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ALBERT MURRAY SEES AMERICAN CULTURE AS AN incandescent fusion of European, Yankee, frontier, and black. And he sees what he calls the “blues idiom” as the highest expression of that culture.
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
Albert Murray didn’t publish a book until he was fifty-four. A fellow who prides himself on being at home anywhere in the Western world, a connoisseur of Paris’s sights and sounds as well as New York’s, he was too busy accumulating experiences and perceptions to work at getting them down on paper. When he finally did, the books came in a flood, nine in twenty-five years: the essay collection The Omni-Americans (1970); the autobiographical travelogue South to a Very Old Place (1971); three lectures on art titled The Hero and the Blues (1973); an essay on jazz called Stomping the Blues (1976); Good Morning Blues , Count Basic’s auto-biography, as told to Murray (1985); a fictional trilogy, Train Whistle Guitar (1974), The Spyglass Tree (1991), and The Seven League Boots (just published); and a second essay collection, The Blue Devils of Nada , also just out.
In a fairer world (which he doesn’t expect; life, he loves to repeat,is nothing but a “low-down dirty shame”), Albert Lee Murray, who became an octogenarian last May, would be prized as one of our great men of letters, a polymath whose immediate concerns may be American culture and jazz music, but whose glance takes in the entire sweep of Western history, literature, and art. To the extent that Murray is known, it is as the theorist of (and coiner of the term) omni-Americanism , which holds that American culture is composite at its core, that black and white Americans are each other’s cultural ancestors. But Murray’s ideas about our common heritage, as fascinating and fruitful as they are, are a mere byproduct of his primary goal: to understand the nature of art and to defend artistic activity as a basic, utterly indispensable response to the human condition.
Booker T. Washington was only two decades dead when Murray enrolled in Washington’s school, the Tuskegee Institute (Ellison, a mysterious, alluring upper-classman, was already there), where he would later teach. Losing himself in the library stacks, he devoured the entire Western canon—but especially Mann, Joyce, Proust, Hemingway, Malraux, and Faulkner, cultivating, meanwhile, an expert taste in what was then black popular music—Ellington’s, Basic’s, and Armstrong’s jazz—and becoming as much of a fashion plate as limited means allowed. He saw no incongruity in a black crosstie-cutter’s son from Alabama aspiring to the literate elegance he pored over in the pages of his favorite magazine, the then brand-new Esquire .