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One saint among many

Fans of the The Sopranos will watch The Many Saints of Newark, the new movie prequel to the six-season TV series, expecting to hear some good stuff on the sound track. They won’t be disappointed by a selection that runs from the Marvelettes’ “Danger Heartbreak Ahead” to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”. (And don’t leave before the final song overlaying the closing credits: the exquisite “Calling All Angels” by Jane Siberry with k. d. lang.)

But there was one choice that surprised and even shocked me. I hadn’t read anything about film in advance, entirely on purpose, so I wasn’t aware of the key role played in the narrative by the four days of rioting in Newark, New Jersey during the long hot summer of 1967, when the city’s black population rose up in protest against the beating of a black cab driver by two white police officers.

The sequences depicting the uprising are brilliantly staged and powerfully affecting. They are also subtly accompanied by the strains of John Coltrane’s “Alabama”, the five-minute studio recording made on November 18, 1963 and included the following year on the album Live at Birdland. My spine tingled when I heard it, but it also made me uncomfortable.

The piece is believed to have been composed by Coltrane in response to the bombing by white racists of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 16, 1963, in which four black schoolgirls died as they were changing into choir robes in the church basement. (Say their names: Carole Denise McNair, aged 11, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.) It’s necessary only to mention Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders to evoke Alabama’s previous role as a key location in the civil rights struggle, but it’s fair to assume that, given the eight-week gap between the church bombing and the recording, Coltrane had that particularly tragedy on his mind.

The result was a piece of music that occupies a special place in the saxophonist’s history. The starkest and most distilled example of what might be called his hymnal mode, it reached his public at a time when the spiritual content of his music was beginning to make itself apparent. A couple of years later A Love Supreme would leave no doubt about his intentions (and after his death, a group of followers in San Francisco would set up the Church of St John Coltrane).

But in addition to its aura of spirituality, “Alabama” had a specific meaning. Ben Ratliff, the author of an excellent Coltrane biography, called it “an accurate psychological portrait of a time, a complicated mood that nobody else could render so well.” If anyone wanted to understand how Coltrane could begin to inspire awe, Ratcliff added, they needed to look no further than this track.

So was it legitimate for Alan Taylor, the director of The Many Saints of Newark, to co-opt this much revered musical prayer, divorcing it from its original meaning in order to underscore the drama of a cinematically rendered scene from a riot three years later in a different city, exploiting the piece’s authentic emotional depth in what is, for all its layers, essentially a Mob movie?

Of course it’s nice to know that it will now be heard for the first time by many of those who go to see the film. Some of them may wonder about the musician behind those few seconds of sound, and might pursue their interest further. And of course you could say that since “Alabama” was inspired by an episode from the civil rights struggle, it has hardly been wrenched out of its context. If I can’t help feeling a little uneasy, then perhaps I’m wrong.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. The great American songwriter and troubadour Peter Case is the piano player at the Church Of St. John Coltrane, performing there every Sunday morning unless on tour.

    September 24, 2021
  2. Richard – I too noticed that Coltrane and was rather thrilled by it and thought it very smart. I wasn’t put out by the slight misuse – one might baulk at the anachronistic use of the mix of Gil Scot Heron’s Your Soul and Mine, but that too felt pretty relevant and worked for me…

    September 24, 2021
  3. Diana #

    Whilst I appreciate your unease Richard, I think it’s fair to say that Art, over the centuries and in whatever form, has been purloined for good, bad and indifferent reasons. Your comment regarding new listeners to “Alabama” is probably the best outcome.

    September 24, 2021
  4. Patrick Hinely #

    I have to wonder how Coltrane himself would feel about this appropriation.
    Let me also recommend a Sunday service at the Church of St. John Coltrane when you’re in San Francisco. I don’t know if the album A LOVE SUPREME is played in its entirity for every service, but it was played the week I attended in June, 2017, and was the fastest 33 minutes I’ve ever passed in any church.

    September 24, 2021
  5. Adam Glasser #

    Personally I feel repelled by and consider it an artistic copout by the director to appropriate such a seminal piece as background music.

    But on the other hand … I remember being taken by my father to see the film ‘Goodbye Lenny Bruce’ starring Dustin Hoffman – we were entranced by the soundtrack, discovering in the end credits that several of the tracks were from albums by a musician I had at that time never heard – Miles Davis.

    September 24, 2021
  6. Philip #

    The soundtrack didn’t work for me , some nice music ok , of the time ok , but would any character in the film listen to it (even Tony Minor on the floor between two speakers ??) , I’ll give you Janice .

    The ‘wrong’ LPs in Prison were more telling (was his taste pointing to the redemptive effect of Jazz 😎😎)

    Then the sequence with the Last Poets , couldn’t see a mention on the credits or any reviews .

    September 24, 2021
  7. simon surtees #

    I hear what you say. But, given the amount of time, the music is in a position to serve different contexts equally effectively. I have not seen the movie yet, but I respect the Director’s decision (with Coltrane’s estate’s blessing?) to add substance with a devastating piece of music.

    September 24, 2021
  8. Tim Adkin #

    Nice thoughtful piece Richard. Also lovely to see a mention of the great Jane Siberry.

    September 25, 2021

      I haven’t heard any of Jane Sibbery’s music – my bad – but it sounds as though I should put that right. Any suggestions for an album that would provide me with a good entry point, please?

      September 25, 2021
      • Tim Adkin #

        You’re in for a treat – try ‘Bound By the Beauty’, ‘When I Was a Boy’ (which contains ‘Calling All Angels’) and ‘Maria’ and then take it from there. Enjoy.

        September 25, 2021

    Thanks Tim; ‘Bound for Beauty’ ordered and ‘When I Was a Boy’ added to the ‘to buy’ list; much appreciated.

    September 25, 2021
  10. I think I share your discomfort, though I have not watched the film (and probably won’t as I don’t have access to HBO). You said in a previous post, Coltrane’s “Alabama” is “a ‘Guernica’ in miniature.” I might quibble with the relative size. I’ve stood next to “Guernica” and it is a large painting, but the how does one measure the Coltrane Quartet’s organized sound in meters or feet?

    But that’s the nub of the problem I think you heard, and I think I would hear too. “Alabama” isn’t about striking back with some like for like dynamite or fire or stealth, it’s about the horrible sorrow of such forces in application.

    Interesting in this context that I live a few blocks from where George Floyd was killed, a few blocks too from where one of the more widespread incidents of rioting occurred after that atrocity. In the day or so between those two things, I thought of Coltrane and “Alabama” specifically.

    from “John Coltrane Live at Birdland”

    What I wrote then was to try to explain “Alabama” to those like my teenage child and their peers. I also embed a video of what I believe is the Coltrane Quartet’s premiere performance of “Alabama” in public, recorded on a TV show. If you haven’t seen that, it alone is worth the look

    September 30, 2021

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