Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

18 March 2009

The unrecorded stories of King/Charles/Buddy Bolden.

Intro to Buddy Bolden – Wynton Marsalis (Septet) – Live at the Village Vanguard

“This story begins with a man who’s name was Buddy Bolden. Now, he was from New Orleans, Louisiana. He plays the cornet. But since we’re telling the story, we’ll just say that he’s a trumpet player.

“People like Buddy Bolden mainly because Buddy Bolden knew how to listen. He would listen to anybody. You probably figured out already, Buddy Bolden was a barber. Because you know, barbering is mainly dispensing logic with attitude. So he would stand up all day in his barbershop underneath the slow moving wooden fan, with razor in hand, listening to the hottest gossip known to man and woman. Now as you probably figured out from that, he was also the editor of a newspaper. Now the newspaper that he edited was called The Cricket. But the Tripp sisters had loaned him the money to get the printing press, so he couldn’t put that hottest gossip in the paper, or they would take the press away. So the hottest gossip, he let that come steaming out of his horn on the weekends, and on late nights of the weekdays.

“The people loved to hear Buddy Bolden play. Because his music was synchopated, they danced. Because his music was the blues they danced with feeling. And because it was also jazz music, they danced with feeling and accuracy.

“Buddy Bolden could play so loud, that when he opened up his horn in New Olreans, Louisiana, people way across the river in Algiers could hear it, and it made them feel good because they knew it was time to swing. And that’s where everyone likes to be.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Buddy Bolden, also called King Bolden by some, is a touchstone of North American storytelling. As a barber, newspaper editor and cornet player, Bolden listened to many, and repeated their tales in his own inimitable style. Although he is cited as an influential force in the development of Jazz in New Orleans, he was never recorded, and as such, there are many stories about him: the true, the apocryphal and the fantastic. As a result of this enigmatic characteristic, Buddy Bolden well symbolises storytelling in North America at the turn of the 20th Century – through journalism (and its fictions), through his cornet (and the jazz sound particular to him) and through his mythologisation through all the stories told about him.

Coming Through Slaughter is a fine example of the interweaving of all these forms, and reads like a riffing jazz piece.


From Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

p 14
He was the best and the loudest and most loved jazzman of his time, but never professional in the brain. Unconcerned with the crack of the lip he threw out and held immense notes, could reach a force on the first note that attacked the ear. He was obsessed with the magic of air, those smells that turned neuter as they revolved in his lungs then spat out in the chosen key. The way the sides of his mouth would drag a net of air in and dress it in notes an make it last and last, yearning to leave it up there in the sky like air transformed into cloud. He could see the air, could tell where it was freshest in a room by the colour.

Bolden played nearly everything in B-Flat.

[Webb, now a police detective, searches for the missing Bolden, whom he had known since childhood.]

Alcohol burning down his throat as she tells him that Buddy went, disappeared, got lost, I don’t know Webb but he’s gone.
How long?
5 or 6 months.
Nora opening out the curtains so the light falls over him, the cup with the drink in front of his face, between them, shielding him from the story, gulping more down.

What was Bolden’s favourite story? Whose moment of terror did he want to witness, Webb thought…

Looked at objectively The Cricket contained excessive reference to death. The possibilities were terrifying to Bolden and he hunted out examples obsessively as if building a wall. … And then there was the first death, almost on top of him, saved by its fictional quality and nothing else.

But there was a discipline, it was just that we didn’t understand. We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore about the plot – see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes.

Always listening, listening to the wet fluid speech with no order, unfinished stories, badly told jokes that he sober as a spider perfected in silence.

On his last night Webb went to hear Bolden play. Far back, by the door, he stood alone and listened for an hour. He watched him drive into the stories found in the barber shop, his whole plot of song covered with scandal and incident and change. The music was coarse and rough, immediate, dated in half an hour, was about bodies in the river, knives, lovepains, cockiness. Up there on stage he was showing all the possibilities in the middle of the story.

Webb had spoken to Bellocq and discovered nothing. Had spoken to Nora, Crawley, to Cornish, had met the children – Bernadine, Charlie. Their stories were like spokes on a rimless wheel ending in air. Buddy had lived a different life with every one of them.

Dude Botley followed him and tells this story which some believe and which others don’t believe at all.

