When I saw Jeff Allen in Miami this fall, he gave me a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s great book Americanah, in which the protagonist, a blogger, writes “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care”. But what happens when there is no argument, when a person simply and staunchly refuses to take on the mantle of race. (Or sex or nationality or social status or desirability or age or normalcy.) Allen’s brilliant latest novel Song of the Shank tells the story of a person who does exactly that. Allen says when he first became familiar with Blind Tom (the real nineteenth century pianist and ex-slave whose life he has fictionalized) he recognized him as a musical pre-cursor to one of his idols, Jimi Hendrix: virtuosic and maybe a little crazy, “like all musicians”.
After we left Books & Books, Jeff and I walked up and down Lincoln Road. In the Tesla store, Jeff told the salesman, “My friend here is looking to buy—when can we take one for a spin?” “When are you free?” the salesman said. And there you had it: the unimaginable future, here and now.
–Jessie Vail Aufiery
TLR: You mentioned that Jimi Hendrix was an inspiration for your book. Can you elaborate?
Jeffery Allen: Yeah, many years ago I was interested in playing the guitar. I was probably eight or nine, and my grandmother lived in West Memphis, Arkansas. She bought me this cheap guitar, and I messed around on it a bit. By the time I was sixteen I became really interested in rock music, primarily because the other music at the time was so bad. This is 1978 or so. Popular black music was funk or disco, and I didn’t really take to either per say. I was drawn to rock music, and what really drew me was the sound of the guitar. I didn’t know anything about Jimi Hendrix but somehow eventually stumbled upon one of his records—I think the first one was Band of Gypsies. From that moment on, I was obsessed with him.
When I was seventeen I bought my first real guitar, which was a Japanese copy of a Stratocaster, the guitar Jimi Hendrix mostly played. So for a few years I practiced and listened to records, but I was never any good at it and I was doing it for all the wrong reasons. I wasn’t truly interested in being a musician, but I liked the cool things I thought being a musician could bring. In terms of my relationship to music, once I started writing seriously–I’ve been writing since I was seven or eight–and once I really began to have a sense of what a writer is, I realized I didn’t have what it takes to be a musician. So I pretty much gave that up altogether and started to focus on writing. I began to think a lot about how music related to my own writing, and I found that the challenge in writing fiction is to be able to write prose that gives some sense of what the music sounded like.
At age sixteen, I read David Henderson’s Jimi Hendrix biography. That was the kind of kid I was; whenever I got interested in a subject I would read everything I could find about it. I’ve actually told this to David Henderson since he’s become a good friend: that book was my awakening to what a writer can do with language. I was an avid reader, but that book blew my mind in the sense that not only was it about Jimi Hendrix, but about how David Henderson used language to describe Jimi Hendrix’s music. That was a tremendous influence as I started moving ahead in college and getting into writing fiction. A number of the stories I wrote then were about musicians, guitarists, and sometimes I had epigraphs from Jimi Hendrix attached to the stories. Sometimes passages riffed on song lyrics, and then as I began writing Rails Under My Back in 1990, his music made a more direct way into that novel.
There were six major characters in the novel, and Hatch was more or less my alter ego. In the novel he is an aspiring guitarist and he’s an avid Hendrix fan. My interest in Jimi Hendrix made me interested in blues music. My mother was born and raised in Mississippi but came to Chicago in ‘49. We never played any blues in our home or anything like it, and so I was sixteen, seventeen, and all of the sudden I was listening to blues music, and she was wondering what’s going on with that. It opened up this whole other range, the same way that the Rolling Stones first started out, how they were a heavily blues–influenced band. All these kids would come hear their music but had no idea this music was coming from the other side of the Atlantic.
So I became really interested in blues music. Then when I got a little older and was in college, I had a professor who was from Mississippi, a poet named Sterling Plumpp. He became something of a mentor to me. He was heavily into the blues and I started going to the blues clubs with him. So I tried to start thinking about literature as a developing writer. Sterling came along at the time of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s. What I eventually took from the Black Arts Movement was thinking about how one could use African American cultural idioms as a platform for the music. In terms of Jimi Hendrix specifically, given how he did all these things with sound, I was extremely intrigued by how that might operate in terms of the writing. If you have a song like The Star Spangled Banner–his version of The Star Spangled Banner–he doesn’t sing it, he just plays it on the guitar. Through his use of sound he is able to say all of these things about America, the Vietnam War, all without ever speaking a word about it.
TLR: Song of the Shank has many asides that feel like riffs, but they’re often quite profound. I imagine you had to go to a quiet place of deep concentration to get that far inside the characters.
