James Baldwin’s record collection

March 15, 2018

Interesting Tweets from an organization in France, Les Amis de la Maison James Baldwin (The Friends of the House of James Baldwin), showing off his collection of records. They are recordings of music, on vinyl. Baldwin died in 1987, when it was still possible to avoid music on compact discs.

I love our old vinyl records. They have great works of art on the covers, often, and they have real notes in a readable font. We turned to CDs when some releases stopped coming on vinyl, after 1987.

Now it’s difficult to get CDs, and the tech magazines talk about the death of medium.

But in this short series of Tweets, more photos than words, Les Amis de la Maison James Baldwin take us back into his mind and art, and give us a glimpse of what could have been a wonderful time, sitting in his home in Paris, listening to great music on his record player — stereo I presume, though there is no information on what equipment he had.

He played some of it loud.


A photo of the vinyl record albums of James Baldwin, from the group that takes care of his home in Paris.

A photo of the vinyl record albums of James Baldwin, from the group that takes care of his home in Paris.

Diana Ross, Carmen McRae, Patti Labelle, more Carmen McRae, more Diana Ross, Donna Summer. Brenda Lee, Nina Simone and more Nina Simone. The Pointer Sisters. Deborah Brown Quartet (bet you don’t have that one in your collection). Aretha Franklin, “Here Comes the Sun” by Nina Simone, and more Aretha. One of the jazz albums produced by Creed Taylor (you have some of that, certainly). “From a Whisper to a Scream;” Allen Toussaint?

It’s a great collection in that first photo. We might expect polemics from Baldwin, but the polemic comes only from the entire field of artists and material. It’s the art he collected, and that carries a deeper, more powerful message than any one song or one artist.

Les Amis de Maison James Baldwin said,

Les Amis de Maison James Baldwin said, “Neighbors and friends recall music played at volume from the Baldwin villa.”

In the case of Aretha Franklin, “at volume” is a good thing, easily understandable. Heck, that’s true of every record in that collection.

Tweet caption: Well lived, well loved

Tweet caption: Well lived, well loved

Lou Rawls, Frank Sinatra, the Platters, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. Dinah Washington. Solid stuff.

Les Amis de Maison James Baldwin said:

Les Amis de Maison James Baldwin said: “James Baldwin occupied the villa on Chemin du Pilon from 1970 to 1987.”

Les Amis de la Maison Baldwin captioned this photo:

Les Amis de la Maison Baldwin captioned this photo: “He was reportedly entranced by gospel singer Sara Jordan Powell. He played her Amazing Grace again and again and again.”

Shirley Bassey, Bill Withers, Ray Charles, Otis Redding.

James Baldwin appears not to have had a very large collection of records in his home in France. But what he had, was great. A lot of artists are missing that we may wish Baldwin could have heard, and heard often in his own home. Perhaps he was just building up.

What a firm, great foundation.


Fun history: Great blunders, literature division

September 12, 2007

People in literature are different from you and me.

University of Texas history professor David Oshinsky pulled back the curtain on some of the biggest blunders in the history of literature, in an article for the New York Times a couple of days ago: “No Thanks, Mr. Nabokov.”

He documents rejection letters that, in retrospect, perhaps publisher Alfred A. Knopf would rather had not been written — despite the fact that Knopf was enormously successful otherwise. For example, about a book on teen-aged angst:

In the summer of 1950, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. turned down the English-language rights to a Dutch manuscript after receiving a particularly harsh reader’s report. The work was “very dull,” the reader insisted, “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.” Sales would be small because the main characters were neither familiar to Americans nor especially appealing. “Even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject was timely,” the reader wrote, “I don’t see that there would have been a chance for it.”

Knopf wasn’t alone. “The Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank, would be rejected by 15 others before Doubleday published it in 1952. More than 30 million copies are currently in print, making it one of the best-selling books in history.

The goof examples roll out of the files:

Nothing embarrasses a publisher more than the public knowledge that a literary classic or a mega best seller has somehow slipped away. One of them turned down Pearl Buck’s novel “The Good Earth” on the grounds that Americans were “not interested in anything on China.” Another passed on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” explaining it was “impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.” (It’s not only publishers: Tony Hillerman was dumped by an agent who urged him to “get rid of all that Indian stuff.”)

Thousands of high school students would agree with the difficulty of selling animal stories.

Oshinsky is working from the files of Knopf, recently donated to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRC) at the University of Texas, in Austin. University libraries push and shove each other to get troves of private correspondence, and the HRC has worked to get special grants to help things along. Sometimes these treasures lie buried in library archives. In this case, a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities helped fund the cataloging operation.

And Oshinsky, who won the Pulitzer for his book Polio: An American Story, has done a bit of history mining. The few nuggets of history gold he reveals in the newspaper will be “classic examples” of why authors, and students and people in the pews of a church, should keep trying in the face of adversity. You’ll see these examples in Readers Digest and inspirational speeches for years to come, count on it.

Literature teachers should find these quotes useful in comforting students who don’t like the classics they are assigned to read. Preachers will find them useful for a variety of reasons. Others of us will like them for the goofiness, and sheer acidity of harsh criticism that, often, proved wrong. We’re Americans; we like it when the underdog wins, and when the pundits get so exactly wrong.

More examples from Oshinsky’s article, below the fold.

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