Albert Murray, one of the giants of American culture, died last weekend.  He was 97 years old and lived a full, rich, deeply American life.

If you’ve never heard of Murray, you’re not alone.  He was deeply enmeshed in the literary community for decades but didn’t publish anything until age 56.  When he did begin to write in the 1970s, his ideas and literary style went against the grain of the times, and he remained obscure.  He was noticed in the 1990s by filmmaker Ken Burns and others (Stanley Crouch in particular was a champion of his work), but declining health soon limited his output and exposure.

It’s a shame, because Albert Murray mined a rich vein of American lore.  His vision and understanding of the American experience was unique, and deeply felt.  He saw a nation of “Omni-Americans” which blended the Yankee, the frontiersman and the Negro, a triptych inspired by Constance Rourke’s work on antebellum comic literature.  Murray laid particular emphasis on the black experience, which he argued is inextricably woven into the fabric of  American life and a source of national renewal and rejuvenation.  He deplored the idea that black Americans were separate from or outside the mainstream of American history, as well as ‘protest’ art that cheapened and flattened the reality of black Americans’ lives.  This perspective was not well received in academia or among the black separatist movement that was in full bloom in the 1960s and 70s.

I first became aware of Albert Murray through his extraordinary book “Stomping the Blues,” a must-read for anyone interested in American music.  Murray believed that, while jazz and blues music may have been born in pain and frustration, they were in fact joyous affirmations of the human condition, a means for Negroes (Murray’s preferred, more traditionally resonant term for black Americans) to stomp down their troubles and come out on top.  Murray himself described jazz and blues music as “an affirmative and hence exemplary and heroic response to that which Andre Mulraux describes as la condition humaine.”

Murray was himself a humane and learned man, with an abiding love for America’s diverse range of literary and musical expression.  He is someone that young people, particularly black kids marinated in the nihilistic rage of hip hop, should discover to understand the true richness of the American experience.  Albert Murray RIP.