Perhaps one must have, also, a memory of Rushing’s unfettered enthusiasm to complement Ellison’s evocation of the special time and place they shared, Oklahoma in the ’30s, so it will not fade from view. For a writer devoted to “the urgency of Rushing’s own blazing fervor” (241), the theme of human freedom inevitably succumbs to the lingering aural image of an affirming, wholly positive voice, such as Rushing’s, that came for Ellison to define the deepest stakes of personal meaning.

The “ideal native to the time and to the land,” of course, signifies more than aesthetic enjoyment, or creaturely survival, or self-created pleasure. Rushing’s blues shouts, undergirded with lyric tenderness, embody an ideal that anyone, oppressed or almost defeated, might draw from. Ellison honors that ideal. He remembers “Jimmy’s voice soar up the hill and down, as pure and as miraculously unhindered by distance and earthbound things as is the body in youthful dreams of flying” (243).

Such an image, affirming so much more than a moment’s quick vicarious bliss, expresses the stakes of Ellison’s interest in the blues and all earth-defying dreams it nourishes. What mind or memory can be so blank that its childhood fantasies of weightless careening through the world’s warm welcoming space are expunged? The image of such “youthful dreams,” like Wordsworth’s invocations of childhood fear and its rebounding joy, suggests far more than it designates.2.

The deep theme emerging here is “the mysterious potentiality of meaning” (245). No one escapes pain and travail. Meaning resides there. Ellison’s sense is that few cultural institutions contend with suffering, aspiration, and its various techniques of momentary or permanent transcendence as successfully as the blues with its uncanny and direct (seemingly artless) methods.

In the spirit of Kennth Burke’s notion that poetry is a form of “hypochondriasis” — getting rid of what ails you by coming to terms with it — Ellison climbs to the pinnacle of his theme:

Jimmy [Rushing] has always shown a concern for the correctness of language, and out of the tension between the traditional folk pronunciation and his training in school, he has worked out a flexibility of enunciation and a rhythmical agility with words which make us constantly aware of the meanings which shimmer just beyond the limits of the lyrics. (246)

The humble bard, Jimmy Rushing, singer of blues tales, gathers passion and training, the raw stuff of emotion articulated without crudeness or half-efforts, so his musical “agility” pushes toward what is uncontainable in lyrics. It is the depth of feeling that quickens art’s formal adventures. For Ellison, the blues are a form of vernacular poetry, casual, powerful, incidental and (essentially) left out in the rain with other discarded forms of wisdom and beauty. In this regard, the blues are subject to poetic overdetermination, a topic that Ellison insists needs increased critical attention.

The surplus of meaning that blues poetry depends upon demands the sort of close textual reading that Ellison found in master critics such as Kenneth Burke and R.P. Blackmur who helped him cobble together a sense of formal values. The point that emerges here is this: African-American music is a specific form of poetry, enlarging both the musical and rhetorical traditions it draws from:

The blues is an art of ambiguity, an assertion of theirrepressibly human over all circumstance whethercreated by others or by one’s own human failings.They are the only consistent art in the United Stateswhich constantly remind us of our limitations whileencouraging us to see how far we can actually go.When understood in their more profound implication,they are a corrective, an attempt to draw a line upon man’s own limitless assertion. (246)

Ellison’s avuncular charm resides not only in the tone of casual instruction that moves his autobiographically-grounded critical reflections forward; it resides, also, in his pragmatic ambition to broaden the context of observation. Rushing becomes a classically-framed emblematic figure in a local setting. Oklahoma is the scene for a black man’s bardic wisdom… wisdom invested in vernacular wit with more than ordinary eloquence.

Literally, Ellison crafts a mythic status for his longtime friend and hero. The gesture elevates Jimmy Rushing and his art. Importantly, it does not inflate the terms of Rushing’s talent and activity. The performative outcome, its meaning as song and formal content more than the flash and verve of performance itself, is thereby elevated.

Ellison puts this more directly when he laments, or celebrates, the give and take that defines the energy unleashed by jazz and blues musicians. He remembers how both “dancers — and the musicians — achieved that feeling of communion which was the true meaning of the public jazz dance” (244). Since jazz “is an orgiastic art,” it follows that the ritual succumbing to such energy which binds dancers and musicians might lead to a sense of communion, an undergoing of a rite of passage or a taking-on of social healing in the gyrations of dance hall self-overcoming.

The lamentation one finds at moments in Ellison’s remembrance of joy and fleeting communion among such jazz-inspired dancing derives from his awareness of the artistic anonymity that such dance hall scenes create. Like the nameless, sweating dancers grinding it out on the dance floor, many talented musicians are relegated to obscurity by the grind of playing, night after night, for small wages. In images captured in the ’50s, the great photographer Roy DeCarava captures precisely this sense of the dancer’s self-oblivion: visual parables of aimless energy.3. Because or despite of the fact that the blues and jazz tradition has a rich legacy defined by recordings, as an art form it works against the grain of its evanscent communal power.

On one hand, Ellison is infatuated with that power, its forceful immediacy and fleeting life. On the other hand, he seeks to overcome the sadness of neglected lyric and stylistic glory. Those two gestures — celebrating the joy of the African-American blues tradition; overcoming its obscurity and misunderstanding — motivate a nostalgia for heroism at the heart of these texts.

Ellison’s essays in Shadow and Act trace American themes that reach beyond the borders of rural Oklahoma and urban Harlem, where they were born into Ellison’s passionate awareness of cultural history. In that awareness “too much happens too rapidly, and before we can evaluate it, or exhaust its meaning or pleasure, there is something new to concern us” (201). Live music and recorded music both move rapidly, without delay or containment, and yet remain at work in the core of human experience. Music gives shape to the formlessness of time. It haunts imagination. In the legacy of the blues lyric, music gives voice to the inarticulate urges of unarticulated perplexity and pain.

“Perhaps,” Ellison writes, “the enjoyment of music is always suffused with past experience; for me, at least, this is true” (197). As such, a useable past is at stake, personal energy available for shared purposes where the blues can be heard as a rough-edged, highly sophisticated artistic activity. The heroism that Ellison’s blues writing seeks is right beneath our gaze: in “that Negro American folk tradition [that] constitutes a valuable source for literature” . . . a valuable influence, as well, on audiences “of any cultural or racial identity” who come to see that artistic “form is [our] greatest freedom” (59).

1. Page references from the Vintage paper edition, 1972, are given in parenthesis.

2. See William Wordsworth, THE PRELUDE, 1799 edition — though Wordsworth merely exemplifies (embodies and designates) the repeated figure of childhood fear and wonder that emerges as a theme, in Western literary history, with the development of the theme of individual freedom.

3. DeCarava, whose hundreds of shots (among others) of Billie Holiday are without equal, worked jazz clubs and dance halls to catch stunning images of musicians and patrons, dancers and listeners, throughout the ’50s and ’60s. His photography serves as an inadvertent but kindred visual companion to Ellison’s texts on blues and jazz in this volume.

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