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Julian Fellowes On The Rules Of 'Downton.'

On the hit PBS Masterpiece series, the social rules the characters have always known are changing as the world events of the 20th century unfold. The series' creator, Julian Fellowes, says his relatives who lived through that era inspired his lasting interest in class.

This interview was originally broadcast on Dec. 11, 2012.




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Other segments from the episode on January 10, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 10, 2014: Interview with Julian Fellowes; Review of the film "The Invisible Woman"; Obituary for Amiri Baraka; Review of Roseanne Cash's album "The River and the…


January 10, 2014

Guests: Julian Fellowes - Amiri Baraka

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. The masterpiece series "Downton Abbey" began its fourth season Sunday, and even if you haven't caught the "Downton Abbey" bug, we think you'll find its creator and writer Julian Fellowes an insightful observer of social class in 20th-century England.

Fellowes grew up the son of a diplomat, with an aristocratic background, and he has a title himself, Lord Fellowes of West Stafford. Fellowes is an actor as well as a writer, and much of his writing has dealt with class distinctions and how they affect human relationships. His screenplay for the 2001Robert Altman film "Gosford Park" won an Oscar.

"Downton Abbey," which has won a host of awards, focuses on an aristocratic English family and their servants in the early 20th century, when sweeping changes were breaking down old social barriers. Season 3 ended with the unexpected death of Lady Mary's husband Matthew Crawley in an auto accident. Season 4 began with the surprise departure of the scheming ladies' maid O'Brien, who left Downton to work with another family.

I spoke with Julian Fellowes last January, before the start of Season 3. Julian Fellowes, Lord Fellowes, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JULIAN FELLOWES: Well, it's very nice to be here.

DAVIES: I wanted to play a clip from Season 1. This is a moment at a table in the kitchen downstairs, where the servants are all having tea. And we hear - one of them is O'Brien, who's played by Siobhan Finneran, disparaging Matthew Crawley, he's a cousin of the master of the house, who's arrived on the scene and may inherit Downton, the whole place.

We'll hear a shuffling of furniture as the servants spring to their feet because Lady Grantham, who's played by Elizabeth McGovern, has suddenly showed up in the kitchen and has overheard Ms. O'Brien, her own ladies maid, talking down Matthew Crawley. She rebukes Ms. O'Brien, and this leads to an interesting exchange after that among the servants. Let's listen. (SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "DOWNTON ABBEY")


SIOBHAN FINNERAN: (As Sarah O'Brien) I'm sorry, but I have standards. And if anyone thinks I'm going to pull my forelock and curtsy to this Mr. Nobody from Nowhere.

ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: (As Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham) O'Brien. Were you discussing Mr. Crawley?

FINNERAN: (As Sarah) Yes, my lady.

MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) Is it your place to do so?

FINNERAN: (As Sarah) I've got my opinions, my lady, same as anybody.

PHYLLIS LOGAN: (As Ms. Hughes) Can I help your ladyship?

MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) This is the button went missing from my new evening coat. I found it lying in the gravel. But I was shocked at the talk I heard as I came in. Mr. Crawley is his lordship's cousin and heir. You will, therefore please, accord him the respect he's entitled to.

FINNERAN: (As Sarah) But you don't like him yourself, my lady. You never wanted him to come...

MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) You're sailing perilous close to the wind, O'Brien. If we're to be friends, you will not speak in that way again about the Crawleys or any member of Lord Grantham's family. Now I'm going up to rest. Wake me at the dressing gong.

ROB JAMES-COLLIER: (As character) I don't think that's fair, not here in the servant's hole.

FINNERAN: (As Sarah) I agree. If she was a real lady, she wouldn't have come down here. She'd have rung for me and given me the button, that's all.

JAMES-COLLIER(As Thomas) This isn't their territory. We can say what we like down here.

LOGAN: (As Ms. Hughes) Who says?

JAMES-COLLIER(As Thomas) The law, and parliament. There is such a thing as free speech.

LOGAN: (As Ms. Hughes) Not when I'm in charge. Don't push your luck, Thomas(ph).

DAVIES: And that's from the series "Downton Abbey," created and written by our guest Julian Fellowes. It's such a lovely scene, and what we hear here is the class lines are clear, the roles and clear, and yet they're changing. The series begins, what, in 1912. This was a particular moment in class relations in Britain, isn't it?

FELLOWES: Well, I think it was attractive to us because it was a period of tremendous change in quite a short time. You know, between 1912, when they - we begin the first show and 1922, where we are at the end of Season 3, is only 10 years, and yet the changes in Britain were enormous between the sort of end of high imperial confidence and so on and then through the war years and finally into the uncertainty of the '20s when all sorts of things were being challenged.

