From Nina Simone to Diana Ross: A collection of writer James Baldwin’s favourite records
“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it.” – James Baldwin
James Baldwin is perhaps the most important author in recent history, or at least certainly one of the most culturally and societally significant. The quote above, from a story published in 1957, Sonny’s Blues, also proves that on top of everything else Baldwin was a man with a keen mind for deciphering the mystic science of music.
The full quote when expanded illuminates the shrewd sense of the author in its ineffable uncompromised encapsulation of how music is produced and then laterally consumed; elucidating the divide between inception and reception and rightfully waxing lyrical about the inherent magic in both. After declaring that not many people ever really hear music, he goes on to explain: “And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”
The American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, social critic and all-round cultural icon achieved literary fame at the height of his career as a spearhead of various social movements, primarily in the 1950s and ’60s. It was quotes like the one above that resulted in the reverential regard in which he is held today, because, as is clear from the aforementioned, he was able to judiciously dissect the murky and lift off the fog, making the complex simple and the politically nettlesome morally unambiguous. The impacts of his work on civil rights and egalitarian politics meant that – in the same manner, that he declared of musicians – his triumph was ours too.
These traits, to shine a light on flaws and evoke change where necessary, not only garnered him with fans but also an audience with Robert F. Kennedy, and they’re traits that sadly make him as relevant today as ever. The use of ‘sadly’ in this instance is very much in relation to the fact that his current relevance is not solely limited to his legacy and achievements. The notion of the male tweed-clad poet with a pipe and a pint of warming bitter is a far cry from the figure that Baldwin cut of a peaceful revolutionary braving firehose’s and baton’s in Birmingham. Unlike his beatnik contemporaries like Jack Kerouac or William S. Burroughs, his relevance is not confined to influence, but more so to the fact that the same messages he was disseminating in poetical tones back in the middle of the last century still need reiterating today.
However, as author Ed Pavlic details in his book Who Can Afford to Improvise? James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listener, Baldwin understood the transformative power of music and willingly incorporated it into his work. Throughout his career, Baldwin noted that essentially what he was doing in his work was translating black music into what he referred to as “the disastrously explicit medium of printed language.” This was not limited to the deliverance of music in a spiritually exhilarating way, but he also recognised that before America was even a country it already had a performative musical tradition that told a story of unique depth, fundamentally grounded in humanity.
The profound human empire of music no doubt has the ability to tell a story, encapsulating life on both a spiritual and narrative level, but it also has the power to permeate peoples resistances. It is both these factors that prove integral to all of his works. Baldwin asserted that it is through music that those suffering hardships have been able to “tell [their] stories,” making now as good a time as ever to explore the many joy’s in James Baldwin’s record collection.
For the first time, Baldwin’s records have been compiled by curator Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi who encountered photographs of his record collection posted by La Maison Baldwin a nonprofit organisation dedicated to preserving Baldwin’s legacy from his time living in the South of France. The 478-track playlist is nothing but class, offering itself up not only as a soulful soundtrack to colour your life with but also a fascinating glimpse into the living days of a luminary.
Baldwin lived a tough life, suffering both the scourges of being a central figure in political activism, but also the rather more private persecution of a ‘complex sexuality’. In response to the harrows surrounding him, it was necessary to sport a resilient and reticent veneer. In the career spanning public photo album of both Nina Simone and James Baldwin, they’re very few times when you’ll catch either of them smiling owing to the slings and arrows that they suffered through, which makes a rare snapshot of the two sat together in the ’60s all the more noteworthy and heartwarming.
Nina Simone was not only a friend of Bladwin’s but also an ally in the civil rights movement. When, in 1970, James Baldwin set out to write about “the life and death of what we call the Civil Rights movement,” which he believed had faded to insignificance without achieving the necessary degree of change, Simone released the Civil Rights Movement anthem ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ on her 1970 Black Gold LP. It was a show of solidarity from the songsmith that reinvigorated not only the movement but her friend’s faith in it and secured the records place as one of Baldwin’s most loved. The glowing fortitude of a soul standing in defiance is exactly what Bladwin stood for, and it’s precisely what the album captured in gorgeous gospel rhythmic tones.
It was also during this same early ’70s spell that Baldwin began to fully embrace the ability of music to empower the spoken word. On July 1st 1973 at Carnegie Hall in New York City, Baldwin collaborated with Ray Charles, Cicely Tyson, and others in a performance of musical and dramatic pieces which James titled, ‘The Hallelujah Chorus’. An unearthed archived review of the show by the Manchester University Press, describes the lights dimming and with unabashed brilliance Charles blasting the Baldwin-curated show off to a thunderous start with his classic ‘Sweet Sixteen Bars’. The song features on the 1957 release of The Great Ray Charles, and it sits as one of the more self-evidently well-thumbed records in Baldwin’s collection.
One of the central reasons that his record collection has sparked such interest since being collated and chronicled is that it helps to humanise a figure who has become so entrenched in the events that surrounded him and the battles that he stood for. Nobody is under any illusion that behind the messages is a man of heart and soul, but with the messages so loud and glaring the person beneath can sometimes retrospectively be drowned out in sound. One such record that helps to reveal a more everyday side to his character is the 1956 release of Songs For Swingin’ Lovers by Frank Sinatra.
This glitzy Sinatra record is notable amongst the collection because it happens to be the only full-length LP by a white artist amongst it. Baldwin’s relationship with music was not just related to the story it tells and its power to evoke change but also its simple ability to offer comfort and exultation. With that in mind, who doesn’t like sweet tones of Sinatra?
This record not only formed the musical lifeblood that lifted the writer from a creative block which he discusses in his collection of essays, No Name in the Street but also offered him gentle release from the insular world of writing and fighting for change.
Most of the other records in the collection come from the ’70s, and no artist meant more to Baldwin in that decade than Aretha Franklin, that much is absolutely clear. His seminal fictional work If Beale Street Could Talk documents Harlem as the black soul of New York City, celebrating an era with Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles presiding over musical culture.
Amazing Grace was Franklin’s live album recorded in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The album ties together many elements of Baldwin’s life in a joyous singing illumination – the faith of his early childhood, the ability of music to tell a story drenched in history, the evocative power of performance, and the notion that if you love your country enough then you should be able to criticise it. In some ways, this record sounds very much like the musical equivalent of a Baldwin novel and evidently resided firmly amidst his favourites.
Patently, Baldwin was as fond of a live record as he was of the live literary word, but it was with Diana Ross in particular that he favoured performance over the studio. In his essay collection, The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin writes, “I had never been a Diana Ross fan, and received the news that she was to play Billie with a weary shrug of the shoulders. I could not possibly have been more wrong, and I pray the lady to accept from me my humble apologies. … Diana Ross, clearly, respected Billie too much to try to imitate her. She picks up on Billie’s beat, and, for the rest, uses herself, with a moving humility and candour, to create a portrait of a woman overwhelmed by the circumstances in her life. This is not exactly Billie Holiday, but it is the role as written, and she does much more with it than the script deserves.”
All in all, Baldwin championed a notion via his passion for these records that when times are unsettled, music makes the path clear; it may not make the path simple, but it certainly blows off the frivolous details masking the potholes and guides us around unseen junctures like illuminating headlights. Below you can delve into the full collection of one history’s most significant luminaries not just of the printed word, but clearly performative music too. Enjoy!