"Dont play no blues": race, music, and mourning in Faulkner's Sanctuary.
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. Sanctuary first evokes the loss of an agrarian social order, moves on to the songs of African Americans as a response to the pervasive threat of racial violence against them, and then arrives at a funeral scene whose treatment of death through the blues evinces an anxious engagement with musical traversals of the color line.
Each of these instances may be read productively in terms of melancholic mourning. The concept of "racial melancholy" elaborated by Anne Cheng provides a helpful framework for approaching this subject:
Racial melancholia affects both dominant white culture and racial others; indeed, racial melancholia describes the dynamics that constitute their mutual definition through exclusion. The terms thus denote a complex process of racial rejection and desire on the parts of whites and nonwhites that expresses itself in abject and manic forms. (xi)
Seen from this perspective, music voices (in abject and manic modes) otherwise inarticulable relationships between racialized subjects. Music in Sanctuary alternately gives voice to racial difference and to what Cheng explains as the "melancholic introjection of racial others that it can neither fully relinquish nor accommodate" (xi). Instances of music in the novel, in other words, both sound the color line and highlight its arbitrary contours.
The novel juxtaposes the racially ambiguous music heard on radios and phonographs with the racially marked songs sung by a doomed "negro murderer" (S 258). Both sets of performances attract a multiracial audience, though the narrator is careful to differentiate its members by race only in the latter case. Significantly, his description of the mass-mediated music that captivates its rural audience assiduously avoids any explicit racial markers at all. As Horace Benbow walks into the town of Jefferson, he encounters "a slow, continuous throng" of visitors from the country, "black and white." The narrator casually mentions the interracial composition of this "throng," but this interracial difference is superseded by the identifiably rural nature of their dress and manner. Though they hope to be taken for "town dwellers," they are instead "unmistakable by the unease of their garments as well as by their method of walking ... not even fooling one another." The crowd of rural people, likened by the narrator to "streams of ants," "sheep," and "a deliberate current," move not only from country to city, but also from a timeless agrarian past to modernity. They function "outside of time, having left time lying upon the slow and imponderable land" (256). The dynamic, modern townscape of Jefferson stands in stark opposition to this static agrarian landscape, and the rural folks' encounter with modernity is mediated through sound:
The sunny air was filled with competitive radios and phonographs in the doors of drug- and music-stores. Before these doors a throng stood all day, listening. The pieces which moved them were ballads simple in melody and theme, of bereavement and retribution and repentance metallically sung, blurred, emphasized by static or needle--disembodied voices blaring from the imitation wood cabinets or pebble-grain horn-mouths above the rapt faces, the gnarled slow hands long shaped to the imperious earth, lugubrious, harsh and sad. (257)
What are these "ballads" that so captivate the "throng" that gathers to hear them? The narrator identifies the other instances of vernacular or popular music in the novel by some combination of race and genre--as in much of the thinking about race and music during this period, race and genre are nearly synonymous--and in some instances even indicates specific titles. Here, however, the songs played by radios and phonographs are described only as "ballads simple in melody and theme, of bereavement and retribution and repentance." Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus maintain that ballads "were the dim forerunners of modern commercial popular music," and this description seems partially to match Faulkner's usage (1). The themes of "bereavement and retribution and repentance" that he describes permeate such popular songs of murder, remorse, and revenge as "Pretty Polly" (Dock Boggs's popular recording was issued in 1927), "Ommie Wise" (a.k.a. "Omie Wise," a.k.a. "Naomi Wise," recorded by G. B. Grayson in 1927 and Clarence Ashley in 1929, and in numerous other versions), and "Frankie" (a.k.a. "Frankie and Johnny," a.k.a. "Frankie and Albert"; perhaps the most famous versions of these were recorded by Mississippi John Hurt in 1928 and fellow Mississippian Jimmie Rodgers a year later). Any of these songs could conceivably be heard on the streets of a Mississippi town in 1929, when the action of the novel takes place. Faulkner's use of the term "ballads," though, is complicated by the specifically racial valence that the term had by then accrued through the work of academic folklorists and collectors.
