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Happy 50th Birthday Blues People!

By Harriet Staff

Amiri Baraka

Congratulations to Amiri Baraka, author of the now-fifty-years-old Blues People! Baraka’s stunning book, about the people who first began to make and who popularized the blues, has been in print since it first appeared on bookstore shelves in 1963. NPR’s A Blog Supreme writes:

Baraka — as LeRoi Jones — came from a middle-class upbringing, including university studies at Rutgers, Columbia and Howard Universities. But he also served in the Air Force, married Jewish writer Hettie Cohen and published a critically acclaimed 1961 work, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, which established him as a noteworthy figure among the Beat Generation. It was the influence of the late poet Sterling Brown, who taught generations of Howard students — including Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison and conservative economist Thomas Sowell — who gave Baraka the impulse to investigate the older folk traditions of African-American music.

“I always liked jazz,” Baraka says. “And my people liked the old blues, race records and the doo-wop and all that. But when I went to Howard, the great Sterling Brown was a great influence on many of us. A.B. Spellman and I, Toni Morrison … a lot of us sat up under Brown. And so, you can always tell that influence.

“We thought we knew so much about jazz. [Brown] said, ‘Why don’t you come on by my house, I’ll show you some things.’ We went by there, and he had the whole wall full of records, by chronology and genre, and he said to me, ‘That’s your history.’ So it took me a decade to find that those records told a story: Every voice, every title is telling you the story of Afro-American history. I really latched on to that idea. And I went back and started listening to the blues.”

“[Professor Brown] knew the music very well — particularly the great heroic bands like [Duke] Ellington, [Don] Redman, [Jimmie] Lunceford and [Count] Basie, and so forth,” Spellman says. “And he was always very insistent that we know the music of the founders, and to know why their music endures, and what made that music. He was a terrific mind: a person with a good, clear and solidly based intellect.”

Read more of NPR’s fantastically informative birthday card at A Blog Supreme.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, July 30th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.