And, you know, these great revolutions of women's rights or workers' rights or whatever it is, they don't come out of nowhere. They are there early, and they're just below the surface, and then something like a war happens, and it makes everything come through. But, you know, you don't invent from nothing. It hasn't quite come yet, but it's sort of fizzing away somewhere.

And that's what a scene like that will tell you, that they're nearly at the end of always being second banana, and, you know, they can express that.

DAVIES: Right, and then some among them say not so fast, remember your place.

FELLOWES: Well, I mean, one of the interesting things about this kind of drama is that, you know, the family upstairs are, on the whole, all equal. They're certainly equal in terms of class and position, but, you know, they might accord respect to the father or something like that. But they're not at all different socially.

That's not true of the people below the stairs who are working there. There is a vast social range between Carson the butler and Daisy the kitchen maid, and all of these ranks were sort of observed, you know, and you had these - I mean we can't do them all because heaven knows we have enough characters in locations as it is.

But in a real house, you would have a special sitting room for the visiting valets and a special sitting room for visiting ladies' maids and so on. On and on it went, the detail of this extraordinarily complicate structure. But, you know, that said, it was on the brink of starting to come down.

DAVIES: One of the things that I love about the series is that as a viewer, I gradually become aware of the distinctions among the servants, and others, by the forms of address. You know, the aristocrats are referred to lord and lady or your lordship or your ladyship. The servants, even those of highest rank, are referred to by their last names only by the aristocrats, even when speaking affectionately.

I mean, when - there's a moment when Lady Grantham is talking to Mrs. O'Brien, and she's - they're having a nice, intimate conversation, but she still calls her O'Brien. And then among the servants, some are called Mr. and Mrs., those of lower rank like the kitchen maid Daisy only by their first names. There were a clear set of rules and forms of address here, huh?

FELLOWES: Well, I mean, we live in an era where there are sort of no rules for anything anymore. But of course the good thing about rules is you always know what you're doing. You always know what you should wear. You always know where you're supposed to be, when you're supposed to get there, what you're supposed to do when you do get there.

You know, we've lost that kind of security. I think that that is one reason why, you know, the show appeals because it seems to show a more ordered and kind of ordained world. In fact, of course, that is largely a myth. It was a world where all sorts of, as I've said, things were bubbling just beneath the surface.

But nevertheless in terms of your daily life, what you wore when you got up, what you called people, what you did next, I think it was sort of easier to follow the plot than in our own time.

DAVIES: You know, a lot of your writing, both for television and film and your novel, involve distinctions of social class. Now you grew up the son of a diplomat with an aristocratic heritage, I believe. Did you have servants growing up?

FELLOWES: No, I mean, I think my background was much more ordinary than the newspapers have made it. I mean, you know, we had people who came in and did some cleaning, but I mean, who - plenty of other people have that. I think in a way why I became quite aware of class as a kind of life-defining issue was because my parents came from different backgrounds.

My father's was grander than my mother's. And so my mother had to sort of put up with the disapproval of my father's relations, and I suppose from that grew a kind of interest in, in a way, the unfairness of class, the fact that it is so arbitrary in its selection and, you know, so nothing to do with merit, and yet it shapes a life and creates entitlement and all sorts of other factors that, you know, have a long-term effect on us.

DAVIES: One of the things that makes "Downton" great and "Gosford Park," which is a movie I really love, is the intimate look at the servants, the life downstairs. Where did you become so acquainted with their lives and customs and rules?


FELLOWES: You know, I was lucky in one way. I mean, I was - I'm now kind of 150 years old. And so when I was young, I still had great-aunts and that kind of thing who had lived, to a degree, that life before the First World War. I mean, my eldest great-aunt, who is really the model for Violet Grantham, was born in 1880, you know, and she was presented in 1898 and married before the first war and all of that.

And I knew her perfectly well. She only died when I was 21. So I was able to hear a lot of this stuff firsthand. Where I was tremendously lucky is I was interested when I was young. One of the problems, you know, when you don't get interested in things until you're much older is a lot of people are dead.

And because I was interested as a teenager, there were still many members of the family who could talk about what life had been before the first and second wars, you know, and I was very glad to hear it.

DAVIES: Julian Fellowes is the creator and writer of "Downton Abbey." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to my interview with "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes. We spoke last January.

The Maggie Smith character in "Downton Abbey" is just such a delight. Tell us who she is, how she fits into the family.

FELLOWES: Well, she really, as I've said, she's really based on my eldest great-aunt, who was quite a tough character, but she was no tougher on anyone else than she was on herself. In fact in real life she had quite a tragic life. Her husband died of wounds at the end of the First World War, and her only child drowned on active service in the second. So she had a lot to bear, poor thing.