Musician and folklorist Bradley Kincaid, for example, writes that the ballads were the products "of a people in whose veins runs the purest strain of Anglo-Saxon blood to be found anywhere in America" (6). Kincaid's racialist description echoes the claims of a long line of predecessors, who held that the ballad tradition in America provided a racial link with English (or Scottish or Anglo-Saxon) forebears. John Lomax in his 1910 Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, for example, writes, "Out in the wild, far-away places of the big and still unpeopled west ... survives the Anglo-Saxon ballad spirit that was active in secluded districts in England and Scotland even after the coming of Tennyson and Browning" (xvii). Cecil Sharp sums up this equation of music and race in describing the informants from whom he collected the texts and tunes published in his English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians: "these mountain people, albeit unlettered, have ... one and all entered at birth into the full enjoyment of their racial heritage." Their songs, like other elements of their culture, "are merely racial attributes which have been gradually acquired and accumulated in past centuries and handed down generation by generation" (Campbell and Sharp vii). Sharp offers as evidence his having found sung in Appalachia thirty-seven ballads recorded in Francis James Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, which had been published in ten volumes between 1882 and 1898. Such instances of evident cultural transmission allowed Sharp, Lomax, and other like-minded scholars to construct an understanding of musical vernacular culture defined through a logic of racial exclusion. In such conceptions, cultural forms like ballads function both as the means through which a racial heritage is transmitted and as a vehicle for its expression. So pervasive was this racialist logic that collectors would at times record performances of Child's ballads (or cowboy ballads, in Lomax's case) by African American singers while simultaneously insisting on the ballads' white racial provenance, denying any African American contribution to such song traditions. In "Cowboy Songs of the Mexican Border," for example, Lomax notes that a "number of the most interesting songs were obtained from four negroes who have had experience in ranch life," but goes on to conclude that these songs are products of "the ballad instinct of the race, temporarily thrown back to primitive conditions, again actively at work. How much relationship really exists between these songs and the ballads in the great collection of Professor Child of Harvard University, I am not ready to surmise about" (30, 35). The "race" in question here is white; despite African American singers' value as sources of interesting songs, they serve as passive conduits, not as active participants in the ballad tradition.
Werner Sollors has identified "the conflict between contractual and hereditary, self-made and ancestral, definitions of American identity--between consent and descent--as the central drama in American culture" (5-6). Such a conflict structures and animates much of Faulkner's work, as well as the history of vernacular music in the twentieth century. Approaches to vernacular musical traditions, like the ones evinced by Lomax and Sharp, that link cultural forms to racial or ethnic identities articulate what Sollors describes as an ideology of descent. "Descent language," Sollors explains, "emphasizes ... our hereditary qualities, liabilities, and entitlements" (6). Such conceptions depend upon a logic of cultural, social, and physical segregation; the proponents of descent-oriented understandings of ballad and song traditions sought out singers from communities that had supposedly been isolated from members of other racial and ethnic groups and, ideally, from the modern world and its culture industries. In searching for African American folk singers, for example, John and Alan Lomax deliberately searched for "the Negro who had had the least contact with jazz, the radio, and with the white man." Fortunately for them, if unfortunately for their informants, in the brutal segregated "prison farm camps" of the American South, "the conditions were practically ideal" (American Ballads xxx). Despite the conscious attempt by Sharp, the Lomaxes, and others to collect songs from sources who had been denied intercultural or interracial contact, such folk collectors were consistently mortified to find their informants--white and black--singing songs of hillbilly or, worse, vaudeville, origin. Charles Seeger sums up this idea succinctly: "You have to keep a tight rein on things or else you hear nothing but jazz" (qtd. in Whisnant 206). In retrospect, the anxiety that academic collectors seeking "ballads" expressed when finding their subjects instead singing contemporary hillbilly or blues songs or playing jazz appears to be motivated by a profound misunderstanding of the very folk cultures that they aimed to document and preserve. Advocates of racially-bound musical traditions, while misguided in their fear of jazz, were, to a certain extent, accurate in their concern that music they considered culturally foreign might permeate and ineluctably influence the music of the Southern folk of such interest to them. Try as they might, such racially minded purists proved utterly incapable of fortifying the always permeable, tenuous, and largely artificial barriers that separated folk and popular, urban and rural, and black and white styles, songs, and traditions.
While at first glance Faulkner (or at least his narrator) might appear to share many of these prejudices, his description of the crowd's response to the recorded music they hear suggests a more complex and sympathetic view. The racialist overdetermination of the term "ballads" is offset by Faulkner's rendering of the scene. On one hand, these "disembodied voices blaring from imitation wood cabinets," "metallically sung [and] blurred" appear as agents of country folks' alienation from the commodity culture that these new recording technologies represent. The members of the rural "throng" are "shaped" to the land through agricultural labor. Seen from this perspective, the mass media technologies of radio and the phonograph stand in synecdochically for the industrial changes transforming the lives of such laborers and driving nails in the coffin of the Old South. That the "disembodied voices" are "lugubrious, harsh, and sad" suggests that we read this scene as one of mourning and that we hear the "ballads" as elegies for an agrarian world of master and slave whose passing these songs commemorate.
