‘Olio’ by Tyehimba Jess (image courtesy Wave Books)

It’s easy to forget what an oddly heterogeneous and restless book is W.E.B Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. We remember it most, perhaps, for Du Bois’s illumination of “the color-line” — the problem of the 20th century. But the book’s center of gravity, its persistent refrain, is in the extracts from “Sorrow Songs” that begin every chapter. Each is but a handful of words and a few bars of musical notation, meant, as Du Bois put it, to evoke “a haunting echo of these weird old songs in which the soul of the black slave spoke to men.” They stand out, insistent and alive against his sober ruminations on philosophy and sociology. Maybe Du Bois thought the songs got at something else, some more resonant truth that he couldn’t quite pin down on the page. He certainly also thought they were great art: “The Negro folk-song,” he wrote, is “the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas.” And yet he lamented that the black folk tradition nonetheless “has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood.”

Du Bois knew that this music risked being forgotten, like all vernacular music. But it also faced rejection by a white supremacist social order uniquely if not uniformly hostile to it — or, perhaps worse, it was allowed to thrive only on the minstrel circuit. Du Bois mentions minstrelsy, no doubt imagining the stages from coast to coast on which black musical forms were perversely absorbed into the ideological architecture of racial control and oppression — a process usually enacted by white performers, but not always. Implicit in all this are two notions: that the history of black musical performance in the US is deeply fraught (an understatement, yes) and that writing about it — honestly, with a sense for nuance — poses a special kind of challenge.

Tyehimba Jess’s Olio takes up this challenge, dwells in it, breaks it apart, rearranges it — and encourages us to do the same. It is even more of a miscellaneous miscellany than Du Bois’s great work, and it is similarly profound. So it’s fitting that one of Olio’s central figures is a fervent admirer of The Souls of Black Folk. Julius Monroe Trotter, a young man on a quest for information about Scott Joplin, mentions his esteem for the book in a letter to Du Bois, and offers him transcripts of interviews with Joplin’s associates for publication in The Crisis. The scenario really occurred, I think: in the book’s multipart appendix, Jess describes the historical Trotter as a man about whom little is known beyond a few surviving documents and family lore; though he has little to work with, Jess shapes that absence into singing prose.

Trotter’s is but one of the book’s many voices, and his letters and transcripts form only a single strand; they are braided together with verse and drawings, lists and testimonials, all wrenched out of the historical record, one way or another. Olio is, in this sense, an enactment of its title: an “olio” is any kind of hodgepodge mixture, or a literary collection of assorted texts — or, we learn from a definition that serves as the book’s epigraph, “the second part of a minstrel show which featured a variety of performance acts and later evolved into vaudeville.” Jess’s Olio is multilayered like its title, and a performance indeed, a virtuosic one that marshals a disparate but consistently dazzling array of texts into a comment on minstrelsy and, more broadly, black musical performance between the Civil War and the First World War.

At the start of Olio, Jess presents two poems that establish a kind of dialectic for thinking about black performers of this era and the conditions under which they created their music. “Fisk Jubilee Proclamation,” the first in a series of poems scattered throughout the book, celebrates and speaks on behalf of the original generation of Fisk Jubilee singers. Subsequent iterations take up the voices of specific members, named in the poems’ titles. But some, as with “Fisk Jubilee Proclamation,” are unattributed, anonymous, collective. These poems evoke sorrow songs and spirituals while meditating on the social context from which they emerged: “Bear witness / to the birthing of our hymn from storied depths / of America’s sin. Soul-worn psalms, blessed / in our blood through dark lessons of the past / struggling to be heard.” Above and below each poem, printed in small capital letters, are the names of churches and locations and dates, beginning with “Mother Emmanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC, 1822” — and ending there, too, near the close of the book, below the last poem in the series, but with the year 2015. What at first seems an odd formal element by then becomes grimly meaningful; the brick-like text that evokes the sturdy masonry of the black church, an institution built up by place-by-place and date-by-date, in fact marks the many attempts to destroy it: arsons, bombings, murders. Jess’s Jubilee poems show us black musical performance carried out amidst and against such barbarism, a kind of resistance that carves out space for living. As it says in “Jubilee Mission”: “Our home is our voice, gathered / and honed and whetted and sharpened— / cuttin’ slave days down to sermon up salvation.”