JA: I agree. I finished the first novel in the spring of 1998–March if I remember correctly–and I was thinking about the new novel, and I had this idea to write four independent story lines, each one set at a different time in history. So one would be set in the 18th century, another in the 17th, another in the 19th, another in the 20th and I was going to bring all of these into the same space. I had read a novel by Carol Phillips—the black British novelist who had done something similar—kind of an extension of what Faulkner did in some of his novels, like Light in August. So I was just sort of reading around, and I found Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars, and that was the first time I encountered Blind Tom’s story. Sacks talks about Blind Tom as an autistic savant. There was this description of Blind Tom’s stage performances and it really seemed to me that Blind Tom was the nineteenth century Jimi Hendrix–a precursor of Jimi Hendrix. Among other things, Blind Tom was famous for playing three songs at once, as I describe in the novel. And then there was the blind jazz saxophonist Roland Kirk, who was known to play two songs, but three saxophones at once. Ronald Kirk was also blind, and by most accounts he was a pretty strange guy as well. In fact his name in later years was Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Rahsaan sounds like an Arabic name but it was, he said, a name that came to him in a dream. He could play two different melodies on two of his saxophones, and then he would do things like play a flute with his nose, and all sorts of things like this.
TLR: You have to wonder how that’s even physically possible.
JA: Exactly, if you ever see a photograph of him, he’s got all these instruments strapped to his body. What was especially intriguing about Blind Tom was that he was primarily a classical musician, but then he did all these other things that didn’t fit into that model, even though he never played black music per say. The Rainstorm, Sewing Song, stuff like that. And so as I began to research I saw all of this stuff that reminded me of the kinds of things Jimi Hendrix tried to do in his fusion sound, things like Star Spangled Banner. These rainstorm songs that Blind Tom did that were imitating manmade or natural sounds. Then I also thought about other blind musical geniuses—Stevie Wonder and people like that.
TLR: Ray Charles.
JA: Ray Charles. George Shearing. Interesting that all of those guys were pianists, it seems. To the best of my knowledge Roland Kirk was the only blind saxophonist that achieved the level of success or celebrity.
And of course one of the issues of Blind Tom’s era was that most black people in the South didn’t have access to a piano. Slaves certainly didn’t have access to the piano. The banjo and the violin were the instruments typically played by slaves, and as it just so happens the wife of Blind Tom’s owner was a piano teacher. She had a piano in their home and that’s how he came upon it. So, that was the immediate Jimi Hendrix connection. It was a serendipitous moment in the sense that, stumbling upon the story and becoming fascinated by it, it had all the elements that were interesting to me. He was a musician, and I’m interested in music, and also the fact that he was a Southerner, and I’m always interested in that southern aspect of my family and what that means about who I am. And then there are other things that were intriguing about his life. He had tremendous celebrity but essentially disappeared from American history–so much so that the only people really writing about him in the twentieth century were people like Oliver Sacks, medical professionals as opposed to musicologists. African American and other historians had largely ignored him.
TLR: I was impressed by how complete each character is. Even the awful characters have full inner lives. There’s a huge amount of empathy for every single character in the book.
JA: I tried to do that. As a fiction writer, you’re trying to show the full range of a character’s complexity, and I will say on the larger scale I tried to also think about slavery in the full range of its complexity. Strictly speaking, it’s not a novel about slavery. There’s action between 1866 and 1869, so it’s really about the period of reconstruction. Obviously slavery has had a wide amount of representation in American culture, much of which I don’t think has necessarily been done all that well. I was interested in what Edward Jones did in the Known World. He has black slave owners, something people hadn’t written about before. I have black people in the novel who share the impulses of the slave master. One of the things I find simplistic in our thinking is this notion, in fact it’s very simplistic, that black people are one thing and white people are something else. Slavery of course was a great injustice, but people, African Americans in particular, often ignore the fact that slavery existed on the African continent. Every society in the world has had slavery at some point, and it may be true that what happened to African Americans here as slaves was a very particular kind of slavery. I don’t think there is anything like it in history, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that all of us as human beings are capable of really horrible things. We all have these kinds of fascist impulses.
If every slave and every slave master is shown to be complex, then you get a realistic sense of how life is. There was a musicologist named Geneva Southall who taught at the University of Minnesota and she spent basically her entire professional career researching Blind Tom and writing a three-volume biography about him. That was very helpful as I started to write the novel. Most of the major characters in the novel are based on real people, so obviously Eliza is based on a person, Tabbs Gross is based on a real person, General Bethune, Tom himself, Mary Bethune…
TLR: But maybe the real work of writing the characters happened in your imagination?