On the other hand, these songs are not only "blurred" by radios and phonographs, but also "emphasized." The throngs who listen do not do so passively or unemotionally; instead they are held "rapt," "moved" by the simple melodies and themes "of bereavement and retribution and repentance." Though the "ballads" that so move the listeners are described as "lugubrious, harsh, and sad," the text provides little clue as to the specific affective response that they elicit. A clue to the nature of this response follows, however; in the next paragraph, we are told that the rural listeners "were back again, most of them, in clumps" the following Monday, even though May was "no time to leave the land." The object of fascination in this latter instance is not a recorded ballad telling a story of death and regret, but rather the dead body of Tommy, the mentally handicapped man whom Popeye had shot dead in order to get to Temple in the novel's pivotal rape scene. Tommy, like the members of the throng, is described in terms that mark him as from the country: he is "barefoot, in overalls." Some of the spectators, we learn, "had known him for fifteen years about the countryside." Some of the city folk had "on infrequent Saturdays ... seen him in town, barefoot, hatless, with his rapt, empty gaze" (257). Tommy's bare feet and overalls mark him as a stereotypical rural Southerner, while the description of his "rapt, empty gaze" mirrors the "rapt faces" of the rural throng as they listen to the disembodied voices sounding from radios and phonographs of Jefferson's streets. Tommy's identification with the members of the rural throng who come to mourn him is prefigured earlier in the novel through a description of affect: "From time to time he would feel that acute surge go over him, like his blood was too hot all of a sudden, dying away into that warm unhappy feeling that fiddle music gave him" (233). This description provides an insight into the emotions that the visitors to the town experience in response to the music they hear. The "warm unhappy feeling" that fiddle music elicits in Tommy, in other words, anticipates the visitors' affective response to "ballads ... lugubrious, harsh, and sad."
In 1929, the year in which Sanctuary is set, the songs heard on radios and phonographs in the South were more likely to be commercial hillbilly or race records than ballads in the folkloristic sense, although as noted, such distinctions were hardly respected by the musicians themselves. Despite, or perhaps because of, the mass media's commodification and reproduction of these "ballads," their affective power is not diminished, but rather amplified. This view, implicit in Faulkner's rendering of the scene, can fruitfully be read as anticipating Lawrence Levine's argument in "The Folklore of Industrial Society" that such affective responses frustrate the putative distinction between authentic folk culture and inauthentic popular culture. Levine argues against the notion that popular culture does not emanate "from within the community but [is] created--often artificially by people with pecuniary or ideological motives--for the community, or rather for the masses who no longer [have] an organic community capable of producing culture" (1370). For Levine, to distinguish between such popular, mass-mediated cultural forms and authentic "folk" forms is a mistake, as the "folk" themselves respect no such distinctions.
Faulkner's description of the country folks' affective response to the music they hear through the new forms of mass media likewise reveals a blurring of the boundaries between folk and popular, between lived experience and commodified performance. By 1929, the cultural logic of segregation--and the aforementioned musical color line--had been firmly established in the marketing practices of the recording industry. The major record labels maintained separate "hillbilly" and "race" series for white and black artists, respectively, though these distinctions were in large part artificial. Faulkner's evocation of these records and their audience, however, denies or at least sidesteps these racialized distinctions by eschewing the record companies' generic terminology. This refusal to delineate the songs by genre and race complicates the equation between musical forms and racial identities so prevalent at the time. Sanctuary does not indicate the race of the performers whose recordings so enrapture the rural throng. Though both the normative racism of Faulkner's fictional world and that of the folkloristic tradition that had come to define the term "ballad" suggest that people and cultural forms thus unmarked should probably be understood as white, they are therefore literally unraced. The text itself, though, is ambiguous, and this ambiguity helps undermine the racialist thinking that underlies the strict association of this musical form with white racial identity. The members of the "throng" are identified first as "white and black," though their collective identity appears to be neither, but rather rural and agricultural: "the rapt faces, the gnarled slow hands long shaped to the imperious earth." This description leaves open the possibility of interracial or cross-racial identification, as the voices on the records that fill the air are "disembodied," and the bodies of the listeners are characterized not by racial designations, but rather by the physical markers of agricultural toil that they share. John N. Duvall's analysis of the ways in which the social conditions of agricultural labor in the South generally, and in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County specifically, blur the racial lines between "white" and "black," "to unhinge the Southern binary that would oppose whiteness to 'the Negro'" provides one way to think through this dynamic (106). I think that Duvall overstates the case somewhat in his claim that as sharecroppers, "black and white bodies inhabit an identical subject position" (111). Nevertheless, we can see in Faulkner's pointedly unraced description of such sharecroppers' rapt engagement with the "disembodied voices" a suggestion that they forge in response a collective identity that supplements, even if it cannot supplant, racial identities defined according to the terms of the white/black binary. (3)
The collective identity thus forged through a multiracial audience's shared identification with the disembodied songs and sounds made available to them through mass media technologies in Faulkner's account thus supplements and potentially undermines the logic of descent that had accrued via a half-century of scholarly attention to folk balladry, and which subtly underlies Faulkner's own terminology. The scene he describes instead illustrates the short-circuiting of a cultural logic of descent; we may see in its place the emergence of a culture of consent that Sollors posits as descent's antithesis. If the logic of descent undergirds Sharp's notion that the songs of "mountain people" transmit "racial attributes" or Lomax's idea that the culture of "the Negro" is best preserved by the forced segregation of the prison camp, the scene Faulkner describes suggests a very different notion of cultural affiliation through a shared affective response. The individual audience members' affective responses to the "ballads" they hear are defined not by their ethnic heritage or racial attributes, but rather by their affective identification with disembodied cultural productions that are not limited or defined by race, place, or genre. Racial identification, then, is supplemented by the shared emotional identification that the recorded "ballads" enable.
