Digitopia Blues: Race, Technology, and the American Voice


157 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-920159-89-3
DDC 780'.89'96073






Reviewed by Desmond Maley

Desmond Maley is the music librarian at the J.W. Tate Library,
Huntington College, Laurentian University, and editor of the CAML


This remarkable and unusual book brings a performance-poet’s
perspective to popular music, literature, and technology. Sobol, a
Canadian performance-poet and saxophonist who leads the John Sobol
Poetry Band, deeply admires the unique features of the Afro-American
tradition. In snapshot style, he traverses the history of black popular
music—blues, jazz, rhythm-and-blues, and hip hop—to show that it has
mirrored an evolving black consciousness.

He points to the “slang” aspect of jazz, which in its swing and
bebop dimensions has influenced the dominant white, print-oriented
culture, including writers like William Carlos Williams, Jack Kerouac,
and Allen Ginsberg. But the most cataclysmic intersection occurred with
rock ’n’ roll, the white synthesis of R&B that set the youthful body
of America in motion. At the same time, Bob Dylan showed it was possible
to address wider themes. The civil rights movement was echoed in the
albums of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, while black nationalists like
Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, and Gil Scott-Heron sought in their
different ways to capture the oral tradition in print and on stage. The
concluding discussion dissects the rapster and rave cultures. Sobol also
speculates about the future of the Internet.

Throughout, he draws attention to the shadow side of America’s race
relations, including the “prison-industrial complex” that currently
incarcerates a substantial part of the male Afro-American population.
Corporatism and technological change are also recurrent themes, such as
the debate on copyright and the fall of Napster.

The fluid narrative is often illuminating and spiced with excerpts and
commentary on poetry, prose, lyrics, and albums. But an intimate
knowledge of popular culture is required to fully appreciate this
eloquent, personal meditation.


Sobol, John., “Digitopia Blues: Race, Technology, and the American Voice,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 20, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/9314.