But she was tough and funny, and some of the phrases that - you know, what's a weekend and stuff like that, come from her. I remember in "Gosford Park" one question Maggie asked me, she said: I don't understand about the marmalade. And I said, well, that was this particular aunt - because Lady Trentham in Gosford was also sort of based on her - and I said this particular aunt always thought that if a house ran out of its own jams and jellies then it was not being well-run, and it was sign of its weakness.

Oh, she said, I've got it, I've got it. And she does that line so wonderfully. I mean, she looks into the jam pot and says ooh, bought marmalade, I call that very feeble. And what I love about Maggie is that she has this extraordinary skill to bring many different aspects of a character into her delineation, but then never seem contradictory. She never turns into a different person.

A lesser actor would, you know, find it difficult to be kind and cruel simultaneously or both superficial here but quite deep here. But she manages to synthesize all these elements into a believable woman.

DAVIES: Well, we should hear one of these moments, and this is from the first season, where she and Lady Grantham, played again by Elizabeth McGovern, are sitting and discussing the difficult matter of finding a suitable husband for Lady Mary, the oldest of the Crawley daughters. (SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

MAGGIE SMITH: (As Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham) How about some house parties?

MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) She's been asked to one next month by Lady Anne McNair.

SMITH(As Lady Grantham) That's a terrible idea. She doesn't know anyone under 100.

MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) I might send her over to visit my aunt. She could get to know New York.

SMITH(As Lady Grantham) Oh, I don't think things are quite that desperate. Poor Mary, she's been terribly down in the mouth lately.

MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) She was very upset by the death of poor Mr. Pamuk.

SMITH(As Lady Grantham) Why? She didn't know him. One can't go to pieces at the death of every foreigner. We'd all be in a state of collapse whenever we opened a newspaper.

DAVIES: Can't get enough of Maggie Smith. That's her and Elizabeth McGovern in "Downton Abbey," created and written by our guest Julian Fellowes. Dinners are really something at the Crawleys. Lord Grantham dresses basically like an orchestra conductor. Was this done every night? I mean, didn't they ever just want to just dress down and eat leftover turkey sandwiches?

FELLOWES: It was pretty well done every night. I mean I - there's a wonderful quote when Duff-Cooper asked his brother-in-law, the Duke of Rutland, he said - when black tie was just beginning to come in, in the '20s, but still white tie was normal in the sort of great houses, and he said to the duke: Don't you ever wear black tie? And the duke thought for a moment and said: When I'm dining alone with the duchess in her bedroom.


FELLOWES: And, you know, that was his idea of letting it all hang out. But no, I mean, they were a formal people, those with the correct clothes for eating dinner. One of the difficulties when we wear those costumes is that most of us are dressing on our own. So we're in a wrestling match with studs and pins of this and that and links and so on, whereas there you were always being helped with it, as you would be in a film or on television.

And that makes it different. I mean, in the '50s, Dior very much revived the sort of corseted, almost crinoline dress and so on, but it didn't last very long because it wasn't suited for getting into on your own.

DAVIES: In Season 3, an American arrives on the scene, a real American here. I mean Cora, Lady Grantham, is an American but who has spent a long time in England as the wife of Lord Grantham. But her mother, who is played by Shirley MacLaine, arrives. Tell us a little bit about her and the role that she plays.

FELLOWES: Well, what I really wanted the audience to be reminded of, really, by Martha Levinson, played by Shirley MacLaine, is that Cora is not some ancient American aristocrat. She's not a Winthrop, you know, or a Stuyvesant or one of those founding-father families. She is the product of new money, quite a lot of it, but she's - that's who she is.

But there were others, like Mary Leiter, who married Lord Curzon, who came from men who had made their own fortunes, and that is what Cora's come from. And the reason I want the audience to be sort of aware of that is Cora's story is really that she married into the system and swallowed it wholesale and got it all down, but now that the world is changing, and things are being challenged, in a funny way her original values are much more suited to the modern world than Robert's.

You know, she has the American work ethic. She is not obsessed by rank. She is kind of much more free about accepting the changes that are coming, as you will be seeing in the third series. The future doesn't frighten her. And so we have that kind of exemplified by Martha because we've got the two grandmothers now, Violet played by Maggie Smith and Martha played by Shirley MacLaine, but they're totally different.

Violet is nostalgic for the past. She thinks everything was better in 1870. Her clothes reflect this, her manners and so on, whereas Martha believes in the modern world. She likes the way it's going. She wants to wear modern clothes and modern makeup and fly on a plane and just get on with the future.

