Author and musician James McBride and his band fill Rec Center with soul

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Above: Acclaimed author James McBride appeared before a packed audience at FDU's Florham Campus, to read exceprts of his book, "The Good Lord Bird," and perform with his band, which is named after the book. (Photos by Dan Landau)


By Kenna Caprio

A fusion of jazz, gospel and blues music, injected with iconic prose, filled the Ferguson Recreation Center to its rafters on November 18. The performance, intended for all freshmen students in the College Writing Program, had Fairleigh Dickinson University students, faculty and staff on their feet, keeping time and clapping along with the music. Hundreds of people were in attendance.

On his second visit to FDU’s Florham Campus, author and musician James McBride and the Good Lord Bird Band played music that complemented his National Book Award-winning text of the same name. McBride read excerpts of the book and then the band played a corresponding song.

Jasmine Watkins, a freshman studying biology, introduced McBride and the band — she said that creativity, whether in writing or science goes beyond thinking outside the box, because there is no box, and there is no limit.

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Above: McBride and his band performed in front of a packed house.

“Before I really knew about James McBride, I’d read [his book] ‘Miracle at St. Anna’ and loved the movie,” said Watkins. “The event was absolutely amazing. I felt like a kid in church again. The music they played was phenomenal.” Hearing the music, she says, is “so much more powerful than just the book alone.”

The book, told through the eyes of a young slave child, is the story of “wild man” abolitionist John Brown and his raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.

“Just by being here, you already know how to succeed,” McBride said to the audience. “Now you have to learn how to fail. Forgive yourself for failing, let it go and move on. This is a book about a man who failed and yet people are still talking about him.”

The band played “God’s Gonna Set This World on Fire,” “Standing in the Need of Prayer,” “Since I Lay My Burdens Down,” “The Battle Hymn Republic” and more.

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The Good Lord Bird Band (above) features Show Tyme Brooks on drums and vocals, Keith Robinson on guitar and vocals, Trevor Exter on bass and vocals, Adam Faulk on piano and vocals, and McBride on saxophone and vocals.

“McBride's performance was an unexpectedly moving event. It was clear that the musicians were full of passion, which created an emotional ambiance, touching a great deal of the people who attended,” said freshman Amanda Schroeder, a history and QUEST education major. “I found myself seeing ‘The Good Lord Bird’ from a different perspective as the music and the book intertwined into a story that was somehow more genuine.”

The College Writing Program “adopts” authors for a two-year period. All Florham Campus freshmen participate in the College Writing Program and are required to read selected works by the adopted author. ‘The Good Lord Bird’ by McBride is a featured text this year.

“To engage our students, we organize a number of events in connection with the texts that are being read. Each year, we invite the author to speak,” said Kathryn Douglas, director of the program and senior lecturer of college writing.

The novel “looks at John Brown’s efforts as a radical abolitionist to support African Americans and help lead them to freedom [in the pre-Civil War era]. There are many current themes that students study in connection with the book,” said Douglas. “We pick a text that will get them thinking and writing about current issues as they are reflected in and connected with the text.”

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Above: McBride reads gripping excerpts from his novel, "The Good Lord Bird," before an audience of Florham Campus freshmen.

During the show, McBride urged students to “meet people who are different from you, talk to people who are different from your tribe.” He closed on the same sentiment, referencing recent current events and tragedy in Paris, France and Beirut, Libya, and said: “Thank you for coming. We are a nation of immigrants — and what makes this country great are the people who come here.”

A crush of students went to shake McBride’s hand and talk to the band, following the performance. He also signed books and chatted with fans.

James McBride is a celebrated writer and musician from New York. His most recent novel, "The Good Lord Bird," won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2013. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Essence, Rolling Stone and The New York Times. A saxophone player, he’s toured with jazz musicians, writes music and often does literary readings accompanied by a band. McBride attended The Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and Columbia University in New York City. He studied musical composition and journalism.