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The poem “Fisk Jubilee Proclamation” with its “bricks” of text above and below, denoting attacks on black churches (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

The second poem describes conditions that are nearly the inverse of those traced out by the Jubilee singers, and introduces us to “Blind” Tom Wiggins, an “autistic slave savant” whose piano playing made him a 19th-century sensation. We encounter him first in one of the achingly kinetic and spindly drawings by Jessica Lynne Brown that pepper the book, and then in the poem “Blind Tom Plays for Confederate Troops, 1863.” Here the pianist is “reminding the Rebs what they’re fighting for— / black, captive labor . . . He / hitches fingertips to keys, hauls Dixie / slowly out of the battered upright’s teeth / like a worksong dragged across cotton fields . . .” (Jess excels at moments such as these, tying the labor of musical performance to more common physical labors, and sinking songs into the materiality of their performers’ lives.) This scenario, Blind Tom playing for the gray coats, contains all the DNA of minstrelsy to come and prefigures the trials of later black performers who struggled for a modicum of free creative expression. Like the Jubilee poem, it describes music made under hostile conditions, but here that hostility sets the terms and dictates the form and makes demands of the performer, the first of which is acquiescence. Perhaps that demand is met in full, or just in part, or it is quietly subverted — nothing in Olio is so simple — but the performance nonetheless is called in service of the larger oppressive arrangement. As we read in “Coon Songs Must Go! / Coon Songs Go On (1),” one of several entries devoted to the black vaudevillians Bert Williams and George Walker, “we wear blackface / to make white folks’ truths easier / to mask the ugly in their mirrors.” In the scope of this book, Blind Tom, a slave entertaining armed defenders of slavery, bears that burden first.

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A drawing by Jessica Lynne Brown that begins the section of poems about the piano player and former slave “Blind” Tom Wiggins

Jess approaches the phenomenon of minstrelsy in most ways you could imagine, and some you couldn’t. There is a necessary and beguiling revision of John Berryman’s “dream songs” that puts the story of Henry “Box” Brown — a slave turned abolitionist orator who escaped bondage by mailing himself away in a crate — in the place of Berryman’s character Henry, who, in the white poet’s original, sometimes assumes a black-face persona. And there are poignant evocations of performers such as Joplin and the singer Sissieretta Jones who aspired to what was once called “high art” — for Joplin, his opera Treemonisha and for Jones, classical opera compositions — without a trace of the burnt cork expected by white audiences. They didn’t quite succeed, but they didn’t quite fail, either, and Jess skillfully builds this ambiguity into an arrangement of verse and prose that feels anything but ambiguous in its measure of these performers.

But there’s another kind of ambiguity at work in Olio: how to read, or even see, the text. Some poems are split into columns that can be read up-and-down, sideways, and diagonally, and some are arranged as interpenetrating lines. Some pages are fold-outs that can be torn from the book, and folded again or wrapped into rings or Möbius strips. Even the cover suggests multiple readings: “olio” is spelled with a third “o” beneath it, suggesting different ways of seeing the title, including the appearance of a human face. At the start of the book, Jess encourages the reader to “weave your own chosen way between these voices” and, in an appendix, offers instructions for manipulating the fold-outs, along with an echo of his earlier proposal: “Strike your own path through their lines. Circle round their stories to burrow through time.”

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From the appendix, instructions on several ways to “read” a detachable, fold-out poem about the writer Paul Laurence Dunbar and Booker T. Washington

This approach is appealing as a philosophy of history as well as an aesthetic sensibility. It reminds us that although we can’t control what material is transmitted to us from the past, we can decide what to do with it. But there’s also something remarkable about the final result, which is that, for all Olio’s shifting meanings and destabilized voices, it still delivers some immutable conclusions. It doesn’t dissolve into a postmodern-ish haze of discourses; it doesn’t prioritize textuality in a way that supplants pluralism with fuzzy relativism. Take, for instance, the poem “Berlin v. Joplin: Alexander’s Real Slow Drag.” The left side reproduces Irving Berlin’s actual words denying rumors that he ripped off Joplin for his song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The right side is Jess’s imagining of Joplin’s response. A closing couplet — “If the other fellow deserves the credit / why doesn’t he just go get it?” — bridges the two. Read the left side for Berlin’s (unsubtly racist) defense of himself. Read the right side alone for Joplin’s repudiation of him — or read across the two columns, or diagonally down and back up again, for a chewier and more complex iteration of what is essentially the same repudiation. This is true of the other poems that can be read in multiple ways, and, really, of the entire book. Weave your way through the voices, arrange them as you please, but, in the end, there are lessons to impart and judgements to deliver and reckonings to be had.

Olio may feel unstable in its many parts, its polyphony of voices, and typographies and forms, but the arc of its moral universe bends toward justice. I suspect that is the point. And it recalls the reason why Du Bois put music at the heart of his own book more than a century ago. “Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs,” he wrote, “there breathes a hope — a faith in the ultimate justice of things.” Olio, I think, shares that faith, even if it isn’t always stated outright or is sometimes harder to discern in the book’s darker moments. But it is there, and, as with the best songs, it is not stated baldly but emerges from the performance itself, accumulating in all the small gestures and surprises and flourishes, gathering force, bit by bit, until the song has ended and you find yourself applauding or stunned into silence, ready to listen again. So it is with Olio.

Olio by Tyehimba Jess, out from Wave Books, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers. 

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Scott Borchert

Scott Borchert has written for The Rumpus, Southwest Review, Monthly Review, The Brooklyn Rail, and other publications. He received a MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism...