James McBride was a professional saxophonist for decades before he took up writing. His most recent work of historical fiction, The Good Lord Bird, was the winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2013. His landmark memoir, The Color of Water, was on the New York Times bestseller list for two years.
The Good Lord Bird tells the story of a boy named Henry Shackleford, an enslaved 12-year-old who winds up traveling with John Brown during the abolitionist’s most tumultuous years. “Many books have been written about [Brown], but I wanted to write a book that people like me would read,” he tells Kurt Andersen. While faithful to the outlines of history, McBride’s account of Brown offers ample comic relief. “He was seen as a nut. He’s still seen as a nut,” McBride explains. “I don’t want to write depressing books. Books cost a lot of money. If people are going to invest that kind of money in your work, they should at least be moved to some semblance of happiness, even if briefly.”
Like McBride, the young protagonist loves to break out into song. McBride created a catalogue of fictional songs for him, but also relies heavily on the spirituals of the era. McBride and the Good Lord Bird Band is a gospel jazz quintet that will perform original and historical spirituals interspersed with brief, lyrical readings from the novel.
The Good Lord Bird Band consists of Show Tyme Brooks on drums and vocals, Trevor Exter on bass and vocals, Adam Faulk on piano and vocals, Keith Robinson on guitar and vocals, and James McBride on saxophone and vocals. Here is a sneak preview of the band: https://youtu.be/gjLJ7l-JrlA
Excerpt from The Good Lord Bird:
Meet the Lord
I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.My Pa was a full-blooded Negro out of Osawatomie, in Kansas Territory, north of Fort Scott, near Lawrence. Pa was a barber by trade, though that never gived him full satisfaction. Preaching the Gospel was his main line. Pa didn’t have a regular church, like the type that don’t allow nothing but bingo on Wednesday nights and women setting around making paper-doll cutouts. He saved souls one at a time, cutting hair at Dutch Henry’s Tavern, which was tucked at a crossing on the California Trail that runs along the Kaw River in south Kansas Territory.
Pa ministered mostly to lowlifes, four-flushers, slaveholders, and drunks who came along the Kansas Trail. He weren’t a big man in size, but he dressed big. He favored a top hat, pants that drawed up around his ankles, high-collar shirt, and heeled boots. Most of his clothing was junk he found, or items he stole off dead white folks on the prairie killed off from dropsy or aired out on account of some dispute or other. His shirt had bullet holes in it the size of quarters. His hat was two sizes too small. His trousers come from two different colored pairs sewn together in the middle where the arse met. His hair was nappy enough to strike a match on. Most women wouldn’t go near him, including my Ma, who closed her eyes in death bringing me to this life. She was said to be a gentle, high-yaller woman. “Your Ma was the only woman in the world man enough to hear my holy thoughts,” Pa boasted, “for I’m a man of many parts.”
Selected Works for James McBride:
The Good Lord Bird (2013) – Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction
Song Yet Sung (2008)
Miracle at St. Anna (2002)
Red Hook Summer (with Spike Lee) (2012)
Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (1996) – New York Times Bestseller and the 2004 One Book, One Philadelphia feature
Music and Lyrics for
Grover Washington Jr.
The Off-Broadway musical “Bo-Bos”
“Riffin’ and Pontificatin’” musical tour
James McBride’s homepage
Studio 360: James McBride and The Good Lord Bird
James McBride and the Good Lord Bird Band | LIVE from the NYPL
James McBride at FGCC 2nd song OCT 2013
Free Library podcast
The New York Times: James McBride on His Novel ‘The Good Lord Bird’
National Book Foundation: Interview with James McBride
NPR: ‘Good Lord Bird’ Gives Abolitionist Heroes Novel Treatment
Telling a Whopper (Guernica)