Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"A Little Music Aint about the Nicest Thing a Fellow Can Have": Faulkner's as I Lay Dying and Country Songs

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"A Little Music Aint about the Nicest Thing a Fellow Can Have": Faulkner's as I Lay Dying and Country Songs

Article excerpt

Everybody knows that Faulkner's fiction is alive with the sound of African American music. In Soldiers' Pay (1926), characters first dance to a blues orchestra and then listen to the singing of a country church congregation (156-59, 256), while Flags in the Dust (1927) includes scenes in which Elnora sings snatches of gospel numbers as she works for the Sartoris family, a blind street musician performs blues songs in the town square, and young Bayard Sartoris enlists a Negro band to serenade the unmarried women of Jefferson (560, 573-74, 638-39, 659, 664-65). "That Evening Sun" (1931), meanwhile, famously takes its title from W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," a song most memorably recorded by the "Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith. Numerous critics have addressed these and other blues moments in Faulkner's fiction. (1) H. R. Stoneback further suggests that the characters and situations of "Pantaloon in Black" (1940) derive from "Easy Rider," another Handy song, while Jane Isbell Haynes notes provocative parallels between blues ballads about the villainous "Stagolee" and the brief scene in The Hamlet (1940) in which V. K. Ratliff imagines Flem Snopes defeating the Devil (349).

In light of such extensive coverage of blues elements and African American musical traditions in Faulkner's fiction, it is surprising that scholars have said virtually nothing about a body of Southern vernacular song with which the Mississippi author is likely to have been equally familiar: white folk or country tunes--or "hillbilly music," as record companies called it in the 1920s and 1930s. Very few of the critics who have addressed the presence of popular culture in Faulkner's work so much as acknowledge country music, and almost none discuss it in any specificity or detail. Among the exceptions, Hugh Ruppersburg notes that the nomadic Lena Grove's opening statement in Light in August (1932), "I have come from Alabama" (3), echoes the first line of Stephen Foster's "O Susannah!" (6), while the name of Joe Christmas's first love, waitress/prostitute Bobbie Allen, invokes "Barbara Allen," an "Anglo-American folk ballad of love cruelly ended" (xii). Erich Nunn's study of depictions of various musical genres in Sanctuary (1931) includes an invaluable analysis of the scene in which rural people pour into Jefferson's town square and hear "ballads simple in melody and theme, of bereavement and retribution and repentance metallically sung" on radios and phonographs (Sanctuary 112).

These rare critical discussions of country songs in Faulkner's fiction suggest that the author's novels of the early 1930s habitually associate rural and working-class white characters with such music. No scholar, however, has ever examined specific references to country music in As I Lay Dying (1930), a narrative from this period that focuses almost exclusively upon the very people who primarily made and consumed hillbilly songs. Richard Gray suggests that As I Lay Dying has a "balladic quality" (152), but ultimately makes only the general observation that its narrative "strategy is similar to that of a folksong or ballad, in which a particular story being remembered ... is given an additional depth and significance by the sense of the numerous other tales that lie behind it" (153). Similarly, Mark Lucas notes only in passing that the novel broadly resembles "one of the most venerable" forms of folk song, "the disaster ballad" (145).

In fact, more than any other Faulkner novel, As L Lay Dying is rife with apparent allusions and/or uncanny parallels to a host of country songs recorded and released in the late 1920s. No less than the fiction of Sherwood Anderson and James Joyce or the poetry of Homer and T. S. Eliot, (2) the phrases, scenarios, themes, philosophies, and attitudes of Southern folklore in general--and popular songs by such artists as the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon, and Harry McClintock in particular --pervade the tale of the Bundren family. …

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