What do we hear when we listen to John Coltrane’s “Alabama?”
A moving short essay by Ismail Muhammad, reconsidering the song in light of George Floyd's murder.
I started listening to and thinking about “Alabama” a lot in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s murder in the summer of 2016, which was reminiscent of the murders of Samuel DuBose, Alton Sterling, Terence Crutcher, Walter Scott, Jamar Clark, Sandra Bland, and countless others. I’d lay down and loop the song through my bedroom speakers because the sonic landscape that Coltrane conjures on the track suggests something about the temporality in which black grief lives, the way that black people are forced to grieve our dead so often that the work of grieving never ends. You don’t even have time to grieve one new absence before the next one arrives. (We hadn’t time to grieve Ahmaud Arbery before we saw the video of Floyd’s murder.) “Alabama” gives this unceasing immersion in grief a form. It’s there in the song’s disconcerting stops and starts, its disarticulated notes, its willingness to abandon virtuosity in favor of a style of playing that is repetitive, diffuse, tentative, and dissonant.