(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Train Whistle Guitar offers a story of a black boy’s preadolescent and adolescent seasons in a small town deep in the South during the decade after World War I. The story is told by the man whom the boy has become, recounting his memories after he has gone away to college, served in World War II, and made somebody out of himself, as he was born marked to do. He has also been marked for life by his education in that small-town community and culture. The events of the story are the remembered highpoints in a daily dialogue, one carried out between the child and his community and between the conscious and unconscious (or spontaneous and reflective) selves of that child. The story implies a dialogue between the narrator’s childhood self and adult self, the facts of his growing and the art of his telling of it—what, in memory and crafted language, can now be made of that growing. As memory and art thus valorize life, the feature that emerges as most meaningful is the boy’s daily education, partly in school but most clearly out of school.

Like many novels of the early education of a heart, Train Whistle Guitar is episodic in its plot structure. What is remembered and told is what was felt as adventure by the boy. The story therefore moves as the boy felt life to move, from worthy time to worthy time, with only a sense of lull filling in the time between, like the steady rhythm of a drum or heart. Those experiences were intuited by the boy to be charged with meaning, but the full revelatory quality of their meaning has come to be known only later, in their telling as story.

The story is told in the first person, in the past...

(The entire section is 681 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Berry, Jason. “Musical Literature.” The Nation 224 (January 15, 1977): 55-57. Because of this novel’s derivation from blues perspective and idiom, its content and style contrast with those of traditional black realism and social protest literature, as well as with white southern regional fiction.

Borshuk, Michael. Swinging the Vernacular: Jazz and African American Modernist Literature. New York: Routledge, 2006. Argues that Train Whistle Guitar represents a revision of black modernism.

McPherson, James Alan. “The View from the Chinaberry Tree.” The Atlantic Monthly 234 (December, 1974): 118, 120-123. Participating in a rediscovery and reaffirmation of black cultural and spiritual roots in the South, the novel expresses the complexity of relationships between illusion and ever-changing American reality that form essential parts of both black American consciousness and the literary burden of transforming history into art.

Murray, Albert. South to a Very Old Place. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971. Murray’s stream-of-consciousness chronicle of his journey through the South, which included interviews with contemporary black and white southern authors and with residents of the Alabama town in which he spent his boyhood.

O’Meally, Robert G. Foreword to Train Whistle Guitar, by Albert Murray. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989. With his uses of naming, storytelling, counterstatement, and call and response, Murray has invented “ways to write the blues,” thereby expressing themes of everyday heroism, possibility, and joie de vivre while presenting types of people and places of a southern blues community.

Wideman, John. “Stomping the Blues: Ritual in Black Music and Speech.” American Poetry Review 7, no. 4 (1978): 42-45. This review of Murray’s study of the history and nature of blues music, Stomping the Blues (1976), provides context and insights for understanding and appreciating Murray’s musical use of African American speech patterns in his prose style in Train Whistle Guitar.