Tuesday, March 31, 2015

O.o.O.C.: "Born to Be" by (Emmanuel) Taylor Gordon

Out of Orbit Critiques (O.o.O.C.) are on books not in my usual genres that I review about once a month. This book is a memoir.

Usually, I review books that are relatively mainstream (i.e. you don't have to look hard to find them) but this book is a bit harder to find, even though it is on Amazon (with a different cover). I'm reviewing this for the benefit of those interested in Montana history, and African Americans in the Old West.

Although the cover might lead you to think most of the book would consist of the exploits of a musician, most of it actually is about coming to that version of happily ever after. Undoubtedly, it wasn't an easy journey- Mr. Gordon had to first work his way out of Montana, then discover his talents (he doesn't appear to realize his talents until much later). A part of the book I loved were the anecdotes he had about growing up in White Sulphur Springs, Montana.

White Sulphur Springs, Montana isn't exactly the hoppingest town nowadays. When I visited in 2012, half the town was for sale: the industries that once sustained its population boom have long since left. Nonetheless, the town is absolutely gorgeous: the mountains and rock formations that surround it are breathtaking, and the buildings of the town are mostly built around the time Mr. Gordon grew up there, lending it a ghost town vibe. If you like this book enough, it's definitely worth the time to stop by and visit their "world famous" hot springs.

The Plot:
Emmanuel "Mannie" Taylor Gordon grows up in White Sulphur Springs circa late 1800s, early 1900s. While he doesn't want for much, White Sulphur Springs isn't the best place to get rich, so he leaves, finding odd jobs that lead to travel across the United States. Although he tries his best, he can't seem to make much money- will he ever find his calling?

I'm usually not interested in books about Montana, mostly because I was subjected to so many folk tales from there during my first twenty years living there. My knowledge is mostly from having half of my predecessors running amuck in Butte for roughly a century before my birth, and so with every family reunion came lots of interesting stories. Nonetheless, I found myself chuckling at Taylor Gordon's small town anecdotes of living in the Old West- the games he played with the other children, the odd jobs he took to make ends meet (including one as an errand boy in a brothel), his listening to stories from people imprisoned in the town jail, and those now-treatable illnesses that were deadly back then (he had Scarlet fever at one point).

One of the more interesting parts of the book is the chapter entitled "My People". Despite its title, you get the sense than Mr. Gordon felt almost apart from most African Americans for most of this book, which might be explained by his relative isolation with his family while he grew up in Montana. He regularly has run-ins with racism (all outside Montana, which must be taken with lots of salt), but luckily he manages to escape without physical scars. His thoughts in this chapter are relatively outdated ideas, but they give you a sense of how bad racism was back in those days.

Mr. Gordon's writing is at its best when he's describing his love of the 'spirituals'. It's evocative, making you feel like you really know him when he has already passed away. This is a rather large sample, but it's absolutely gorgeous:

"A spiritual makes some people cry, others laugh, and arouses another's passion. All these things can be done with one song. I don't know any other music that can get the same results... When I sing to people, ten thousand sing to me."

         ~Taylor Gordon, Born to Be page 191 (in my edition)

Born to Be is a meandering memoir that covers a time in history when the color of your skin often determined your future prospects in life. Taylor Gordon never set out to be a singer or a writer, but those talents led him farther than most Montanans would dream of going. If you're interested in African American history in the Western States, one of the singers behind the rise of the 'spirituals', or Harlem during the Roaring Twenties, you'd be remiss to pass this memoir up.

Famous Last Line of the Book: "I wonder what I was born to be?"

Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars for a great look at the beginnings of Taylor Gordon, in his own words.

Content: Racial slurs (what you'd expect, as well as some for Asian people), racism, references to illicit activities (brothels, prostitution, drugs, gambling, back alley abortions, etc.). Suitable for ages 16+.

Page Count: 235 pages in my 1975 paperback edition.

Places in Montana Mentioned in This Book: Martinsdale, Two Dot, Harlowton (where my mom lived as a teen), Butte, Anaconda, Helena, Ringling, Yellowstone Nat'l Park, Glacier Nat'l Park, and Dorsey (which Google doesn't know about- I can't find it).

Places Outside Montana Mr. Gordon Visits in This Book: Minneapolis, Duluth, and St. Paul, Minnesota, The Red River Valley, Chicago, Portland (Oregon), Saskatune- I think he meant 'Saskatoon' (Canada), Seattle and Spokane (Washington), New York City, Sarasota (Florida), Ardmore (Oklahoma), Houston (Texas), New Orleans (Louisiana), St. Louis (Missouri), Omaha (Nebraska), Louisville (Kentucky), Atlanta (Georgia), Bridgeport (Connecticut), Baraboo (Wisconsin), St. Thomas (the island), St. Lucia,  Barbados, Saint Vincent, Utica (New York), Fort Dix (called Camp Dix in the book- New Jersey), St. Louis (Missouri), Moose Jaw (Canada), Milwaukee (Wisconsin), Kansas City (I'm assuming Missouri), Tuskegee (Alabama), Los Angeles (California), Paris (France), London (England), and Harlem (New York) where he was living at the end of the book.

Here's a map I made of his travels (and the towns he mentioned in MT), because it shows how expansive this memoir really is:

The Map Key:

More Yellow = Earlier Days
More Red = Later in the Memoir

Stars = His hometown, and where he toured after he hit it big musically.
Circles = Towns mentioned from his Montana time (not sure if he visited them).
Diamonds = Where he traveled in his early days, by himself, with Mr. John Ringling, or while he was working as a porter on the railroad.
Squares = Where he traveled for odder jobs, and the early days of his music career.


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