James McBride was a professional saxophonist for decades before he took up writing, and as an author, he isn’t doing too poorly. His first book, the memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, spent nearly 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list; his first novel, Miracle at Santa Ana, was turned into a film by Spike Lee; and his latest work of historical fiction, The Good Lord Bird, won the National Book Award last month.
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 relied heavily on the spirituals of the era. McBride performs a few of those spirituals in the studio with the help of his gospel quintet, The Good Lord Bird Band.
Frederick Douglass also makes an appearance in the book, refusing to follow John Brown into the violent rebellion at Harper’s Ferry. “I would not have gone with John Brown during that time. I just don’t have the heart,” McBride admits. “When you read the accounts of what happened to these fellas, it breaks your heart, and it also makes you admire what this country is capable of.”
The Good Lord Bird Band: Show Tyme Brooks (drums, vocals), Keith Robinson (guitar, vocals), Trevor Exter (bass, vocals), Adam Faulk (piano, vocals), and James McBride (saxophone, vocals).
Bonus Track: Kurt’s extended conversation with James McBride
Listen for readings from the book (at 7:00 and 17:45 in the audio) and live performances from the band:
an a cappella version of “God’s Gonna Set This World on Fire” (12:15), “Sinner Man” (21:45) and “Standing in the Need of Prayer” (33:30).
The Sound of WaterArtist: James McBrideAlbum: The Process Volume OneLabel: Cuddy Sound Records
Sinner ManArtist: James McBride and The Good Lord Bird Band
Instrumental JamArtist: James McBride and The Good Lord Bird Band