Having worked as a teacher, secretary, and a stay-at-home foster mom since college graduation, I haven't had many opportunities in my life to travel for work. So it was a big thrill to head up to Lawrence yesterday to attend what I am choosing to call my first-ever Reading With Hippos business trip: a reading and musical performance by National Book Award winner James McBride and his Good Lord Bird Band.
My lovely sister-in-law and fellow book lover Belinda gets all the credit—she heard about the event on Twitter and kindly invited me to join her. McBride's visit was actually the first in what will be an annual series of author appearances sponsored by the Lawrence Public Library and financed by a bequest from Ross and Marianna Beach.
I loved McBride's award-winning novel, The Good Lord Bird, a fictionalized account of John Brown's failed attack on Harper's Ferry told from the perspective of a scrappy young boy nicknamed Onion. Thus I suspected the reading would be fun, but my modest expectations were completely blown away by McBride's energetic act.
The night began with a Q&A session, during which McBride proved to be just as witty as his narrator, but the real magic happened when he brought out the band. McBride is himself more than adequate on piano and tenor sax, and like all good musicians, he attracts other skilled people to him. He introduced the band members separately, giving each one their rightful moment of recognition. Belinda and I agreed our favorite was the drummer/vocalist who sang such a stirring version of “How Great Thou Art” he earned a standing ovation in the middle of the set.
In between rousing gospel standards, McBride read excerpts from his novel. It was interesting hearing McBride, who is from New York and sounds like it, read in the voice of a child from slave territory. Still, there's something magical about sitting in a room full of people just listening to someone read. It feels like the best days of early elementary school, when you'd sit on the alphabet rug and pick at your shoelaces while the teacher read Miss Nelson Is Missing. Somehow by the time we're adults we've moved on from reading aloud with other people, and last night's event reminded me how much I used to love it.
When I first heard that McBride would be doing a reading with a band onstage, I couldn't quite picture it. Surely literature is literature and music is music—what good could come from combining them? But McBride is not just one thing; in fact, his website states his duality quite clearly in the heading, labeled “James McBride, Author & Musician.” He was able to blend the two art forms together, along with a generous dose of religion, and the result was not only awesome but felt like the most natural thing in the world. I guess at the end of the day, art is art.
If you're interested in a little taste of the evening, the Lawrence Journal-World posted an audio clip overlaid with photos from the event (including a great shot of McBride's bright yellow socks).
If you're interested in seeing James McBride live and in person, you can see his tour dates on his website.
And finally, if you're interested in promoting an educated and free society, you can support the Lawrence Public Library or your own local public library with your donations and patronage.