DAVIES: You know, I thought we would hear just a moment of their interaction. This is Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine, the two grandmothers, in a moment from season three. (SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

SHIRLEY MACLAINE: (As Martha) Oh dear. I'm afraid the war has made old women of us both.

SMITH(As Lady Grantham) Oh I wouldn't say that, but then I always keep out of the sun. How do you find Downton on your return?

MACLAINE: (As Martha) Much the same, really, probably too much the same, but then I don't want to cast a pall over all (unintelligible).

SMITH(As Lady Grantham) How could you ever do that?

MACLAINE: (As Martha) Tell me, what do you think of young Lochenbar(ph), who has so ably carried off our granddaughter and our money? Do you approve of him?

SMITH(As Lady Grantham) Not as much as you will when you get to know him.

MACLAINE: (As Martha) Has he gone home to change?

SMITH(As Lady Grantham) Oh no, we won't see him again tonight. The groom never sees the bride the night before the wedding.

MACLAINE: (As Martha) Nothing ever alters for you people, does it? Revolutions erupt, and monarchies crash to the ground, and the groom still cannot see the bride before the wedding.

SMITH(As Lady Grantham) You Americans never understand the importance of tradition.

MACLAINE: (As Martha) Yes we do. We just don't give it power over us. History and tradition took Europe into a world war. Maybe you should think about letting go of its hand.

DAVIES: That's from Season 3 of "Downton Abbey," written and created by our guest Julian Fellowes. Of course one of the changes that comes to the Crawley family, the shocking development of one of the daughters, Lady Sybil, marrying the family chauffer, Tom Branson.


DAVIES: I don't know how likely this would have been to happen in 1912 or '14 or '15, but one of the things I love about the way it's portrayed here is that of course the aristocracy is shocked, and they have to come to terms with it. Some react differently. But then the chauffeur goes back to the house where he was a part of the service and has to interact with the other servants, who are so used to clear social distinctions, and he has changed.

FELLOWES: I mean, I always like to base these things on a real story, and when people say oh that would never have happened, of course it did happen, just as love affairs between servants and members of the family happened. They were very disapproved of, but they still happened.

And this particular story is based on the daughter of an earl who ran off with the groom actually, it wasn't the chauffeur, it was the groom, but I don't think there's a great distinction in that. And they had to put up with it. I think it was very difficult, and of course they rather encouraged the couple to live in Dublin because it's sort of easier if they're out of sight.

But, you know, families then like families now, when your children marry someone you would not have chosen for them, there is a moment where you have to decide am I going to quarrel with my son or my daughter and literally no longer have them in my life, or am I going to find a way to get on with this person. And I think most of us hope for the second, and that's really what the Granthams have to do.

DAVIES: You know, "Downton Abbey" begins in 1912, when there are all these social trends that are causing the old order to begin to unravel. Did your observation of kind of the disappearance of that way of life make you want to really explore the end of that period and the dissolution of the aristocracy?

FELLOWES: I just remember one time when I was quite young. I was - I forget now - 17 or something like that, and I was staying in a house and I got lost and I went through the wrong door and I was standing at the top of the staircase that led down into the kitchens and everything. And there was a tremendous row going on between - it sounded like four or five, six people shouting and yelling and this and that and the other.

And I suddenly had such a powerful sense of the lives that were being lived by the people who worked there - not, you know, only the family who lived there, but the people who worked there and that at some point I would explore that fairly simple emotional recognition that everyone's life is of 100 percent importance to them, and no matter who they are. And you know, I've been sort of, in a sense, exploring it ever since.

DAVIES: Julian Fellowes is the creator and writer of the masterpiece series "Downton Abbey." Its fourth season begins Sunday. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. The new film, "The Invisible Woman," charts the hidden relationship between Charles Dickens and a young actress for whom left his wife, but who for years never showed up in biographies of Dickens. It's the second film directed by Ralph Fiennes, who also plays Dickens and features Felicity Jones as the actress, Nelly Ternan.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: The question at the heart of "The Invisible Woman" is whether a person who is kept a secret can be said to exist. That sounds highfalutin, but it's dramatized well - at times, beautifully - by screenwriter Abi Morgan, director Ralph Fiennes, and above all, Felicity Jones, as the title character - the secret.

Jones plays Ellen, also known as Nelly Ternan, the young mistress of Charles Dickens in the final decade of his life. At least, she seems to have been his mistress - it's about a 99 percent certainty. There's little material evidence, though. The book, by Claire Tomalin, on which the film is based, uncovered some of it. But Ternan's role in Dickens's life took more than a century to come out. The movie evokes what it's like for a woman to be no ill-used, but used with no empathy. The relationship on screen is heartfelt, but the literary giant never thinks of the long-term consequences for anyone, but himself.

