“At first (when she was not yet Miss Tee but Auntee) she was mostly the one who always came to cuddle, kiss, and oopdedoopdedoodle you saying some brown sugarboy lips and some sugarboy brownskin cheekbones and some brown sugarboy foreheadbone and some sugarboy brown righthand knockout knucklebone…” – Albert Murray

Until I really got into the cadence of Train Whistle Guitar, I felt like whitey out on the dance floor, unable to keep time, incapable of following Albert Murray’s rhythm. Like his characters, guitar player Luzana Cholly and pianist Stagolee Dupas, Murray beats and bobs with his prose, tapping out struts and riffs and tempos and rhythms that left me flailing, out of sync and out of time.

As I struggled through those first fifty pages or so, I pictured a brown-skinned, white-whiskered man, eyes closed, shaking his head to an internal beat that I could not hear. He extemporized, improvised, riffed rhymes and repetitions to a foot tapping, knee-slapping beat, and while I could feel a pulse there, I got lost in phrases I could not decipher:

“Me my name is Jack the Rabbit also because my home is also in the also and also of the briarpatch.”

What does that mean?! I puzzled over that sentence. I came back to it again and again. I worked at dissecting the “also in the also and also of” until my brain hurt. Finally I gave up on it, quit trying to figure its meaning, and surrendered to the rhythm of Murray’s phrasing. Once I did that, once I stopped trying so hard, once I stopped trying to be so cerebral, the tempo took me and I enjoyed the book for its purcussive pacing and delicious depictions. I savored his sentences, his descriptions of making love to a girl in the woods,

“What she mostly smelled like was green moss. But that first time it was willow branches then fig branches, then plum leaves. Sometimes it was sweetgum leaves plus sweetgum sap. And sometimes it was green pine needles plus pine trunk bark plus terpentine-box resin. But mainly it was live oak twigs which she chewed plus Spanish moss which she used to make a ground pallet.”

of parts of speech,

“A preposition is a relationship; and conjunction is membership; and interjection is the spirit of energy.” (!!)

of the coastal forest,

“You could smell the mid-May woods up the slope behind us then, the late late dogwoods, the early honey-suckles, and the warm earth-plus-green smell of the pre-summer undergrowth.”

and the bayou,

“We were still in the bayou country, and beyond the train-smell there was the sour-sweet snakey smell of the swamp-land.”

of woodpeckers,

“Woodpeckers always sounded as if they were out in the open in the very brightest of the sunshine.”

and of course, the jook joint as young Scooter saw it from his hidden perch in a tree:

“The light near the piano was bright enough for you to see them dancing and see Claiborne Williams at the keyboard with his hat cocked to the left and his wide silk four-in-hand tie flipped back over his right shoulder, spanking and tickling his kind of blues.”

When I finished reading Train Whistle Guitar, I felt flustered by my initial inability to jibe with Murray’s swing, and I didn’t think I liked the book all that well. Despite two index card bookmarks I filled with quotes, I only gave it three stars on Goodreads, writing in my review that I couldn’t get over our rhythmic differences. Train Whistle Guitar is one of those books – you know the kind – that when I first finished it, I only thought it was okay. But it has caught me, like a complex tune that you’re not sure you like the first time you hear it, and my mind keeps coming back to it.

And the more my mind comes back to it, the more I remember his beautiful descriptions of brown skin –

honey brown finelegged frizzly headed woman

sugarboy brownskin

chocolate brown dimples

as cinnamon-bark brown as was the cinnamon-brown bark she was forever chewing and smelling like

May your Anne Tee have some pretty please help herself to some of all this yum yum sugar and all this yum yum honey plus all this buster brownskin pudding and pie.

  • and my toe taps, til I feel like I could close my eyes, and shake my head, and groove in a smoky jook joint, “doing the shimmieshewobble and the messaround.”  The more I hear Murray’s phrases, the more I relish them, just like those complex tunes that grow on you even if you’re not sure you liked them the first time, and I’ll turn him up and sing even if I don’t know all the words, and dance even if I look like whitey out on the dance floor.

I have since upgraded my Goodreads review to 4 stars. I keep thinking of things I loved about this book. Another favorite aspect was Murray’s deep respect for his characters, revealed through his tender descriptions of brown skin. 

This was originally published December 11, 2013 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.

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