139 American Literature in American Music

Tucker Hayford

At the beginning of my semester, I wrote down what I thought defined American Literature. I said that it had to be written by someone, of any race or gender, who spent enough time in America to be able to write about it accurately. Now, as the end of the semester is nearing and I’ve had almost three months of 18th- and 19th-century early American literature, I feel a little more comfortable updating my idea of what makes that literature “American”. I think it has less to do with physically being in America and more to do with how much America’s discourse, rooted in Europe, is seen taking hold of cultures around the world and how/if those cultures attempt resistance. One doesn’t have to be from America to write accurately about how the country dominated one’s life.

American Literature and all its connotations are still alive, though, and here I will try to explain a modern-day example. One of my favorite musicians of last year, Leon Bridges, released a song called “River” and a very powerful music video to go with it. The video instantly came to mind when I found out I had to find a contemporary example of American Lit. The song is about redemption and hope, on any level, but the video shows pieces of the 2015 protestor/police violence in Baltimore, declared a state of emergency. Also, we see the song as a narrator for the video, showcasing the healing powers of music. Take a look at the video here.

It opens up with the two singing the song in a motel room, with the riot on the news on the television in the background. Then it switches to follow around those impacted. At around 2:30, the chorus to the song plays over a shot of a man walking home, sirens and lights going, with blood on his shirt from the riot. “Take me to your river/ I wanna go”, plays as the man appears to have lost hope. But resistance is a theme very present here, as well in works like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Benito Cereno. Resistance comes in many forms. There’s physical resistance, as shown by the revolt in Benito Cereno. There was resistance by slaves in the form of learning to read and write, just as Linda does in Incidents. Then there is a mental resistance, present in all three works. In the song, the resistance is in the speaker’s mind, pushing forward through religion and hope. In Incidents, it takes Linda a lot mentally to resist Dr. Flint. She does so though by using her wits and thinking her way out of the situation. Mental resistance. In Benito Cereno, the manipulation of Don Benito by the slaves shows great mental resistance.

Not only is he singing about people who have resisted racism and segregation, but the very act of him singing the song is resistance. I forget where I read it but I read a quote somewhere that went something like “Politics are formed by culture and art,” meaning that real political change doesn’t happen without a whole nation of angry people and artists who desperately want it.

At 3:00, we get another verse. This one reminded me of Early American Lit because of the use of religion for hope. The words read, “Dip me in your smooth water/ I go in/ A man with many crimes/ Come up for air/ As my sins flow down the Jordan”. He’s asking for a baptism- to be forgiven for all he’s done so that they can move forward. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, religion is also used for joy and hope, “They never seem so happy as when shouting and singing at religious meetings” (Jacobs XIII).

The Heroic Slave took a little bit of a different approach to religion but used it nonetheless. Madison was an oddity in that wasn’t very religious like most slaves were, and certainly didn’t use it for hope, but rather as a mode of resistance by questioning how slaveholders could still call themselves Christians.

Without the video, the song might not immediately evoke racial themes, but the video supplements it nicely in that it ground the song to one specific event. It captures and “reshapes” what I consider to be one of the most dominant themes we’ve learned about on our journey through Early American Literature: resistance. It presents a conflict that dates back centuries, then weaves it through a modern-day example.

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American Literature in American Music by Tucker Hayford is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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