Dickens is not an outright villain. He's played by Fiennes in an unusually nuanced portrait, and extraordinary man behaving like an ordinary opportunist. The English-speaking world's most celebrated author finds as Dickens is extroverted, demonstrative, he dithers theatrically. More and more he throws himself into readings of his work. He loves being a public figure. In private though, he's lost interest in his wife, played by Joanna Scanlon, who has grown stout after bearing 10 children.

He meets Nelly at a benefit performance of one of his plays. She's an actress with a protective showbiz mother, played with radiant intelligence by Kristin Scott Thomas. He does not behave like a letch; he's a lyrical suitor, and is amazed when she challenges him and makes him think fresh thoughts.


RALPH FIENNES: (As Charles Dickens) This is my favorite time, when the days creeping up on us and we must to put in order the chaos of the night, stand guard once more, ready for light. A wonderful fact to reflect upon that every human creature has a profound secret and mystery to every other.

FELICITY JONES: (As Nelly Ternan) Until that secret is given to another to look after, and then perhaps two human creatures may know each other. Do you not think?

EDELSTEIN: Out of context, be heightened language of "The Invisible Woman" can sound false, but Fiennes has so much brio that he sells it, and what goes on in the face of Felicity Jones is exquisite. She has a perfect 19th-century look. But even as she casts her eyes down in enforced modesty, there's something forward and modern about her features. The performance is startlingly vivid.

Nelly is not an easy conquest. The film is more than half over before the relationship is consummated. Then Dickens does something shocking. His wife unwittingly opens a present meant for Nelly and Dickens sends her to deliver it to the true recipient. The fallout is explosive.


FIENNES: (As Charles Dickens) Nelly. Nelly. It was a mistake.

JONES: (As Nelly Ternan) Did you send Catherine to me?

FIENNES: (As Charles Dickens) Yes.

JONES: (As Nelly Ternan) She is the mother of your children. How could you be so cruel to her?

FIENNES: (As Charles Dickens) And for that I shall always be grateful. But I do not love her. She comprehends nothing. She sees nothing. I thought if she saw you then she would understand that I have nothing with her. I wanted her to see it.

JONES: (As Nelly Ternan) It. What is it, Charles? What is it that we have? When your wife asked me if I, if I was fond of you, I could not honestly reply. I wanted to say no.

EDELSTEIN: "The Invisible Woman" hit's that invisibility theme hard - and it's sometimes literary in the most strident way. The central story is a flashback and there are many long shots of the older Nelly walking along the beach and remembering, remembering. The soundtrack string quartet is lovely, but overbearing. Yet, Fiennes' achieves what he sets out to do - make every frame quiver with feeling.

The story resonates beyond Dickens. In our time, Joyce Maynard made a pile of money auctioning off her private correspondence with JD Salinger, who seduced her when she was 18 and rudely broke up with her. In the 19th century, Nelly Ternan didn't have that option. After Dickens's death she couldn't come out from his shadow, yet she could remain there and feel well, visible. We don't really know if she made peace with her past. But all these years later, her story belongs in the light.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Coming up, we remember poet and playwright, Amiri Baraka, who died yesterday. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVE DAVIES, HOST: The influential and controversial poet, playwright and essayist Amiri Baraka died yesterday in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey. He was 79. Baraka, who was formerly known as LeRoi Jones, was one of the leading black literary voices that emerged in the '60s. The political and social views that inspired his writing changed over the years. He started out as a young bohemian in Greenwich Village. He became more radical after the death of Malcolm X. And in his later years, he saw himself as a Marxist.

Baraka was a prominent cultural figure in the black nationalist movement of the '60s and '70s. His play the "Dutchman," which won the Obie Award in 1964, gripped audiences with its explicit language and rage against the oppression of blacks in America. His writing about jazz and African-American culture, most notably, "Blues People: Negro Music In White America," was highly regarded.

But his detractors accused him at various times of being racist, dangerously militant, homophobic and anti-Semitic. His infamous 2002 poem about the September 11th attacks contained lines that suggested Israeli involvement in the attack on the World Trade Center. But, as "The New York Times"' Margalit Fox, wrote in Baraka's obituary: His champions and detractors agreed that at his finest he was a powerful voice on the printed page, a riveting orator in person and an enduring presence on the international literary scene whom - whether one loved him or hated him - was seldom possible to ignore.