Such cross-racial moments of cultural consent are limited by social realities, of course, and all such racial ambiguity is dispensed with in the novel's next chapter, as the color line is violently reinstantiated through the execution of "a negro murderer" who had killed his wife by slitting her throat:
He would lean in the window in the evening and sing. After supper a few negroes gathered along the fence below ... and in chorus with the murderer, they sang spirituals while white people slowed and stopped ... to listen to those who were sure to die and him who was already dead singing about heaven and being tired. (258)
In contrast to the carefully non-raced depiction of the throng enraptured by the radio and phonograph at the end of the previous chapter, this description is replete with racial markers. The singer and the songs he sings are clearly identified by race and genre, respectively. The murderer is "a negro," and other "negroes" join him "in chorus." Together they sing "spirituals," a genre generally, if not universally, understood as black. (4) Their audience, on the other hand, consists of "white people."
Unlike the murky ambiguity of the recorded ballads already discussed, the explicit racial and generic marking of the prisoner and his songs posits a direct equation between the race of the singer and the racial significance of his songs. The singer's racial status as "a negro" and the status of the spirituals he sings are of course products of a system of segregation and racial violence. In marked contrast with the disembodied recorded "ballads" that allow for an elective identification that potentially frustrates racial boundaries, the spirituals' literal embodiment in the figure of the "negro murderer" reinforces racial difference and the cultural logic of segregation. Other "negroes" of diverse occupation (they wear "natty, shoddy suits and sweat-stained overalls") identify with the murderer and join in his singing, while whites are silent auditors--a race apart, despite their physical proximity (258). Underlying this racial division is the pervasive threat of racial violence and death. The "negroes" of the chorus, none of whom have been suspected of any crime, so far as we know, "are sure to die," and the "negro murderer" himself is, symbolically at least, "already dead." A "rich, sourceless" voice mourns that in "Fo days mo ... dey ghy stroy de bes ba'ytone singer in nawth Mississippi!" (258). The spirituals in the novel emanate from moribund black bodies.
After this scene-setting episode, Goodwin discusses the question of his own presumed guilt with Benbow, his lawyer. Benbow reminds Goodwin that he is "not being tried by common sense," but rather "by a jury" (270). The novel gives no description of any such counsel being afforded to the "negro murderer" before he is condemned to die. By contrast, the crime of which "the negro murderer" is accused is flatly asserted: he "had killed his wife." Likewise, the narrative gives no account of his trial having been decided by a jury; two sentences after his guilt is asserted, he is described matter-of-factly as "sure to die" (258). It seems, then, that he has been tried by what passes for common sense in Jefferson, which is to say by Jim Crow. From his introduction into the narrative until his execution, the negro murderer's singing is explicitly linked with his impending death at the hands of whites: "one night he would be singing ... the next night he would be gone" (269). (5) Goodwin, meanwhile, awaits his trial, reaping one of the benefits of his whiteness: recourse to "the law, civilization, justice" (270). Benbow's sister Narcissa sardonically fantasizes that the racial distinctions that dictate Goodwin's and the negro's separate and unequal treatment will collapse. "He had better sing fast," Benbow remarks, "He's only got two days more." Narcissa replies, "Maybe they'll wait and hang them both together" (271). Though she doesn't get her wish, in the end, Goodwin's eventual castration and immolation by a mob for a rape of which he is innocent does put him in the position of a lynched "negro," collapsing the racial distinction between him and his fellow prisoner.
