Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Farah Jasmine Griffin and the landscape of sound in Philly

One of my favorite sections in Farah Jasmine Griffin's new book Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature (2021) is chapter 8 where she's discussing music. In a book that's primarily about reading and books, it was fascinating to come across this treatment of singers, instrumentalists, and so forth. 

"Here is a departure," writes Griffin to open the chapter, "a brief detour, from the world of books to the landscape of sound." She notes that music was so ubiquitious in the Philadelphia of her youth that she sometimes took it for granted. 

In the chapter, she reflects on the ways music "accompanied everything we did: household chores, family gatherings, sitting outside in the summertime, cookouts in the park." She mentions the radio stations playing all kinds of sounds. "We didn't turn the music on, because it was always on," writes Griffin.

What most intrigued me was her mentioning the ways music was central to so many conversations and idea-sharing and exchanges. Folks in her world debated music, such as the shift in Miles Davis's work, or how the genres were associated with different people. Her dad was into debop, and his mother turned to Gladys Knight. 

At one point, her family owned a resutrant, and the jukebox that was already there included music from "another era," a time period that was much earlier than Griffin's birth. With a mix of old and new songs on the jukebox, she was gaining an expansive sense of sounds, of black music. 

A varied cast of people frequented the family resturant, and music was a uniting force. "We all--gangsters and factory workers, politicans and entrepreneurs, Christians and Muslims--we all listened to and dance to and argued about and discussed the same music" (179). 

Based on her scholarship on jazz, I knew Griffin was into the music. But Read Until You Understand gave me a much broader view of her musical environmental where she emerged. More important, I think her chapter on music serves a purpose similar to autobiographical narratives where black writers discuss their engagements with books. 

Maybe the memoirs of musicians highlight their interests in music, but it was an unusual experience for me to read a black literary scholar reflecting on her background with sounds and witnessing various people talking about, enjoying, and experiencing black music. 


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