Wednesday, September 28, 2016

James McBride at National Book Festival

I've now seen James McBride three times and I never tire of him. When he's in front of the audience he seems to blossom under the warm vibes he draws from the crowd. I actually had little interest in McBride's latest book, nor in the subject of the book, the transformative singer James Brown. I understood that his music changed the way musicians thought about notes and chords, but I guess I just didn't want to delve into Brown's very messy life.
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McBride may have changed my mind. "Kill 'em and Leave," the author informs us, is not a biography, but rather a journey of discovery. I really appreciated the way McBride made this distinction. He was more interested in the historical times that informed James Brown's life, that made him the man he was. Along the way McBride developed some righteous indignation.
From a family of sharecroppers who were displaced by General Electric and Dupont way back in 1951, Brown rose to the heights of fame and fortune. A fortune, by the way, that he specified in his will was to go to educating poor children in the states of South Carolina and Georgia. Ten years later, not a dime has gone for this worthy enterprise and McBride has nothing but contempt for the lawyers in both states who have milked funds from the estate without settling it as Brown wished it.
McBride's long career as a jazz musician came in handy when he attempted to describe for the audience the way that Brown changed rock and roll forever. Using the mic and the podium to puff and bump out notes with emphasis on various beats, he handily illustrated Brown's rhythmic changes and drew appreciate laughs and nods at the same time.
Not as circumspect as Richard Russo, McBride referred to Brown's life as a "metaphor for how we handle race in America," going on to riff about the current state of politics and the horrible thought of the possibility of a Trump presidency. I'll wager he did NOT alienate half of his audience!
My only regret was that I had to miss Jacqueline Woodson whose presentation overlapped with McBride's. In my defense, when I was speaking with her earlier in the day, she told me not to miss McBride. How generous is that? I went right downstairs to Politics and Prose and bought "Another Brooklyn," and will review it here soon.

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