Chapter 17 repeats the scene of "the negro murderer ... singing in chorus with those along the fence below" (266). The text provides no description of "the negro murderer"; we do not learn his name, nor whether he is tall or short, fat or thin, light-skinned or dark, young or old. Aside from one brief description of "his face checkered by the shadow of the grating in the restless interstices of leaves," he is an unseen presence, represented only by his voice (266). Though this voice is disembodied, like those on the records and radios in the previous chapter, its significance is ultimately determined by a logic of racial embodiment and racial difference. The novel's presentation of the singer as a radically unindividuated figure is consistent with contemporary understandings of "spirituals" as the product of a racialized "folk" consciousness rather than as vehicles for individual expression. The songs that the condemned prisoner sings are transparent to the other negroes, who seamlessly join in singing them, while they appear obscure in both form and meaning to the whites who gather to listen. This obscurity is reflected in the text itself. Paralleling the absence of physical description of the condemned singer, any indicators of his songs' formal properties are likewise lacking. We are provided no descriptions of their tonality, tempo, or form. The words to his songs are never rendered in verse--that is, in a form that would help render them intelligible or accessible as a part of a shared musical or poetic language. Instead, they are presented as utterances, as pleas and cries. At first glance, such paucity of description might seem to point simply to a lack of musicological interest or knowledge on Faulkner's part, but it also places the spirituals sung by the prisoner at a remove from both his white listeners and the book's readers.
Such obscure representations of "spirituals" stand in contrast to those in Sartoris, published two years before Sanctuary, which contains detailed, accurate descriptions and renditions of African American music. For example, Gene Bluestein identifies as a spiritual a song that Elnora, an African American character, sings:
Sinner riz fum de moaner's bench, Sinner jump to de penance bench; When de preacher ax 'im whut de reason why, Say, "Preacher got de women jes' de same ez I." Oh, Lawd, oh, Lawd! Dat's wut de matter wid de church today. (qtd. in Bluestein 122)
One might take issue with this identification, as Elnora's song is less a spiritual in the classic sense than it is a specific secular, sardonic critique of a philandering preacher. Thadious M. Davis, for example, argues convincingly that the song that Elnora sings in this passage is not a spiritual, but rather a blues song: "Though the lyrics might be mistaken for a spiritual, as Bluestein does, they are more of a personal expression of her dissatisfaction, masked as a religious righteousness, and, importantly, the song is of her own making" (86). A similar confusion of spirituals and the blues is at work in Sanctuary. Nonetheless, Bluestein's observation that Faulkner has taken pains to represent accurately an instance of African American vernacular song stands. He also points to the earlier novel's description of Elnora's singing as floating "in meaningless minor suspense" and "mellow falling suspense" as evidence of Faulkner's sensitivity to the nuances of African American song: such descriptions catch "nicely the melismatic quality of Negro singing as it moves from tone to tone, rarely stopping on a given pitch" (122). The presence of such precise musical attention in Sartoris helps render conspicuous the lack of such attention in Sanctuary; this lack is properly read as deliberate and significant. In fact, Bluestein points to a similar elision in Sartoris--its inattention to "the singing which would accompany the blues"--as evidence that "Faulkner is still far from understanding fully the meaning or the function of blues in black tradition" (124). This assessment applies equally to Sanctuary, which evinces only a superficial engagement with the blues as a popular form, and none at all with the blues as a product of Jim Crow's system of racial difference and racialized violence. The songs that the condemned man and his chorus sing are instead described as "spirituals," though the sparse descriptions of the songs themselves present them not as group expressions of spiritual longing, but rather as secular, personal protests against the singer's impending hanging.
The participation of the other "negroes" in the performance of the song suggests that we should consider these utterances not as individual, but rather as racial. Like the term "ballads," "spirituals" evokes a history that conceives of a vernacular musical form in racial terms. By the mid-nineteenth century, the term "spirituals" referred to religious songs sung by African American slaves, and the precise contours of the musical field the term denoted would be fiercely contested into the 1940s. In 1870, Thomas Wentworth Higginson proposed that the "Negro Spirituals" he heard from black soldiers during the Civil War were analogous to the Scottish ballads: "a kindred world of unwritten songs, as simple and indigenous as the Border Minstrelsy, more uniformly plaintive, almost always more quaint, and often as essentially poetic" (197). Such a view of spirituals as emotionally powerful folk poetry was elaborated over the course of the next half-century. In an essay in his 1925 The New Negro, Alain Locke asserts that "underneath broken words, childish imagery, [and] peasant simplicity, lies ... an epic intensity and a tragic profundity of emotional experience" (200). This understanding of the spirituals as expressions of emotional anguish and longing for freedom harks back to Frederick Douglass's 1845 description of slaves' "songs of sorrow," whose "Every tone was a testimony against slavery" and to W. E. B. Du Bois's 1903 claim that they constitute "the articulate message of the slave to the world" (Douglass 27; Du Bois 187). The negro murderer's songs resonate with this history, as they are pleas for delivery from unequal and unjust treatment under the law, from imprisonment and the lynch mob.
