Thursday, February 26, 2009

Linda Jones in Pain

Duke University's Mark Anthony Neal discusses "the greatest singer you've never heard," Linda Jones.

In 1967, at the tender age of 22, Jones recorded a powerful song titled "Hypnotized." Jones died in the early 1970s, but her singing style made quite an impression on subsequent generations of vocalists.

Neal wrote an intriguing essay on her ability to represent physical and emotional pain through her stylized and sophisticated vocalizations. Jones suffered from diabetes and painful diabetic seizures, and Neal uses Elaine Scarry's Bodies in Pain as his inspiration for an argument about the extent to which Jones's "harsh" and hypnotic sound represents her concerted attempt to render that pain acoustically and aesthetically.

Her singerly choices (her skillful attempts to "bend and break notes"), he says, demonstrate a profound recognition of language's inadequacy as a mechanism for capturing otherwise inexpressible pains. "There was no language for [her] pain," he claims, and so Jones used the non-semantic and phonetic materialities of language to articulate "heart aches and pains" that outstrip language's semiotic/representational powers.

Neal's essay can be found in the new book Best African American Essays, edited by Debra Dickerson and Gerald Early.

And you can hear him talk about Jones during a recent WUNC interview. The interview is short. And its worth a listen. Neal makes a compelling case for Jones presages contempoary figures like Keisha Cole and Mary J. Blige.

(Photo from

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