Authors: Albert Murray

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American historian, essayist, and novelist

Identity: African American

Author Works

Nonfiction:

The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture, 1970

South to a Very Old Place, 1971

The Hero and the Blues, 1973

Stomping the Blues, 1976

Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie, 1985 (as told to Murray)

The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement, 1996

Conversations with Albert Murray, 1997 (Roberta S. Maguire, editor)

Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, 2000 (Murray and John F. Calhoun, editors)

From the Briarpatch File: On Context, Procedure, and American Identity , 2001

Poetry:

Conjugations and Reiterations, 2001

Long Fiction:

Train Whistle Guitar, 1974

The Spyglass Tree, 1991

The Seven League Boots, 1996

Biography

Albert Lee Murray wrote, “The mainstream is not white but mulatto,” in The Omni-Americans. Through his novels, essays, and cultural history Murray ponders the implications and complications of this statement, offering improvisational explorations of the richness of African American culture and its suffusion into American cultural life.{$I[AN]9810001754}{$I[A]Murray, Albert}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Murray, Albert}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Murray, Albert}{$I[tim]1916;Murray, Albert}

After receiving his B.A. from Tuskegee Institute and his M.A. from New York University Murray taught literature at Tuskegee; for a while he also directed the College Little Theatre. Beginning in 1943 Murray served in the U.S. Air Force, from which he retired in 1962 as major. He lectured at several universities, including Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Colgate University, University of Massachusetts, University of Missouri, and Barnard College; he was also writer in residence at Emory University and professor of creative writing at Barnard College and Dupont Visiting Scholar at Washington and Lee Universities.

Like his friend and fellow Tuskegee alumnus Ralph Ellison, Murray derived much of the content and style of his work from music. In his first book-length work, The Omni-Americans, he explores the complicated relationships among cultures in the United States, asserting that “Any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and that black people are not black. They are all interrelated one way or another.” Far from being an Africanist, Murray nevertheless argues for recognition of the particular aesthetic that is “a central element in the dynamics of U.S. Negro life-style.” This aesthetic depends on improvisation and stylization, where improvisation is experimenting with the possibilities, and stylization is developing these possibilities into a unique personal statement. The interaction of these largely African solutions within an American context has created an African American expressive culture encompassing music, dance, language, religion, sports, fashions, physical deportment, and food. Yet Murray insists that the “omni-Americans” of his title are also all American people, perhaps even all humanity, who have created the mulatto culture and identity he describes.

South to a Very Old Place converts his description of African American identity into an intellectual autobiography composed as a set of improvisational essays. Begun at the request of Willie Morris for a Harper’s magazine series called “Going Home in America,” the book explores not only the geographical South of Murray’s youth but the South of cultural and intellectual historians, journalists, novelists, storytellers, and musicians of all ethnicities and locations, whom Murray engages in actual or imagined conversation throughout the book.

In 1972 Murray gave three public lectures at the University of Missouri. In The Hero and the Blues, the published version of those lectures, Murray continues his meditation on the role of the artist and the function of literature in society. Murray eloquently describes a blues aesthetic in literature from Thomas Mann to Ernest Hemingway and reflects on heroic action and the quest for selfhood in terms of the blues dynamic, which he defines as antagonistic cooperation. Heroes become heroic by overcoming obstacles. The sinister circumstances that inspire heroism also demand that the hero continue to grow in response to their challenge. Murray discusses stylization and improvisation as the means of experimenting within a tradition and developing unique solutions to ongoing problems. Thus in opposition to protest fiction, which fails to offer solutions, hope, or heroes, Murray praises heroic art–the blues–as the victory of art and metaphor over the human situation.

In 1973 Murray published the first of two loosely autobiographical novels, Train Whistle Guitar. Through the eyes and ears of the narrator, Scooter, and his best friend Little Buddy Marshall, Murray reveals a concrete and multishaded blues culture, from summer baseball’s blue skies to the steel-blue freight trains whistling through Gasoline Point, Alabama. Scooter begins his narrative sorting through stories about the mysterious bluesman Luzana Cholly and ends by solving a riddle he is late even in coming to recognize, the riddle of his own past. In verbal riffs celebrating the specificity of real life picnics, schoolrooms, barbershops, music of the twelve-string guitar and the honky-tonk piano, Murray fixes in words the history and texture of Southern rural African American community and vernacular culture.

Stomping the Blues is, as the title indicates, an exploration of African American rhythm-and body-centered music in its many guises: religious expression, song, dance, swing, be-bop, and “equipment for living.” Essentially a cultural history, Stomping the Blues combines Murray’s inimitable literary style with the perceptions of a trained musician and the point of view of a cultural analyst. Murray regards blues music as heroic, not sorrowful, and stomping the blues as a cultural purification ritual.

The Spyglass Tree briefly recapitulates the events of Murray’s earlier novel before launching into Scooter’s experiences during four years on an Alabama college campus. The first section concerns Scooter’s polymath college roommate, nicknamed “Snake” because his prodigious intellectual accomplishments remind Scooter of a snake doctor. At the same time he is studying literature, drama, poetry, botany, chemistry, geography, electronics, and military history, Snake mentors Scooter in constructing miniature stage sets, greenhouses, and model airplanes, and Scooter reflects on how these things are connected. Friendships, community, family, baseball, and the combination of childhood educators and fairy godmothers that steered him toward a college education weave through his thoughts on the present shape and future trajectory of his life. In the book’s second half Scooter, later in college, negotiates trickier territory. For keeping cool in a crisis that had threatened to turn into a rural race war, Scooter lands a summer job from a local businessman and scores a bass fiddle from the blues singer. This instrument becomes his talisman for the larger world he is about to enter. Central to this novel are Snake’s and Scooter’s efforts to integrate intellectual inquiry with everyday living, a task to which Albert Murray dedicated himself throughout his career. The Seven League Boots continues Scooter’s story; after graduating from college, he becomes a bass player with a Duke Ellington-esque pianist and composer at the height of the Swing Era.

From the Briarpatch File is a collection of Murray’s essays which offers a good introductory overview of his work and his major themes. In Conjugations and Reiterations, Murray let his fascination with the blues and other musical forms take hold of his words and create poetry. Wordplay and rhythm make his poems as much oral lyrics as they are words printed on a page.

BibliographyCarson, Warren. “Albert Murray: Literary Reconstruction of the Vernacular Community.” African-American-Review 27, no. 2 (Summer, 1993): 287-296. Discusses Murray’s novels as preservation and re-creation of African American culture.Fairbanks, Carol, and Eugene A. Engeldinger. Black American Fiction: A Bibliography. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1978. Contains an entry on Murray.Karrer, Wolfgang. “The Novel as Blues: Albert Murray’s Train Whistle Guitar.” In The Afro-American Novel Since 1960: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Peter Bruck and Wolfgang Karrer. Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner, 1982. An extensive critical treatment of Murray’s work.Wideman, John. “Stomping the Blues: Ritual in Black Music and Speech.” American Poetry Review 7, no. 4 (1978): 42-45. This review of Murray’s study of the history and nature of blues music, Stomping the Blues, provides context and insights for understanding and appreciating Murray’s musical use of African American speech patterns in his prose style in Train Whistle Guitar.
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