JA: It did happen in my imagination. In terms of those people, the most factual information available was about General Bethune, because he was a well-known secessionist and newspaperman. So I had a pretty strong sense of a lot of the things he must have been thinking. There are a few small moments where I enter his point of view. I didn’t know anything about Eliza from what I had read…
TLR: So I’m curious about the relationship between Tom and Eliza. It’s amazing.
JA: It’s totally fabricated, by the way.
TLR: Were you surprised by where that relationship went?
JA: It started when I came upon this idea of the Civil War draft. What if all the black people were driven out of the city? This more or less happened. During the riots black people were driven from Manhattan to the outer boroughs. In my novel they go to the island of Edgemere. So once I had that hypothetical notion, and then I came upon the idea that Eliza and Tom would be together. At that time he would have been about sixteen. He would have been about thirteen originally, but when the novel opens he’s sixteen. Thirteen to sixteen is the age of adolescence, so rather than assume that he was simply an autistic savant, I thought about him having the desires and wishes that a sixteen year old would have. Eliza is a young woman, she’s twenty-two. The two of them are left alone together, and she’s lost her husband and now she’s got this boy to take care of, and she’s never had much of a relationship. So I started to think myself into that space. What would it be like for these two people to be together for all these years, essentially isolated from the rest of the world? In my own reading of the novel, ultimately that becomes a love story…
TLR: I read it that way. It’s not clear whether it’s physically consummated, but they love each other profoundly.
JA: Anyone that knows anything about musicians knows they’re crazy. For me, some of Blind Tom’s odd behaviour could well be in the realm of how musicians actually act. I mean some of the things you read about Thelonious Monk… Musicians are just from another planet, right? I remember reading Temple Grandin’s first autobiography, where she talks about how being autistic is like being an alien among humans. You don’t have any sense of what human relationships or emotions are about. I took that and married it to the idea of how musicians are like aliens in their own way.
So if you’re a person like Eliza who is essentially more or less a normal young woman, and you find yourself with this other sort of person, it’s going to be a conflicted relationship. On the one hand, she loves the music—and one of the things I tried to do in the novel was have each of the central characters in the novel respond differently to Blind Tom’s music. On the other hand Blind Tom is a difficult person to have to deal with. His blindness is one thing, the music is something else, and then his autism, or eccentricity or whatever you want to call it, combined with the fact that he is basically still an adolescent. Eliza has all of that to deal with. In the first part I tried to suggest that she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, in part because of this close confinement with him for so many years, and because of how demanding he is of her time. He wants her to be completely at his beck and call.
TLR: The story progresses in a bold way. Tom could have fallen into a more stereotypical relationship with either Eliza or his mother, but he doesn’t.
JA: As a writer you have certain ideas and you try to go with them and see how they play out logically in terms of what we call human relationships. One of the interesting things I found while doing research was an interview with Tom’s mother. It might have taken place in the late 1890s or thereabouts. At that point Tom had disappeared from human view. From her interview, I couldn’t pigeonhole their relationship into that traditional mother-son role. They had been separated for years, and Tom didn’t really have a sense for who his mother was. Certainly their situation wasn’t as extreme as I have it in the novel, where he’s completely separated from her. That didn’t happen until much later in Tom’s life. However, it was clear from things the mother said in the interview that she had no sense of who her son actually was. He was just another celebrity she had no relationship with. And it was also clear that, at one point in, General Bethune entered into some business arrangement with her after emancipation. Essentially he paid her so much money per year so that he could have sole rights to Tom’s management.
Does that mean she was greedy or that she was desperate as an ex-slave? I don’t really know. In an early draft of the novel I had only one section from her point of view. Later it came upon me that I needed to have a moment of reunion that wasn’t in the original, and that became this extended theme throughout her life. Later in the book he keeps saying, “I want to see her, Tabs,” and Tabs assumes he’s talking about the mother, when actually he’s talking about Eliza. Perhaps that has a lot to do about my own thinking about family. I beleive we have a lot of simplistic notions of what family is, and what a family is supposed to be. Even if there’s no sexual relationship between Eliza and Tom, it’s a family relationship. Not the conventional biological family relationship, you know, and I tried to show that in a few other ways in the novel.
TLR: That reminds me of Jimi Hendrix. That spilling over of proscribed roles.
