"Dont Play No Blues": Race, Music, and Mourning in Faulkner's Sanctuary

By Nunn, Erich | The Faulkner Journal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

"Dont Play No Blues": Race, Music, and Mourning in Faulkner's Sanctuary


Nunn, Erich, The Faulkner Journal


Befitting a novel that he claimed was "a cheap idea," a commercial venture into popular fiction, William Faulkner's 1931 Sanctuary weaves into its narrative fabric a number of popular musical forms ("Introduction" v).1 Faulkner reportedly claimed to have "worn out three records of [George] Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue'" in order to "set the rhythm and jazzy tone" of the novel (Blotner 754). 2 Faulkner's invocation of Gershwin's piece, first performed in 1924, suggests an analogy between Gershwin's incorporation of vernacular musical forms, particularly jazz, into his compositions and Faulkner's later uses of such materials. Gershwin, in an essay entitled "Composer in the Machine Age," wrote that in "America [the] preferred rhythm is called jazz. . . . When jazz is played in another nation, it is called American. . . . Jazz is the result of the energy stored up in America. It is a very energetic kind of music, noisy, boisterous, and even vulgar" (227). This description of America's "preferred rhythm" anticipates the significance that Faulkner ascribes to Gershwin's music. Gershwin and Faulkner both attest to an aim of transmuting vernacular sources into the refined distillates of the concerto and the novel, respectively. As Jeffrey Melnick has argued, for Gershwin this aesthetic incorporation also involves a complex racial negotiation - in order for jazz to become distinctively "American," it is necessary for the composer to "loosen jazz from its racial moorings" (73). "Rhapsody in Blue," then, serves as a musical melting pot in which the artistic products of African American folk culture are amalgamated with other ingrethents into a distinctively American high art form.

Faulkner's description of the "rhythm and jazzy tone" that his novel borrows from "Rhapsody in Blue" evokes the celebratory deployment of African American vernacular music in Gershwin's composition. In Sanctuary, Faulkner employs a range of more or less explicitly racially coded vernacular forms in an entirely different register - that of elegy and mourning. The novel's uses of popular music structure, and its representations of death and mourning, play a crucial role in these scenes' treatments of race. The discourses of race in the novel and those of violence, death, and mourning inform and enable each other. The instances of musical performance in the novel not only illuminate the racial politics of Faulkner's fictional world, but also shed light on the complex and often contradictory associations of racial identities and musical forms that characterize understandings of vernacular music in the novel's late 1920s cultural milieu. Eric Sundquist has characterized Sanctuary as "an attack on the modern forces that continue to destroy the dream of the old South," but notes that, paradoxically, "it assumes an extraordinary degree of complicity in that destruction" (59). The novel depicts the technologies of radio and the phonograph and the musical forms of blues and jazz as among the "modern forces" that undermine the social order of the old South, and does so with extraordinary complicity.

This essay focuses on three scenes in Sanctuary in which commercial popular records, sung spirituals, and small group jazz, respectively, provide the means through which the novel interrogates the relationships between racial identities and musical forms. The scenes rehearse three alternative understandings of these relations. They reveal the workings of segregation's cultural logic and the stress points at which it breaks down. While the cultural logic of Jim Crow and the violence that attends it establish a musical color line, instances of vernacular music in the novel reflect and catalyze the breakdown of the "dream of the old South" by troubling the binary logic of racial difference upon which it depends. Each of these instances elaborates a scene of death or mourning: the first concerns "ballads" of "bereavement," the second portrays the laments of an African American murderer on the verge of his execution, and the third narrates a funerary scene drawn from popular song.

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