In the early 1950s, James Baldwin moved to a Swiss village in the Alps with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter under his arm. It was there that he finished his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), which he largely attributes to Smith’s bluesy intonations: “It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped me to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken…and to remember the things I had heard and seen and felt. I had buried them very deep,” Baldwin wrote in an essay.
For the eminent American novelist and essayist, music was generative, unearthing inspiration that may otherwise remain concealed. Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi, a curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, hopes to rouse a new generation of writers with “Chez Baldwin,” a 478-track, 32-hour-long Spotify playlist based on Baldwin’s vinyl record collection.
“The playlist is a balm of sorts when one is writing,” Onyewuenyi told Hyperallergic. “Baldwin referred to his office as a ‘torture chamber.’ We’ve all encountered those moments of writers’ block, where the process of putting pen to paper feels like bloodletting. That process of torture for Baldwin was negotiated with these records.”
Onyewuenyi created the compilation while doing research for The Welcome Table, Baldwin’s final play, which he worked on until his death. Four typescripts of the play exist, the story shapeshifting with each iteration: the earliest version, dating back to 1967, draws from Baldwin’s decade in Turkey, where he was in exile. Six years later, a rendezvous with scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and performer Josephine Baker at Baldwin’s home in southern France took the play in a different direction; Baker and Gates would inspire the two main characters.
The play eventually came to exemplify what Onyewuenyi describes as Baldwin’s late style: “where his sexuality — once private and reserved to the novel — snuck into his essays and plays.” As well as exploring themes of eroticism, gender, race, and nationality, The Welcome Table is the only creative writing piece where he makes reference to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
“Together, the unfinished nature of The Welcome Table implies emptiness — a partial one at that — where meaning isn’t fully formed, existing somewhere between the different typescripts,” Onyewuenyi said. “This multiplicity and queering of scripts, together, communicate that Baldwin was not ‘everybody’s Jimmy.’ He contained multitudes. So I was intrigued. How do we account for these discrepancies?”
Onyewuenyi encountered photographs of Baldwin’s record collection posted by La Maison Baldwin, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the writer’s legacy in the South of France.
“Looking over pictures of Baldwin’s house in Provence, I latched onto his records, their sonic ambiance, as a way to fill the space but still allow room for this emptiness, for differences. In addition to reading the books and essays, he produced while living in Provence, listening to the records was something that could transport me there,” Onyewuenyi said.
“I guess I wanted to feel amongst those boisterous and tender convos when guests like Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder (both featured in the playlist), Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, amongst others, broke bread and debated with a loving hold and care that isn’t always common when one is in the throes of trying to find themselves as Baldwin was during this ‘late style’ writing period,” he added.
Not all of Baldwin’s records could be found on Spotify. Two albums, Lou Rawls’s When the Night Comes (1983) and Ray Charles’s Sweet & Sour Tears (1964), both in the writer’s collection, are missing from the playlist because they haven’t made it onto the music platform. But Onyewuenyi says there’s “something nice about it being an incomplete playlist.”
“It reminds me also of Frankie Knuckle’s record archive at Theaster Gates’s space, the Stony Island Arts Bank,” he told Hyperallergic. “The question of playing the archive of records opens it up to the records’ eventual deterioration and ruin — does it become incomplete then, when the sounds can’t be emitted?”
When asked about his favorite record on the playlist, Onyewuenyi pointed instead to one specific track: Dinah Washington’s “Studio Dialogue” from her 1959 record What A Diff’rence A Day Makes!, a snippet of an exchange between the singer and her recording engineer:
You want me to sound like Julie London?
No, sound like Dinah Washington.
Would you rather me sound like Lady?
I’d like you to sound like Dinah Washington.
I could sound like Spokane, Washington…
I’d like you to sound like Dinah Washington.
“I think there’s something about this back and forth in how one should sound like resonates to what initially brought me to this playlist, which is Baldwin navigating how to articulate this shift in his voice in the latter stages of his life,” Onyewuenyi said. “I can imagine Baldwin listening to Washington and joining with her playful tug-of-war with self vis-a-vis how one might think how the public wants them to be.”
Listen to the public playlist “Chez Baldwin” below or on Spotify.