By the 1920s the term "spirituals" had taken on a supplementary meaning, denoting a recognizable body of songs that African American intellectuals like Locke, James Weldon Johnson, and composers such as Nathaniel Dett and John Wesley Work hoped to develop into a concert repertoire. At the same time, white scholars (some unabashedly racist) like White, Jackson, Dorothy Scarborough, Howard Odum, and Guy Johnson had compiled and cataloged many instances of religious songs sung by African Americans which White, for example, maintained provided access to "the character of the folk Negro" (29). Both these models suppose a degree of transparency or intelligibility across the color line. For Du Bois, Locke, and Johnson, the spirituals give voice to black subjects. Though their songs articulate a racially specific history of oppression and suffering, their themes are universal. Both in their "pure," presumably unmediated forms, and as refined concertized distillates, the spirituals attest to African Americans' claims to common humanity, and provide sympathetic listeners a way to traverse the color line through musical identification. Johnson, for example, argues in his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry that "No persons, however hostile, can listen to Negroes singing this wonderful music without having their hostility melted down" (20). White and his fellow folklorists likewise assume transparency in African American folk songs, though for them such material provides insight into "the negro" less as subject than as object of study. According to White, the texts of the songs he has collected reveal "the negro's" essential character: he is "a most naive and unanalytical-minded person, with a sensuous joy in his religion; thoughtless, careless, unidealistic, rather fond of boasting, predominantly cheerful ... charitably inclined toward the white man," etc. (29-30). Diametrically opposed to Johnson's view, in which the spirituals are understood to produce an affective response that will eliminate hostility toward the race that produced them, White's view reaffirms invidious racial difference and legitimates discrimination against "the negro," whose inferior nature is made manifest through his music.
Contrary to understandings of spirituals either as expressions of pathos or as articulate messages protesting injustice, the condemned man's songs do not elicit sympathetic emotional responses in white listeners: "white men sitting ... across the street," for example, "listen above their steady jaws" (258). Goodwin, who is in as likely a position to identify with the condemned man's pleas as anyone, responds instead with irritation: "Damn that fellow ... I aint in any position to wish any man that sort of luck, but I'll be damned" (258). Goodwin's irritation at the chorus's singing is echoed toward the end of the novel, as Popeye awaits his own execution: "somewhere down the corridor a negro was singing.... 'For Christ's sake,' [Popeye] said" (394). Rather than eliciting sympathy from white listeners occupying similar subject positions (that of condemned prisoners), the African American singers' songs--intelligible to other "negroes" and obscure to whites--reinscribe racial difference as they sound the color line. As whites and blacks in the novel hear this music with different ears, their disparate responses ironically recapitulate the relationship that Douglass famously describes in his Narrative. The slaves on Colonel Lloyd's plantation would, he writes, "sing, as a chorus ... words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves" (27). To those "outside the circle" (i.e., whites) "these rude and apparently incoherent songs" would serve as "a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains" (27). The transracial sympathy that for Douglass allows for the meaning of these songs to penetrate the consciousness of white listeners is absent from the world of Faulkner's novel, short-circuited by the racial violence and hostility engendered by Jim Crow. Rather than eliciting cross-racial identification, the songs of the negro chorus serve instead to solidify racial difference.
Sanctuary includes two instances of the negro murderer's singing. In the first instance, the condemned man exclaims, "One day mo! Den Ise a gawn po sonnen bitch. Say, Aint no place fer you in heavum! Say, Aint no place fer you in hell! Say, Aint no place fer you in jail!" (258). His song is a plea for sanctuary, though one that is sure to be denied. Its second instance is slightly elaborated: "One day mo! Aint no place fer you in heavum! Aint no place fer you in hell! Aint no place fer you in whitefolks' jail! Nigger, whar you gwine to? Whar you gwine to, nigger?" (266). I am confident that the phrase "Ise a gawn po sonnen bitch" does not appear in any collection of spirituals. In fact, the inclusion of this profane preamble suggests that "spirituals" is an approximate and inaccurate label for the songs sung by the murderer and his chorus. While the novel's depictions of the murderer's songs as shared products of a racialized folk square with contemporary understandings of spirituals as folk expression, the songs' profanity and the specific circumstances from which they emerge and to which they speak complicate this identification.
