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Children of Legba: African-American musicians of the jazz age in literature and popular culture

Thomas Fletcher Marvin, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Among the Dahomey of West Africa, the spirit Legba presides over all transitions, and African-American blues and jazz musicians can be considered his "children," or followers, since their music provides a link between the physical and spiritual worlds, the past and the present, and between cultures. Chapter one provides a cross-cultural perspective on the role of the musician in various societies, with the emphasis on Western Europe and West Africa, including a description of the special status of female musicians. Chapter two considers how the derogatory stereotypes of black musicians created by the nineteenth-century minstrel show allowed performers to cross the racial, sexual, and class boundaries of American society. Only if we recognize the paradox of freedom offered by this vestige of slavery will we be able to make sense of the fact that black performers adapted the minstrel roles after the Civil War. The third chapter describes the social role of the black musician of the jazz age, beginning with the controversy surrounding jazz in the early twenties, and tracing the survival of African musical practices and beliefs in jazz and the blues. The careers of many musicians are analyzed to demonstrate the range of opportunities open to black performers in the period. Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown wrote poetry inspired by the blues, adopting the persona of the musician in order to speak with an authentic folk voice. Chapter four considers how musicians are represented in their writing and compares their blues poems to the recordings of contemporary blues performers. The great jazz musicians of the twenties and thirties fired the imaginations of many modern African-American writers by providing a living link to African spiritual traditions and a new model of what history can be when it breaks free from the academy. Chapter five examines the representations of blues and jazz musicians in novels by Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker and Ishmael Reed, showing that all three writers assume the role of improvising historian by adapting the narrative techniques of the West African griot and the repetition with variation of the jazz musician.

Subject Area

American studies|American literature|Music|Black history

Recommended Citation

Marvin, Thomas Fletcher, "Children of Legba: African-American musicians of the jazz age in literature and popular culture" (1993). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9408308.