By Robert Drinkwater
Michael K. Johnson is Professor of American literature at the University of Maine at Farmington. His primary research areas are African American Literature and the literature and culture of the American West. He is the author of Black Masculinity and the Frontier Myth in American Literature (University of Oklahoma), Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African American West (University Press of Mississippi), and, most recently, the biography of African American singer Taylor Gordon, Can’t Stand Still: Taylor Gordon and the Harlem Renaissance (University Press of Mississippi). He is co-editor (with Kalenda Eaton
and Jeannette Jones) of New Directions in Black Western Studies, a forthcoming special issue of the Journal of American Studies, and he is also co-editor (with Kerry Fine, Rebecca Lush, and Sara Spurgeon) of an anthology of criticism, Weird Westerns: Race, Gender, Genre, which is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. He is a former President of the Western Literature Association.
Tell Me About Taylor Gordon.
He was a spiritual singer in the 1920’s. He was born in Montana in 1893 and he moved to New York eventually. He wrote an autobiography called Born To Be that was published in 1929. So, I guess to say who he is, is that he is a singer and songwriter. His period of fame was during the 1920’s into 1930’s.
What Made You want to Write About Him?
The area that I work in is African American Literature and I’m interested in black writers who grew up in the American West, and I don’t have to go too far into that topic to find Taylor Gordon. In Born To Be , the first third of his book is about his life growing up in White Sulphur Springs, Montana. I just found his story to be astonishing in so many ways. There are so many weird things that happened. He became associated with John Ringling of Ringling Brothers Circus, because John Ringling was looking for an available hand in Montana and Taylor Gordon was around and it managed to get that leading into a job offer and travel around the country. That’s actually how he got to New York because Ringling was stationed there.
How would you describe your writing process?
This is a biography and I found this much more difficult than doing literary criticism. With literary criticism, there’s a book, and I basically write about it and it’s very focused on that one thing. With a biography, I sort of had to keep in mind with everything, from 1893 to 1971. I had to keep track of all those details. Once I got up to speed, I was fine. It was a different sort of experience than writing about a book because I can pick that up after not writing about it at any point during the semester, but with a biography, it’s harder to that because I had all these pieces of paper that at some point had to be in my head. If I took two months off, a lot of errands would need to be get done. I don’t have any special techniques or anything, I just get up and do it.
What did you learn from this experience?
I learned that just because you think that there’s nothing there, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason not to look. I continually found information that I didn’t know. For instance, I did not know that Taylor Gordon was involved in radio broadcasting, but I began finding all of these listings kind of like how there are listings of T.V. programs. It was like that with radio broadcasts. Another thing that struck me was that there are projects out there that people don’t know about because they don’t think there’s anything there. A lot of things that seem non-existent just haven’t been looked for. That’s another thing, if you’re learning about the African American west, a lot of people think that there’s not much there, but once you start looking, you begin to start finding things.
What projects are you currently working on?
There are two things. Taylor Gordon had a sister, Rose Gordon and she lived her entire life in White Sulphur Springs, Montana. My original concept for a biography was to write about them both. However, I realized that if I did that, then this book would be too long. Also, the direction of their lives ended up going so differently, so I’m going to do a biography on her life. She made a living writing for the local newspaper and she’s a really interesting person. The other thing that I’m currently working on is about weird westerns. A weird western is kind of like The Walking Dead, so sort of like these hybrid genre stories like Westworld. That’s what I’m currently working on right now.
You can buy Can’t Stand Still from Barnes and Noble here.