Day 886: Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul

Cover for Kill 'Em and LeaveKill ‘Em and Leave is a difficult book to categorize—part biography, part music history, but what it most closely resembles in writing style and approach is a series of magazine articles on the subject of James Brown and his legacy. That is not meant as a criticism, and the book is written with energy and flair.

I do not know a lot about James Brown, and my general sense of his life may incorporate some of the information that McBride would be quick to point out as lies or exaggeration. But McBride is not setting out to whitewash, just to find the truth.

And the truth is hard to find. McBride tells us that Brown was secretive, not just about money and the details of his private life but about his real self. McBride is only able to find out fragments of the truth about Brown, because Brown let people make things up about him and was more interested in creating his own legend than in revealing himself. So, McBride pursues his subject by visiting the places where he lived and talking to old friends and employees.

McBride doesn’t want to focus on the drugs and the mistreatment of women and the scandal. He wants to explore Brown’s legacy to American music and to the people in his life, good and bad. The shocking handling of his estate, which was left in trust for the education of poor children and is being ransacked by a series of lawyers, is also a focus. The damage the suits have done to the reputations of the original trustees, including the imprisonment of his honest and innocent accountant, David Cannon, is a sin. But McBride makes clear that Brown was a bad employer, erratic, distrusting, tight, and more people than Cannon have taken a fall for him. And not one poor child has received a cent of his money.

link to NetgalleyThis is a fragmentary but fascinating portrait of a complex man. If you are interested in the issues of African-American life, the history of American music, the issues of legacy, corruption in the music business or in South Carolina politics, or simply in a well-told story—any of these will assure your enjoyment of this book.

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Day 548: The Good Lord Bird

Cover for The Good Lord BirdBest Book of the Week!
Henry “Onion” Shackleford is a boy working with his father in a barber shop when John Brown and his followers ride into town. He relates his┬ástory many years later when he is more than 100 years old.

Henry and his father are African-American slaves living in the Kansas Territory near Laurence, a hotbed during the Border Wars, referred to as Bleeding Kansas. Brown has come to help the Free Staters, those who want Kansas to be free of slavery. But Brown’s ultimate goal is to rid the country of slavery, and he doesn’t care how he does it. In the resulting fight, Henry’s father is killed, and Brown “frees” Henry by kidnapping him.

Because, as Henry points out several times in his narrative, John Brown sees only what he wants to see, he mistakes Henry in his potato sack clothing for a girl. From then on, Henry is a girl as far as Brown’s followers are concerned, and Brown calls him Onion.

What follows is an an account of the deeds of John Brown, leading up to the assault on Harper’s Ferry. This tale is often cynical or ironic, boundlessly energetic, irreverent, and funny as well as touching. Brown is depicted as a sort of half-crazed, raggedy zealot, who is capable of stopping midway across a stream while being pursued by his enemies to pray for half an hour. Only his son Owen is brave enough to interrupt him and try to get him on his way.

Onion and other slaves they encounter are reluctant to be freed, afraid they’re going to end up in hotter water than they started. They have some cause. Onion, in fact, is almost always planning how he’ll escape the group and does so several times. But he always ends up back with Brown. His adventures lead him to residence in a whorehouse, a visit with Frederick Douglass (who gets drunk and tries to seduce “Henrietta”), and a more impressive meeting with Harriet Tubman in Canada. All the while, Brown attempts to “hive the Negroes” to revolt at the appropriate time.

The wonder is that with all this poking fun, McBride somehow manages to make us care deeply for John Brown and to honor his place as a trigger for the Civil War. This is an unusual novel—highly entertaining yet also deeply serious.