Encyclopedic, ingenious, and abundant, this outsized second volume from Jess (Leadbelly) celebrates the works and lives of African-American musicians, artists, and orators who predated the Harlem Renaissance. Among its compendium of forms and characters is a series of sonnets tracking the uplifting performances of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the career of the once-enslaved autistic piano prodigy “Blind Tom” Wiggins. The orator Henry “Box” Brown, who famously escaped from the South in a crate, tells his own story by rewriting—taking back, as it were—some of John Berryman’s “Dream Songs.” Elegant paragraphs trace the career of the expatriate sculptor Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis. Above all, however, the volume celebrates—and works to redeem, against old stereotypes—ragtime music and the ragtime composer Scott Joplin. Prose segments that carry the force of historical novels portray imaginary interviews, during the 1920s, with real people who knew Joplin: the interviewer, a disfigured WWI veteran, serves as a stand-in for Jess himself. Line drawings by Jessica Lynne Brown, exuberant typography, and the innovative layout reinforce the grand tribute that Jess’s words project: “the nocturnes boiling beneath the roof of my mouth extinguish each burning cross,” the singer Sissieretta Jones says, while Joplin himself explains what he meant to do: “lookin past the past and syncopatin into the future.” (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 02/15/2016 Release date: 04/05/2016 Genre: Fiction
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