Then I hear Bolden’s cornet, very quiet, and I move across the street, closer. There he is, relaxed back in a chair blowing that silver softly, just above a whisper adn I see he’s got the hat over the bell of the horn… Thought I knew his blues before, and the hymns at funerals, but what he is playing now is real strange and I listen careful for he’s playing something that sounds like both. … This is the first time I ever heard hymns and blues cooked up together. … It sounded like a battle between the Good Lord and the Devil. Something told me to listen and see who wins.


Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

6 March 2009

The importance of re-inventing ceremony, ritual and stories, from a work of great fiction.

See also: A story within a story, and Medicinal fiction


Ceremony, originally published in 1977, still holds truth within its words, and I strongly urge everyone to read it.

From the text:

I will tell you something about stories,
[he said]
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.

You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.

Their evil is mighty
but it can’t stand up to our stories.
So they try to destroy the stories
let the stories be confused or forgotten.
They would like that
They would be happy
Because we would be defenseless then.

p12 [Tayo on the Bataan Death march]
He made a story for all of them, a story to give them strength. The words of the story peered oout of his mouth as if they had substance, pebbles and stone extending to hold the corporal up, to keep his knees from buckling, to keep his hands from letting go of the blanket.

“But you know, grandson, this world is fragile.”
The word he used to express “fragile” was filled with the intracacies of a continuing process, and with a strength inherent in spider webs woven across paths through sand hills where early in the morning the sun becomes entangled in each filiment of web. It took a long time to explain the fragility and intricacy because no word exists alone, adn the reason for choosing each word had to be explained with a stroy about why it must be said this certain way. That was the responsibility that went with being human, old Ku’oosh said, the story behind each word must be told so there could be no mistake in the meaning o fwhat had been said; and this demanded great patience and love.

p89 [Grandma outgossips the gossips]
The story was all that coutned. If she had a better one about them, then it didn’t matter what they said.

[Tayo] knew what white people thought about the stories. In school the science teacher had explained what superstition was, and then held the science textbook up for the class to see the true source of explanations. He had studied those books, and he had no reasons to believe the stories anymore. The science books explained the causes and effects.

p126 [Betonie the medicine man]
At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps ceremonies strong.
She taught me this above all else: things which don’t shift and grow are dead things. They are things the witchery people want. Withcery works to scare people, to make them fear growth. But it has always been necessary, adn more than ever now, it is. otherwise we won’t make it. We won’t survive. That’s what the witchery is counting on: that we will cling to the ceremonies the way they were, and then their power will triumph, and the people will be no more.


A story within a story

6 March 2009

On the origins of white people, from Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko.


excerpt from pages 132-138 of Ceremony

Long time ago
in the beginning
there were no white people in this world
there was nothing European.
And this world might have gone on like that except for one thing:
This world was already complete
even without white people.
There was everything
including witchery.
Then it happened.
These witch people got together.
Some came from far far away
across oceans
across mountains.
Some had slanty eyes
others had black skin.
They all got together for a contest
the way people have baseball tournaments nowadays
except this was a contest
in dark things.

So anyway
they all got together
witch people from all directions
witches from all the Pueblos
and all the tribes.
They had Navajo witches there,
some from hopi, and a few from Zuni.
They were having a witches’ conference,
that’s what it was
Way up in the lava rock hills
north of Canoncito
they got together
to fool around in caves
with their animal skins.
Fox, badger, bobcat, and wolf
they circled the fire
and on the fourth time
they jumped into that animal’s skin.

But this time it wasn’t enough
and one of them
maybe a Sioux or some Eskimos
started showing off.
“That wasn’t anything,
watch this.”

The contest started like that.
Then some of them lifted the lids
on their big cooking pots,
calling the rest of them over
to take a look:
dead babies simmering in blood
circles of skull cut away
all the brains sucked out.
Witch medicine
to dry and grind into powder
for new victims.

Others untied skin bundles of disgusting objects:
dark flints, cinders from burned hogans where the dead lay
Whorls of skin
cut from fingertips
sliced from the penis and clitoris tip.

Finally there was only one
who hadn’t shown off charms or powers.
The witch stood in the shadows beyond the fire
and no one every knew where this witch came from
which tribe
or if it was a woman or a man.
But the important thing was
this witch didn’t show any dark thunder charcoals
or red ant-hill beads.
this one just told them to listen:
“What I have is a story.”

At first they all laughed
but this witch said
go ahead
laugh if you want to
but as I tell the story
it will begin to happen.