Terry Gross spoke to Amiri Baraka in 1986 about his formative years in the early part of his career, starting with his days as a young writer living in Greenwich Village and getting to know Beat writers, like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

AMIRI BARAKA: I got to meet Ginsberg when I first came down to the village because "Hell" had come out, you know, and I read it and I think between "Hell" and James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son," which I had read the year before I got out of the service, I thought those were the two books and the two authors that most turn me on at that time - Jimmy Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg. And so I wrote Ginsburg a letter - he was living in Paris. I wrote it on a piece of toilet paper; I guess to be dramatic and asked him, you know, was he for real. You know, what is this, is this for real? Or what is this, is this a game? And he brought me back a letter. We started correspondence, you know.

But I think in the main, it was, there were who were sincere who were really trying to do something. I know we had come from different places and because of that we have different ideas, different aesthetics, even. But I think in that circle, those people generally were fighting against the academic life, academic poetry of the '50s. Whether you were talking about Ginsberg and the Beats, or you're talking about Creeley and Olson and the Black Mountain School, or you're talking about Frank O'Hara and the New York School as all these so-called schools, they were all I think, aligned in the kind of united front against the dullness of the new critics and the dullness of the kind of poetry they're now trying to bring back.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Your play, the "Dutchman," was produced off-Broadway in 1964, I think it was.

BARAKA: Sixty-four, yeah.

GROSS: And it won an Obie Award.


GROSS: It's very controversial.

BARAKA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: People were acting very shocked at the sentiments being expressed...


GROSS: ...also some of the language being used. And it's about a white woman who provokes and finally kills a black man.

BARAKA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And at the time, you were married to a white woman.

BARAKA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And how do you think that that affected the fact that this was a white woman and a black man and that you were married to a white woman? How low did that affect the way the way you were seen and the way your play was received?

BARAKA: Well, I think actually, I can tell you, I can give you a for instance that will clarify. Now, when I wrote that play "Dutchman," which is really, you know, coming to consciousness, you know, what are the dangers to the middle-class, but particularly, the black middle class intellectual? That is that the contradiction between seduction - which is did, you know, the woman - I mean because America advertises everything with the white woman. It could be peas or, you know, automobiles, but that is America, the seductive. So the intellectual is always first, the intended seduction - come with me, you know, we're going to have a good time, you know we're going to be together. But then if you refuse to do that, you are killed. That is, if you try to get off the train, if you say no, I'm not going to do it.

Now, black people to me, it's obvious, you know. But I think intellectuals in general it's also obvious. But I think the thing with me being married to a white woman at the time was that that made it OK, I think, in the kind of that sector of the establishment that deals with down. I think it made it OK. I think the next year, after I had gotten a divorce and moved up to Harlem and we did the play up in Harlem, the play was termed racist, where in 1964, it won Obie Award, best American play. I don't know how a play can change just because you take the A Train to present it, but it did.

GROSS: When you left the bohemian life and living in Greenwich Village, you moved up to Harlem.

BARAKA: Harlem. Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: That was shortly after the assassination of Malcolm X.

BARAKA: Absolutely. Yeah.

GROSS: What did that move to you symbolize from going from the village up to Harlem?

BARAKA: Well, first of all as young, you know, as intellectuals, we took that very seriously. I mean the question of them, of murdering Malcolm was not just a public figure being killed; it was like somebody that who we were sworn to be involved with and who had actually shaped our thinking. You know, I met Malcolm the month before he was killed. I mean that was the second time I had seen him. But I mean I talked to Malcolm one night with a brother named Mohammed Babu from Tanzania all night. And, you know, that added to what Malcolm had, the things he'd been saying throughout his brief, you know, kind of appearance as a leader in America. I mean it deeply changed my mind about America. It made me see America in a way that I had never. It made me see myself in the way I had never. And then for them to kill him, for a lot of us it represented a declaration of war. And I think, you know, the very idea that, you know, here you are down in Greenwich Village fooling around, you know, I think I was at a book party that afternoon, you know, I mean, you know, just jiving around. Although, I guess I was as more active than most, but still, I mean the thing is what does this mean? I mean what is this is a commitment to, you know, the people themselves?

And you see, I think one thing about the "Dutchman" thing itself that people never really understand is when that came out and I discovered that they were want to make me famous, it changed my whole personality - or it began to emphasize another aspect of the personality because until then I thought it was all right for me just hang out and do anything that I want. Because after all, you know, it was, I didn't feel any sense of responsibility - I guess that's what it was. But I mean the sense of responsibility, that is if somebody's going to stand you up in front of a microphone or a TV - you see what I mean - then they say what are you going to say? Then I have to remember what my grandmother told me about, you know, how they killed this little boy, you know, at 16 and cut off his genitals and stuffed it in his mouth and made all the little girls - black girls in town - come to watch that. And, you know, why she told me that when I was 10 years old because she wanted me to know where I was, then I have to remember that. I can't waste that. You know, I had to remember what happened to my grandfather, you know, how my mother and father struggled. I can't waste that, you know what I mean? I can't be a person who is now going to pretend that those things didn't really shape me in some kind of profound way, you see? So I have to say - I have to talk about those things. And to talk about those things in America is to be radical - just to talk about them.