The songs the condemned black man sings are less spiritual pleas to God or heaven than they are laments, remonstrances against the racial violence undergirding the system of Jim Crow. Moreover, they appear not as a part of a general repertoire, but rather as products of the singer's specific situation as he counts down the days until his execution. Adam Gussow has argued that "the grievous spiritual pressures exerted on working-class black Southerners by the sudden eruption of lynching-as-spectacle ... help to form ... a 'blues subject,' who then found ways, more or less covert, of singing back to that ever-hovering threat" (Seems 4-5). The self-identified "gawn po sonnen bitch" whose laments the novel records may be understood as precisely such a subject, and lynching--or at least hanging--at the hands of whites is the specific threat to which his songs sing back. While his songs may be understood as "black spirituals, with their collective subject pursuing a freedom coded as otherworldly," they are more clearly instances of a particular, individual subject longing for worldly freedom (Seems 5). Though Faulkner never uses the word "blues" to describe the condemned man's songs (they are instead always described as "spirituals"), the stage he sets for them is precisely the one that, as Gussow argues, produces the blues as "a cultural form that enabled black people to salve their wounded spirits and assert their embattled individuality" in the face of the racial terror that buttressed Jim Crow (Seems 4). Equally germane here is the distinction that Jahan Ramazani draws between the blues and spirituals as they relate to the process of mourning. Spirituals, according to Ramazani, "tend to be poems of normative mourning, whereas the blues are typically melancholic, un-redemptive and anti-consolatory like many modern elegies" (142). The characteristics that Ramazani ascribes to the blues describe the negro murderer's songs perfectly: far from songs of otherworldly redemption or spiritual consolation, laments like "Aint no place fer you in heavum! Aint no place fer you in hell! Aint no place fer you in whitefolks' jail!" are anti-consolatory and non-redemptive.
The generic substitution of "spirituals" for the blues that I am suggesting is significant in that it parallels a narrative displacement, in which the violence of the negro murderer's execution/lynching is completely elided. It is substituted instead by a gruesome description of his wife's death at his hands: he "had killed his wife; slashed her throat with a razor so that, her whole head tossing further and further backward from the bloody regurgitation of her bubbling throat, she ran out the cabin door and for six or seven steps up the quiet moonlit lane" (258). This description of the dying black woman, which lingers over the grisly details of the woman's murder with something close to relish, is followed by the matter-of-fact, almost idyllic, "He would lean in the window in the evening and sing" (258). Through this abrupt tonal shift, the murderer's songs are distanced from his crime. They become the expression of a racial sentiment anchored in the past, rather than a response to the here and now. The negro's own death at the hands of whites, in contrast, is not narrated: he "was to be hung on a Saturday without pomp, buried without circumstance" (269). This narrative elision borders on the perverse, given the spectacular nature of the lynching of black men in the Jim Crow South. In stark contrast to this historical and social fact, the black man's death at the hands of whites in the novel is simply a matter of procedure, not even bearing elaboration or description. The description of his songs as "spirituals" helps naturalize the killing of black men by whites as a response to real or imagined violence against women as procedural acts of justice, rather than as instances of racial terror. The fact that the victim here is an African American rather than a white woman constitutes an additional displacement. (6) If the blues can be understood, as Gussow argues, as a response to such acts of terror, their sublimation into "spirituals" helps to obscure this relationship.
The narrative provides no motivation for the murder of which the African American singer is accused, suggesting perhaps that a tendency to such acts of violence, like a proclivity to sing spirituals, is a racial trait. On the other hand, the fact that the victim in this case is the accused murderer's wife implies a sexual jealousy that begets violence, and this plot point resonates with the thematics of the novel as a whole. It also anticipates a scene later in the narrative: the funeral of Red, a gambler whom Popeye first solicits as a sexual partner for Temple, then murders. A scene of ecstatic mourning, Red's funeral elaborates the paradox inherent in the title of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Like the doomed murderer's songs discussed above, the blues in this scene arise from a confrontation with death. The last time we see Red alive, he is shooting craps. Summoned by Temple for a sexual liaison, he is instead murdered by Popeye in the unnarrated break between chapters. The next chapter opens with preparations for his funeral, in the same craps parlor. As the gambling den is converted into a temporary funeral home, the appurtenances of gambling and music-making are intermingled with funerary accoutrements: "Just beneath the orchestra platform the coffin sat.... [A] mass of flowers ... appeared to break in a symbolical wave over the bier and on upon the platform and the piano, the scent of them thickly oppressive." "The negro waiters," meanwhile, "moved with swaggering and decorous repression; already the scene was vivid, with a hushed, macabre air a little febrile," while a "black pall lay upon the crap-table, upon which the overflow of flower shapes was beginning to accumulate" (347). Presiding over this scene is the proprietor; among the guests are a bootlegger, musicians, gamblers, pimps, madams, and prostitutes.
