Albert James Young was born in Mississippi in 1939 to Albert James, an auto worker and a musician, and his wife. The family lived in rural Mississippi until 1946, when they moved to Detroit, but even after that Young often spent summers in the South. That area consequently exerted a strong influence on his development. After attending the University of Michigan from 1957 to 1961 he moved to the San Francisco area. Later he attended Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, and he received a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Berkeley in 1969. He married in 1963 and had one son.
Among the many jobs Al Young assumed during his early life was that of professional musician; in fact, he considers himself as much a musician as a writer, and his participation in and enjoyment of that other means of artistic expression informs and is often the subject of his written work. As he explains in his three volumes of “musical memories” (Bodies and Soul, Kinds of Blue, and Things Ain’t What They Used to Be), music became a means of understanding life even before he began to play music. Young’s first book, Dancing, is a volume of poems that seem to demand oral expression. The work’s title is a further clue to Young’s view that music helps people to understand and express themselves. Those who hear the music can no longer remain the same, so they dance, helping to complete the statement made by the music as they “analyze” it with their physical responses.
Young’s first novel, Snakes, is an “education” novel about MC, a young black adolescent from Detroit who resembles Young himself and who, with his band, writes and performs a song, “Snakes,” that is a local hit. The band dissolves and the euphoria dissipates, but the young hero wants to continue his musical career and sets out on a bus for New York, leaving behind the grandmother who had raised him lovingly after the deaths of his parents. This novel includes that important theme in Young’s oeuvre, close family ties and both the warmth and the restrictions that develop from...
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