Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Mozart and Leadbelly

"A lady friend of mine in Washington, D.C., once told me that she knew a young African American male who would always get in an elevator whistling a tune of Mozart. I, too, like Mozart; I like Haydn, Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Chopin. I like Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky, A Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams--I like them all. And though Mozart and Haydn soothe my brain while I write, neither can tell me about the Great Flood of '27 as Bessie Smith or Big Bill Broonzy can. And neither can describe Louisiana State Prison at Angola as Leadbelly can. And neither can tell me what it means to be bonded out of jail and be put on a plantation to work out your time as Lightnin' Hopkins can. William Faulkner writes over one hundred pages describing the Great Flood of '27 in his story "Old Man." Bessie Smith gives us as true a picture in twelve lines. I am not putting Faulkner down; Faulkner is one of my favorite writers, and what Southern writer has not been influenced by him in the past fifty years? What I am saying to that young man who found it desirable to whistle Mozart in the elevator is that there is some value in whistling Bessie Smith or Leadbelly."

From Ernest J. Gaines "Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays" Random House/Knopf October 2005

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