In 'Song of the Shank,' Allen blends music and history

by Noah Mahrer / Beacon Correspondent • October 22, 2014

Jeffery Renard Allen read from his latest novel, "Song of the Shank," on Tuesday.
Jeffery Renard Allen read from his latest novel, "Song of the Shank," on Tuesday.

During his minstrel career in the late 1800s, autistic savant Blind Tom was reportedly able to play three different songs in three different keys at three different tempos simultaneously. Jeffery Renard Allen’s Song of The Shank, a luminous novel set during the aftermath of the Civil War, follows the story of this man, a slave who became a national phenomenon after being sold into show business. 

On Tuesday, Allen participated in the Writing, Literature, and Publishing Reading Series, which included a Q&A session hosted by writing, literature, and publishing assistant professor Kimberly McLarin in the Charles Beard Room, followed by a book reading by Allen in the Bill Bordy Theatre.

Allen is the author of two poetry collections. Song of the Shank is his second published novel. The hourlong Q&A session with Allen delved into his research process, the blessings and curses of being a writer, and what he hoped to achieve with his new book. 

“I saw it less as a historical novel,” he said, “and more as a dystopian novel [and] as a metaphor for the African-American way of life.” 

By altering historical accounts and taking liberties with his work, Allen, who identifies as African-American, created a unique persona based on the rich and well-documented history of Blind Tom, whose prodigiousness had already made him the inspiration for characters written by Willa Cather and John Steinbeck.

At a young age, Allen was inspired by David Henderson’s 1978 Jimi Hendrix biography ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky, and said during his reading that he studied essays on classical music and theory by Glenn Gould and Robert Schumann. Although Allen said writing has always come naturally to him, he said “the reality is that music is not linguistic, so it’s hard to capture.” 

Although the novel is set in the 19th century, Allen was particularly driven by current events to give Song of the Shank a modern-day takeaway. Allen was living in New York City during 9/11, and said the attacks have had a significant influence on his writing process for over a decade.

Allen saw an analogy to be made between 9/11 and the 1863 New York City Draft Riots, which serve as the setting for the novel’s opening scene. For Allen, the Blind Tom character seemed like the perfect persona to study the similarities between African-American culture today and the earlier Jim Crow era in America.  

“I found it fascinating the way he talked about the compromise between writing a historical figure and the creative writing process,” said Rebecca Ring, a junior writing, literature, and publishing major who attended both the Q&A and reading. 

Ken Calhoun, a 1997 Emerson MFA graduate, attended Allen’s event after being exposed to his previously published poetry collections, and purchased Song of the Shank as Allen prepared for a book signing. 

“This book will be lyrical and offer many insights on that particular time period,” said Calhoun. “I think that the objective is to get us to re-engage with something that is still relevant. So by putting something in a historical context and rearranging it, it allows us to view the present differently.”