"It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels": Musical Salvation in Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina

By George, Courtney | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

"It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels": Musical Salvation in Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina


George, Courtney, The Southern Literary Journal


The one thing that did keep me safe, that gave me a feeling of comfort growing up, was music. Music took me somewhere safe--a place where I was happy and free and comfortable being myself. I knew from a very young age that music was something I wanted to be a part of. It was something that made me feel good and helped me escape to a place where life was how I always dreamed it should be. Where life was like the movies. Fairy-tale endings and unconditional love.

--Melissa Etheridge

I believe in a higher power. I believe we all need to be connected spiritually ... Music is a very supernatural thing.

--Mark Collie

Melissa Etheridge and country singer Mark Collie endow music with an almost mystical power. For Etheridge music becomes a safe place where she finds love and happiness, and for Collie music represents a spiritual space where human beings come together. For these singers (as for many musicians, music scholars, and avid listeners), music holds a saving power, even if it is only imaginary, like Etheridge's "fairy-tale endings." In her novel Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison interrogates the notion of musical salvation offered to Ruth Anne "Bone" Boatwright in the gospel and country music communities of the American South in the 1950s and 1960s. A mature narrator recalling the childhood trauma of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse inflicted by her stepfather Glen, Bone tells a story enveloped in music that grants her a safe, spiritual space not unlike Etheridge and Collie's descriptions of musical power. Allison's fervent depictions of gospel revival tents and country radio stars invite readers to recover a musical portion of southern history where music acts not only as a space to reflect on the trauma of childhood abuse but also as a site to criticize and revise the exclusivity of an imagined southern community dependent on the hierarchies of race, class, and gender. Through these musical tropes, Allison unfolds Bone's developing realization that (as Kitty Wells's song suggests) it isn't God who constructs roles for men and women, but instead patriarchal southern social structures. (1)

Since the novel's publication in 1992, scholars have effectively discussed Bone's "white trash" status and its history in the South, the shame it brings to Bone in particular, and the different ways Bone challenges her assigned place in the community through her masturbatory fantasies, story-telling, and visual re-makings. (2) Few of these critics consider the musical elements in the novel, though James R. Giles intimates that these are aspects worthy of exploration in his mention of southern Christian fundamentalism as an inoperative escape from trauma: "one of the most fascinating aspects of Bastard Out of Catalina is its exploration of the gospel music subculture and especially of the close connections between gospel and 'popular' music in the South" (91). Giles' quick parenthetical reference to Allison's use of music echoes Deborah Horvitz, who recognizes how Bone "infuses her passion for music with her extreme self-loathing when she awakens to the pleasure of art in the form of live gospel music" and how this "artistic passion represents transcendence" from physical trauma (5). Also incorporating music, Ann Cvetkovich explores the intersections of Bone's sadomasochistic masturbatory fantasies, incest, sexual trauma, and queerness, beginning with an analysis of the lesbian band Tribe 8 and their openness in performing sexually "deviant" tendencies on stage. While Giles and Horvitz connect story-telling and music in the novel, Cvetkovich (on a more general level) recognizes the ways music and story-telling create a "safe space" for queer women to express themselves.

While these scholars note such connections in passing, I turn further attention to Allison's use of music as more than a site of escape from physical trauma. While Allison employs gospel and country as a "safe space" for an expression of personal trauma, she also asks readers to recover the history of southern music (of which Giles hints in his chapter) to subvert the patriarchal narrative of the South. …

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