Set in motion now
set in motion by our witchery
to work for us.

Caves across the ocean
in caves of dark hills
white skin people
like the belly of a fish
covered with hair.

Then they grow away from the earth
then they grow away from the sun
then they grow away from the plants and animals.
They see no life
When they look
they see only objects.
The world is a dead thing for them
the trees and rivers are not alive
the mountains and stones are not alive.
The deer adn bear are objects
They see no life.

They fear
They fear the world.
They destroy what they fear.
They fear themselves.

set into motion now
set into motion.

So the other witches said
“Okay you win; you take the prize,
but what you said just now-
it isn’t so funny
It doesn’t sound so good.
We are doing okay without it
we can get along without that kind of thing.
Take it back.
Call that story back.”

But the witch just shook its head
at the other sin the stinking animal skins, fur and feather.
It’s already turned loose.
It’s already coming.
It can’t be called back.


Canada’s heart of darkness

14 February 2009

Timothey Findley’s Headhunter reflects how far up the river we’ve traveled.

Marlow used literature as psychotherapy. He believed in its
healing powers – not because of its sentiments, but because of
its complexities. No human life need ever be as knotted as Anna
Karenina’s life had been – since the living had the benefit, as she
had not, of her own example. Many a suicide had been thwarted
because of Anna’s death. The trouble was, with books, that no
one read anymore. That way, trains still claimed many victims.”

see also: Medicinal Fiction

from Headhunter

[the character Fagan, an academic from Dublin, describes his journey via the Russian ship Neva, to Montreal to an assembly of guests in Toronto, made up entirely of other characters. Italics are the author’s.]

Fagan went on to describe the journey upstream to Montreal – past a landscape still and grey along the dead shore. He pointed out the fetid colours of the water and the rivers, frothing with chemicals, running down from the mined interior and the boarded-up towns giving way to the cities pouring yellow waste into the wake of the ship and the sick, dying whales that rose from the deep. He said there were many wonders, too – the Saguenay – the Citadel of Quebec – and farms where actual cows could be seen in actual fields… And then to Montreal, where
he debarked and the Neva turned back towards its ocean voyage.

“You make the landscape sound horrific,” said Fabiana.
“I mean to,” said Fagan. Adn then: “it was not for nothing that I came that way.”
“What does that mean?” said Appleby.
“It means that I was not the first to come. It means I followed where others had gone before me.”
“Immigrants?” said Fabiana.
“All of us are immigrants,” said Fagan. “Even the so-called aboriginal peoples of this continent came from somewhere else. I believe it was across an ice bridge, now the Bering Sea.”
“We don’t call them aboriginals,” said Appleby. “We call them Indians.”
“Oh, yes.” Fagan smiled. “I had forgotten where I was.”
“Well, they aren’t Chinese,” said Appleby.
“One name I recall is Cree,” said Fagan. “Another is Ojibway. And what are you, my lord?”
“English,” said Appleby. “What difference does that make?”
“Order of arrival,” said Fagan, still smiling. “Order of arrival, you see, equals order of perception. I only mean to say – this place was once perceived as nothing more or less than a place in which to survive. A place to live.”
“Still is,” said Appleby.
“You think so?”
“What else could it be?”
“A place to buy. A place to alter. A place to destroy.”
“Are you a communist, Fagan?”
“Well, now. I’ve never thought about it.”
“People like you,” said Appleby. “You hate everything, don’t you.”
“Now, Mace – don’t start in on that,” said Rena, waking up from a snooze.
“Couldn’t agree more,” said Marlow, fearing that politics were going to wreck the evening.
“You see,” said Fagan, “my journey up the river made me think about what it was those others who came before us had in mind. they might be greatly surprised by what they found here today. And greatly dismayed, I fear.”
“How do you mean? said Fabiana.
“I mean there is nothing here of what anyone proposed. There is little beauty left – but much ugliness. Little wilderness – but much emptiness. No explorers – but many exploiters. There is no art – no music – no literature – but only entertainment. And there is no philosophy. This that was once a living place for humankind has become a killing ground.”
There was a brief pause.


Medicinal Fiction

7 February 2009

Medicine Between the Lines

“To try to ease him a little, I start talking again. The story is not a happy one, but something in me has to tell it. There is truth in this story that Xavier needs to hear, and maybe it is best that the hears it in sleep so that the medicine in the tale can slip into him unnoticed.”cover-three-day-road

The notion expressed above by one of the narrator’s of Three Day Road, that of medicine in the tale, adds a layer of importance to the role of fiction in our lives. It has greater value than our often fact~heavy social dialogue gives it. And conceiving of it as medicine presents a most significant refutation of its detractors.

