Special Event: Anthony Davis on John Coltrane’s “Alabama”

In early November I went to Anthony Davis’s talk “Race, White Backlash and the Spiritual Quest: Jazz Responds to the Struggle for Civil Rights” on John Coltrane’s “Alabama”, which was written in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing that resulted in the deaths of four young African American girls in 1963. Davis discussed, in depth, the history of the event and of jazz during his talk. What interested me was the way he broke down how the composition of “Alabama” allowed any listener at any time to feel the grief that was the response to the bombing. While listening to the details of the song, I thought about our discussion of Josh Kun’s Audiotopia and how it applied to “Alabama”.

Kun defines songs as audiotopias when they “[function] like a possible utopia for the listener…[and] is experienced not only as sound that goes into our ears and vibrates through our bones but as a space that we can enter into, encounter, move around in, inhabit, be safe in, learn from” (Kun 2). When Kun describes the idea of an audiotopia, he thinks about songs as being separate from music, which allows them to embody this quality. However, I think here we can see that “Alabama” functions in this way without having (or needing) lyrics.

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Coltrane’s “Alabama” is not, however, a utopia, even if we use the definition Kun gives which is the central quality of having “no known location” (Kun 2). The song is clearly dealing with a world in which four children are killed because of their race. In other words, not an ideal world. Further, it truly is about a particular place. It is about Alabama. It is about racial tensions in the United States. On this level here, we can understand the song as an audiotopia because the song becomes the place. Any listener from any location and time is transported into the Alabama of 1963. The listener is emotionally transported to this moment in time, and the listener is allowed to move around in this space.

Davis shows us how “Alabama” does all this. Although I am not overly familiar with musical theory, I do understand that different musical keys can give different experiences to the listener. When Coltrane used his particular jazz key in this song and with his minimal instrumental arrangement, he provided a specific voice, and this voice was somber. Because of the bareness of the arrangement, each instrument can be heard clearly speaking its mind. Of course, as I describe it here it sounds simple, as though anybody could write a song within a key and create a mood. But one thing about music is that it is never just notes on a page. The performance itself is the most important part. It was very interesting to be able to watch the performance and also see how the music lined up with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in response to the bombing. The performance and the notes themselves all work to create this audiotopia–this place where listeners are brought back to this moment in time and gain something from each listening experience.

Belanna Morales is a senior English major at UMF. This post was originally written for the UMF Literary Theory 2018 blog, which is used by students in ENG 455 Literary Theory to write about course reading material and sometimes to apply the ideas from course readings to events on campus. The Anthony Davis talk was scheduled as part of the events organized by the New Commons Project at UMF.

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