Listen to James Baldwin’s Record Collection in a 478-track, 32-Hour Spotify Playlist

Pho­to via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Each writer’s process is a per­son­al rela­tion­ship between them and the page—and the desk, room, chair, pens or pen­cils, type­writer or lap­top, turntable, CD play­er, stream­ing audio… you get the idea. The kind of music suit­able for lis­ten­ing to while writ­ing (I, for one, can­not write to music with lyrics) varies so wide­ly that it encom­pass­es every­thing and noth­ing. Silence can be a kind of music, too, if you lis­ten close­ly.

Far more inter­est­ing than try­ing to make gen­er­al rules is to exam­ine spe­cif­ic cas­es: to learn the music a writer hears when they com­pose, to divine the rhythms that ani­mat­ed their prose.

There are almost always clues. Favorite albums left behind in writ­ing rooms or writ­ten about with high praise. Some­times the music enters into the nov­el, becomes a char­ac­ter itself. In James Baldwin’s Anoth­er Coun­try, music is a pow­er­ful pro­cre­ative force:

The beat: hands, feet, tam­bourines, drums, pianos, laugh­ter, curs­es, razor blades: the man stiff­en­ing with a laugh and a growl and a purr and the woman moist­en­ing and soft­en­ing with a whis­per and a sigh and a cry. The beat—in Harlem in the sum­mer­time one could almost see it, shak­ing above the pave­ments and the roof.

Bald­win fin­ished his first nov­el, 1953’s Go Tell It on the Moun­tain, not in Harlem but in the Swiss Alps, where he moved “with two Bessie Smith records and a type­writer under his arm,” writes Valenti­na Di Lis­cia at Hyper­al­ler­gic. He “large­ly attrib­ut­es” the nov­el “to Smith’s bluesy into­na­tions.” As he told Studs Terkel in 1961, “Bessie had the beat. In that icy wilder­ness, as far removed from Harlem as any­thing you can imag­ine, with Bessie and me… I began…”

Ikechúk­wú Onyewuenyi, a cura­tor at the Ham­mer Muse­um in Los Ange­les, has gone much fur­ther, dig­ging through all the deep cuts in Baldwin’s col­lec­tion while liv­ing in Provence and try­ing to recap­ture the atmos­phere of Baldwin’s home, “those bois­ter­ous and ten­der con­vos when guests like Nina Simone, Ste­vie Won­der… Maya Angelou, Toni Mor­ri­son” stopped by for din­ner and debates. He first encoun­tered the records in a pho­to­graph post­ed by La Mai­son Bald­win, the orga­ni­za­tion that pre­serves his house in Saint-Paul de Vence in the South of France. “I latched onto his records, their son­ic ambi­ence,” Onyewuenyi says.

“In addi­tion to read­ing the books and essays” that Bald­win wrote while liv­ing in France, Onyewuenyi dis­cov­ered “lis­ten­ing to the records was some­thing that could trans­port me there.” He has com­piled Baldwin’s col­lec­tion into a 478-track, 32-hour Spo­ti­fy playlist, Chez Bald­win. Only two records couldn’t be found on the stream­ing plat­form, Lou Rawls’ When the Night Comes (1983) and Ray Charles’s Sweet & Sour Tears (1964). Lis­ten to the full playlist above, prefer­ably while read­ing Bald­win, or com­pos­ing your own works of prose, verse, dra­ma, and email.

“The playlist is a balm of sorts when one is writ­ing,” Onyewuenyi told Hyper­al­ler­gic. “Bald­win referred to his office as a ‘tor­ture cham­ber.’ We’ve all encoun­tered those moments of writ­ers’ block, where the process of putting pen to paper feels like blood­let­ting. That process of tor­ture for Bald­win was nego­ti­at­ed with these records.”

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Why James Baldwin’s Writ­ing Stays Pow­er­ful: An Art­ful­ly Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Author of Notes of a Native Son

The Best Music to Write By: Give Us Your Rec­om­men­da­tions

The Best Music to Write By, Part II: Your Favorites Brought Togeth­er in a Spe­cial Playlist

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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