GROSS: After living in Harlem for a while, you moved to Newark, which is where you grew up.

BARAKA: Yeah. Sure.

GROSS: Did that feel like going home again?

BARAKA: Yeah. I mean I was born in Newark. I left, you know, like I said to go away to college. But I came back to Newark because I knew that that was where I began and New York for me had, you know, had got old, suddenly. There was nothing really I could do there. I mean I could not see myself doing anything more in New York except, you know, laying back and cooling out. And so I went back really to Newark because I thought it any place I could get some kind of, you know, readdress with myself - if you would, you know?

GROSS: Can you explain the reasons for your name change from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka?

BARAKA: Well, I tell you, it had to do with why should I be an American? Why should I be identified - well, even a Frenchman. But why should I be identified with that when I should do something to identify with my own real roots? And so the man who buried Malcolm X - this, you know, my Muslim imam, priest. He - after I had gotten beat up by the police during the rebellion, he came to me and he said you need - you don't need this American name. And I was susceptible to it at the time because god knows, I mean I'd just gotten whipped near to death. And so he gave me an Arab name. He gave me the name Amear Barakat. But I didn't want an Arab name.

And because we began to go into Kawaida, the kind of cultural value system organization that Ron Karenga was pushing on the West Coast, then I took that name and Swahili-ized it, or Bantu-ized it and changed it from Amear to Amiri and from Barakat to Baraka to make it a Swahili name, the same kind of name you'd find in Tanzania, Uganda or Kenya.

But now, of course, I'm not longer in the culture nationalist movement but I'd be the only one in my family with an American name. All my kids, my five kids, you know, Obalaji, Ras, Shani, Amiri, and Ahi, I mean I'd be a sap to be walking around still a LeRoi.

GROSS: Your life has changed many different times over the years. The circle you've traveled in has changed. Your location has changed. Your ideology has changed.


GROSS: But one thing that's really remained a constant, I think, throughout your life is the power of music and the importance of it to you, ever since you were young. Can you just explain, you know, the importance of music in your life?

BARAKA: Well, you grow up - you know, in the black community you grow up surrounded by music. I mean because African-American people, because they are repressed on so many areas - music has been one area, and athletics, as we see, that they've been allowed to develop to a certain extent. And so you grow up with that kind of context of all kinds of music.

My parents loved Nat King Cole. We had all his albums. Before he started singing. I'm not talking about Nat King Cole the singer; I'm talking about when he had the Nat King Cole Trio. They were great, you know, Count Basie fans. And then the blues, which is constant. I mean Diana Washington, Ruth Brown.

And then my grandfather and grandmother, they liked the older blues even, you know, and you've got to - and then, of course, being a teenager, the blues was our language. I mean, the rhythm and blues, all those bird quartets - the Ravens, the Orioles, you know, and all those, the Dominos.

So you grow up in a world of black music but at the same time, I mean you're in America, you see? So you're going to get all of that. See what I'm saying?

GROSS: Did you ever take music lessons or learn an instrument?

BARAKA: Oh, constantly. Constantly. I was always taking music lessons. I did piano lessons I didn't like. I took - what else? Drumming lessons, which I didn't like, and I took trumpet lessons which I liked, but then at the time when I could've blossomed, I guess, into a trumpet player, I stopped playing the trumpet for some reason.

When I went away to college I stopped playing the trumpet for some reason. I don't know why. But I liked the trumpet at the time because my heroes then were trumpet players. You know, I had just begun to - you know, Dizzy Gillespie, of course, was my first hero and then Miles Davis. And they were trumpet players, you know, so I identified with them very heavily.

GROSS: Did your teachers, the people who you were studying with, know about jazz and rhythm and blues or were they teaching you music you didn't much like?

BARAKA: Well, they would teach - you know, I had this Italian trumpet - he was a great trumpet teacher but he wanted you to play like you were playing, you know, Verdi or something like that, you know? And I'd - he gave me this Rudy Muck mouthpiece. I'd be making this C above high C, you know, bat-bat-bat-bat-bat-bat-bat. And I didn't really want to play like that.

So he had fixed me up so I had to play like that. So in order to play like Miles I had to slide the horn around to the side of my mouth, which probably ruined my armature forever.