The most common argument against fiction denies it as not true to life, not factually accurate, not scientifically meaningful. The most common counter~argument upholds fiction as true of life. The disproportionate value given to facts, statistics and scientific discourse has dulled our imagination, the very stuff with which we create fiction, and absorb it.

Fiction has evolved into such diverse media from the spoken word to the written, to radio, film, televion, comics, blogs, and other works combining media. We immerse ourselves in fictions ranging from escapist pulp to intellectual experimentation, from “Battlefield Earth” to “Finnegan’s Wake.” Each has its audience, each its value.

Arguments against the value of fiction ignore its continuous and continued enjoyment by billions of people.

Reading makes your Brain work

A recent study has determined that the Brain Simulates Actions in Stories as a Person Reads.

“Reading a book triggers an active response in a person’s brain, replicating the activity described in the story, a study by Washington University researchers in St. Louis, Mo., indicates. A brain-imaging study at Washington University tracked brain activity as participants read sections of a story.”

Regardless of whether what we read contains fiction or non~fiction, it stimulates our brain (one physical portion of our emergent mind), reproducing mental activity synonymous with the subject matter.  Reading about an activity may help our performance. That in itself holds value. This may give us a greater means of coping with potential situations we have not yet encountered.

Fiction as Medicine

Back to our Three Day Road exerpt. Fiction works as medicine in two manners, one through its creation, another through its perception. This applies to all creative works of art, whether an illustration, a danse [sic], a song or written fiction. In the creation of fiction, one has to provide a narrative order to the tale, one that strings image and meaning together into a coherent series of story-arcs. The most powerful of these remains the circle, where we end the tale where we’ve begun. Three Day Road follows a non~chronological story structure to accomplis this circle. It has shrugged off the tyranny of chronological storytelling, to weave together traditional elements of First Nations storytelling within the form of written fiction. This, in itself, indicates a means of healing the identity of First Nations’ peoples, who have had their traditions assaulted, and buried under introduced culture. By redefining the written word in their own voice, First Nations’ authors have created a new art, one that combines the ancient with the modern, in a manner that sings with more truth than all compiled histories.

Most particularly, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, Green Grass Running Water by Thomas King, Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway and Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (the first in a Trilogy) all reflect this combination of the ancient with the modern, and the path to healing. These works and authors have encouraged the creation of this journal, in hopes that it too may find a medicinal path.


Ceremony , a work dense with meaning, demands that we create new Ceremonies, for those unchanged ones we have inherited no longer represent us. We must express the world as we experience and perceive it through our art, in order to find meaning, and to share our insights with those who would listen fully and openly. Although this story calls to the peoples of the First Nations, the American Indians and Indigenous peoples, it would do well to penetrate the stagnant churches of Christianity, who rely on stories written near 2000 years ago, which refuse to change, adapt or evolve, demanding instead that we do. This creation of a new ritual, in itself provides healing, as does the enactment of the ceremony itself.


Green Grass, Running Water, a complex story with Coyote as its muse, weaves a tricky tale of creation stories, modern perception of the First Nations, and surviving in the modern world, despite the harshness and hardships that it imposes with indifferent prejudice. This story deserves attention in all Canadian literature courses, as it expresses a very particular Canadian experience with a lightness of humour that provides an antidote to tragedy. Therein lies its healing powers. Laughter dispels emotional ill~feeling before it becomes illness.


Kiss of the Fur Queen, chronicles as it fictionalises the lives of Tomson Highway and his brother René. The course of writing this appears to have helped Tomson deal with the premature death of René from HIV/AIDS. The antidote to the residential school experience, life in modern Winnipeg, and the subsequent struggles to define themselves in the little explored wilderness between North American tradition, music and the dance, and those introduced by Europe, particularly through classical piano and ballet, seeps through the lines of the pages.

As with most art forms, popular fiction, written for the sole purpose of making money (different from literary or medicinal fiction which becomes popular and makes money), waters down the pool of stories from which we may draw significant meaning. If we put down a story, and never think about it again, never evoke its characters, scenarios, or narrative into our imagination, then what good has it done us? Does momentary distraction truly serve us at all? From what does it distract us?