JA: Yeah. You read most of the stuff that has been written about Blind Tom, people categorize him differently. People like Oliver Sacks assumed he was an autistic savant, which means he wasn’t a truly creative person. Deirdre O’Connell, a British journalist, makes the same assumption. At the other extreme there’s Geneva Southall, who believed Tom was a musical
genius. In the novel I never tried to settle on one thing or another. I never made an assumption or thought in those terms.
I’ve been asked a couple of times if it’s difficult to write women characters or about somebody from the past. None of that was really difficult for me. The most difficult thing was to dial back time, to think about how people actually talked at that time, particularly black people in New York City. I couldn’t find an accurate depiction of how people spoke. But I never had a problem stepping outside of my skin to write about women or to write about a white person or anything else like that. I’ve always found it kind of dumb when people take offense when a black writer takes the point of view of a white character, or vice versa. I remember how Caryl Phillips was attacked by reviewers for writing from the point of view of a Jewish character. It’s like we have these assumptions that we own our experience, and that no one else can write about our experience in an authentic way. I did a lot of reading about DNA and about the whole question of race, and that had a tremendous influence on my thinking.
TLR: What did you find?
JA: Biologists now say that race is just a social construction, which DNA proves. At the same time I’m aware that we live in a society where race is still a concept most people believe and buy into. But if you take the biological information on the face of it, all this stuff is a bunch of nonsense in the long run. In fact, I had a friend who said something like: white people are belligerent. We look at history and can see how they’re belligerent. But in reality, if you look at all of human history, everybody’s belligerent. These kinds of assumptions are essentially manifested by the industry of slavery, which had to create them to justify exploiting people. We all know that we’re human beings, and we understand what the other person is feeling, so I get annoyed when men say things like, I can’t write about women, I don’t understand women. So you mean you don’t understand your sister, you don’t understand your wife, is that what you’re saying? You don’t understand your daughter? It’s just absolutely absurd.
TLR: It reminds me of how when we’re initially formed, during the zygote phase, we aren’t yet male or female. We all start at the same place.
JA: In terms of the novel, I became intrigued by how his blindness might have shaped Blind Tom’s thinking. And I try to offer different possibilities in the novel. Perhaps Blind Tom saw himself as a white man. I took from the historical record one scene where Blind Tom was in this town, scheduled to give a concert that night, and his manager took him out to have his shoes blacked, and he said something like, Blind Tom won’t have his shoes blacked by no niggers, and he walked off. I try to think about any scene as metaphor, to imagine all the possibilities it might hold. I read that scene in a number of ways. On the one hand most people just say, oh well, he was brainwashed, but you can read it another way. Maybe he thought he was a white man, or maybe he recognised in those black boys his own exploitation, and for that reason wouldn’t participate in it.
There are very few things on record that he actually said—most came in the form of a refusal,
and they all had this element of ambiguity about them. I never tried to say that they could only mean one thing; I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt.
TLR: He comes across as somewhat sly, because what he says is often cutting or ambiguous. He seems to know who he is, to be throwing it back at people.
JA: In Invisible Man the main narrator learns about this guy who pretended to be crazy, and as a result had a tremendous amount of freedom that other black people didn’t have. I remember reading in Miles Davis’s biography that he would be out with Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie, and Charlie Parker would start acting a certain way. He could say these outrageous things. When people make assumptions about your mental incapacity it allows you a wide range. Most people assume there’s no intelligence behind the things Tom says, and there’s actually a wide range there. At times he’s quoting Shakespeare, or things musicians in the twentieth century were saying. Some of the stuff I made up, some of the stuff I pulled from other texts.
We always assume that the person who was a slave, or the person who went through some sort of exploitation, doesn’t have agency. Reading about Tom’s life it seemed to me that, however you look at him, he was a difficult person to have to deal with. I remember reading a story I didn’t put in the novel, how he apparently picked up a bellhop and threw him out of the room. His difficulty was a form of agency. Maybe it was a form of resistance. His career more or less ended when he decided he didn’t want to go on stage to play. He didn’t give any reason for it, didn’t explain why, just wouldn’t go. And that says a lot. This is all speculation, but if you’re difficult because you’re crazy or difficult because you’re a savant or difficult because you’re blind or difficult because you’re whatever, that is a form of agency and a form of resistance. In some ways he is the answer to American history. He doesn’t fit into the official narrative. That was the nature of his statements in the novel, they were always provocative.
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Jeffery Renard Allen‘s latest book, Song of the Shank, is available now from Graywolf Press
Jessie Vail Aufiery is the World Literature Editor of The Literary Review