GROSS: Did you ever wish you were a musician?

BARAKA: All the time. All the time. I always wanted to be a musician. I mean, growing up I really was drawn to the music. I think the only thing that stopped me from becoming a musician was the fact that - the fact that I didn't do it. And I didn't do it because I knew there was something else I wanted to do, which was write, apparently.

GROSS: We've talked a little bit about how you've gone through different stages in your life and you've even gone through different names in your life. How do you feel about the work that you've written in earlier periods? The work I'm thinking that was written under your first name of LeRoi Jones. Do you feel alienated from that work or do you still feel connected to it?

BARAKA: No. You see, I don't get uptight about it because I'm not him anymore. You know what I mean? I look at it very - try to look at it objectively. Obviously, some stuff I wish I hadn't done, some stuff I'm embarrassed by because I am LeRoi Jones. But I think the - I tend to approach it as an artifact. I did that then. I try to understand what I was doing, why I thought what I thought, why I wrote what I wrote.

And you know, keep stepping.

DAVIES: Amiri Baraka speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1986. Baraka died yesterday at the age of 79. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album from Rosanne Cash. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Rosanne Cash's new album "The River & the Thread" is her first record of original material since her 2006 recording "Black Cadillac." It's based on a series of trips she took in recent years throughout the South. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.


ROSANNE CASH: (singing) I'm going down to Florence, going to wear a pretty dress. I'll sit atop the magic wall with the voices in my head. Then drive on through to Memphis, past the strongest shows. Then on to Arkansas just to touch the gumbo soul. A feather's not a bird. The rain is not the sea. The stone is not a mountain but a river runs through me.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: For the past two decades, Rosanne Cash has lived with her family in Manhattan, but in 2008, she was asked if she wanted to help with a project to restore the childhood home of her father, Johnny Cash, in the small town of Dyess, Arkansas. She agreed and went down there to do some fundraising.

And in the process, she and her husband, producer-songwriter-guitarist John Leventhal, took some car trips throughout the South, soaking up history and music. The creative result is "The River & The Thread," an album that works as a travelogue, a series of vivid history lessons, a memory piece.


CASH: (singing) Well, you're not from around here, probably not our kind. It's hot from March to Christmas and other things you'll find won't fit your old ideas. You'll learn on shifting sands. Walk across a ghostly bridge to a crumbling promised land. If Jesus came from Mississippi, if tears began run, I guess I'll start at the beginning. It's a world of strange design.

TUCKER: Throughout this album, Cash and Leventhal - she wrote most of the lyrics, while he wrote most of the music - have found canny mixtures of country, folk, rock, pop and even jazz to create atmospheric songs about things they saw and remarks they overheard.

One of the album's most striking compositions is "Money Road." It's a road in Mississippi where, within the space of a few miles can be located three important cultural occurrences: the site of what is now considered the grave of blues innovator Robert Johnson; the grocery store in which the black youth Emmett Till flirted with a white woman and was hung for that transgression in 1955; and the Tallahatchie Bridge, the site of "Ode to Billie Joe," Bobbie Gentry's 1967 hit about two lovers who drop something forever mysterious off that bridge.

The result is an eerie, evocative piece of music that braids all these strands together.


CASH: (singing) I was dreaming about the Tallahatchie Bridge. A thousand miles from where we lived. But the long line at the pearly gate, the keepers of our fate, none of them will congregate out on Money Road.

TUCKER: All is not spooky ominousness, to be sure. The album is filled with lovely melodies and vocal performances that match anything Cash recorded at the height of her 1980s fame on hits like "Seven Year Ache." Take, for example, the beautiful song "50,000 Watts," a kind of gospel song with a shuffle beat.


CASH: (singing) It's a hard road but it fits your shoes. Son of rhythm and brother of the blues. The sound of darkness, the pull of the oak. Everything is broken and painted in smoke. But there's a light on Sunday, a new old desire, the sound of the whistle across the radio wires. Love and your future await for you there. Fifty thousand watts of common prayer. Fifty thousand watts of common prayer. Fifty thousand watts of common prayer.

TUCKER: One of the recurring themes of "The River & The Thread" is the notion that music can be a repository for history, as well as a way to heal old wounds, old heartache. On "When the Master Calls the Roll," two lovers - based loosely on two of Cash's relatives from the Civil War era - are reunited in death, in everlasting bliss.

On other songs that kind of healing works on narrators who grapple with contemporary struggles. Taken together, the result is a concept album - a timeless work of comfort and quiet joy.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker reviewed Rosanne Cash's new album "The River & The Thread."

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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