Published online by Cambridge University Press: 08 July 2021
Richard Wright’s relationship with African American music was fundamentally paradoxical: he was both thoroughly immersed in and profoundly detached from such genres as blues and jazz. While he listened to black music avidly, its presence in his fiction is minimal, and—like other progressives and literary figures of his time—he tended to see blues and jazz not as art in themselves, but as vital and raw folk material out of which the literati might create art. What is more, Wright emerged as an author and produced his most canonical works during a relative hiatus in blues history, as well as at a moment when jazz existed primarily as mainstream entertainment in the form of big-band swing. Although critics conventionally focus upon the few fleeting references to African American music in Wright’s fiction, revisionist scholarship might bring the music to bear on the author’s work instead. There are, for example striking parallels of topic, theme, language, and imagery between Wright’s “Down by the Riverside” (1938) and Charley Patton’s song about southern flooding, “High Water Everywhere” (1930). Critics, then, can fill in the blues and jazz gaps in Wright’s work that he was unable to complete himself.