With its craps parlor setting, cast of colorful underworld characters, and central figure of the dead gambler, this scene literally stages a version of the popular ballad/folk song/jazz standard known variously as "Those Gambler's Blues," "St. James Infirmary," and "Dyin' Crap-shooter's Blues." Carl Sandburg's 1927 anthology The American Songbag includes under the heading "Blues, Mellows, Ballets" two versions of a song it identifies as "Those Gambler's Blues." (7) Sandburg's introductory note to the song observes, "This may be what polite society calls a gutter song. In a foreign language, in any lingo but that of the U. S. A., it would seem less vulgar, more bizarre. Its opening realism works on toward irony and fantasy, dropping in its final lines again to blunt realism" (228). "Those Gambler's Blues" enjoyed a vogue from the late 1920s into the next decade. Probably the best-known version was recorded by Jimmie Rodgers in 1930. It was recorded that same year by Mattie Hite, and a year earlier by the Hokum Boys. It became a jazz standard under the title "St. James Infirmary" via recordings by Louis Armstrong in 1928, King Oliver in 1929, and Cab Calloway in 1930, whose performance of the song appears in a surreal 1933 cartoon version of "Snow White," starring Betty Boop. The variant of the tune that most closely parallels the scene Faulkner paints is "Dyin' Crap-shooter's Blues," best known today from Blind Willie McTell's 1940 and 1949 recordings, but which "was recorded by numerous vaudeville blues singers in the 1920s, notably Martha Copeland, Viola McCoy, and Rosa Henderson" (Goldstein and Narvaez 455). The bulk of the song's lyrics entail the titular crapshooter's instructions concerning his impending funeral, for example,
I want eight crap-shooters for my pallbearers And let 'em be dressed in black Nine men going to the graveyard And only eight men coming back I want a jazz band on my coffin Chorus girl on my hearse. (Copeland)
Precisely such unconventional funerary arrangements provoke disagreement during Red's funeral. An "orchestra from a downtown hotel" is enlisted to play for the funeral, but its organizers cannot agree on what sort of music is appropriate:
"Let them play jazz," the second man said. "Never nobody liked dancing no better than Red."
"No, no," the proprietor said. "Time Gene gets them all ginned up on free whiskey, they'll start dancing. It'll look bad."
"How about the Blue Danube?" the leader said.
"No, no; dont play no blues, I tell you," the proprietor said. "There's a dead man in that bier."
"That's not blues," the leader said. "What is it?" the second man said. "A waltz. Strauss."
"A wop?" the second man said. "Like hell. Red was an American. You may not be, but he was. Dont you know anything American? Play I Cant Give You Anything but Love. He always liked that." (348)
This is broad humor, borrowing from vaudeville. Its jokes involve a straight man and an interlocutor, musical jokes (e.g., misidentifying "The Blue Danube" as a blues song) and a clumsy, unfunny pun based on an ethnic slur (waltz/wop). "Jazz" and "blues" are both marked in this conversation as excessively libidinal, and thus inappropriate for even as unconventional a funeral as this one.
The anxiety expressed by Joe, the proprietor, ("dont play no blues") is justified by the chaos that ensues, as the mourners get "ginned up ... and start dancing": "They surged and clamored about the diminishing bowl [of punch spiked with liquor]. From the dance hall came the rich blare of the cornet" (349). The link between violence and music pervades the scene: "As though swept there upon a brassy blare of music the proprietor" appears and tries to keep things under control (350). As the tippling mourners metamorphize into drunken revelers a fight breaks out. The band continues to play, but is "immediately drowned in a sudden pandemonium of chairs and screams" (351). As the fight intensifies, the scene becomes a macabre farce:
[the combatants] bore down upon the bier and crashed into it. The orchestra had ceased and were now climbing onto their chairs, with their instruments. The floral offerings flew; the coffin teetered.... They sprang forward, but the coffin crashed heavily to the floor, coming open. The corpse tumbled slowly and sedately out and came to rest with its face in the center of a wreath. "Play something!" the proprietor bawled, waving his arms; "play! Play!" (351)
This grisly denouement to Red's funeral is darkly humorous, but it also illustrates an explicit failure to mourn. This failure dramatizes the concept of melancholia that Freud lays out in his 1917 essay, "Mourning and Melancholia," as "pathological mourning" (250). Susette Min succinctly sums up Freud's distinction between successful mourning and melancholia: "mourning grieves for a literal loss that results in decathexis, the breaking of an attachment, whereas melancholia fixates on an imaginary loss, refusing to let it go, and instead relocates the loss in what [Freud] calls 'the region of memory traces of things'" (232). The funeral scene in Sanctuary literalizes this melancholia, as both violence and the music that catalyzes and accompanies it prevent successful mourning. The scene itself evinces a pathological disposition: "the hushed, macabre air [is] a little febrile" (347). Red's corpse emerges as a symptom of this pathology, as a thing, and the violent intrusion of its corporeal presence prevents the decathexis that the work of mourning is meant to accomplish. The mourners cannot let go of the dead gambler, since his grotesque reappearance at the funeral--like the blues and jazz whose excessive, libidinal effects the proprietor fears--mocks and parodies the work of mourning. Joe calls for music to repair the damage, to soothe the riled mourners and to facilitate the work of mourning. Instead, the music in this scene is disruptive, an intoxicant akin to the free-flowing gin.
This link between jazz and vice is established earlier in the narrative, where it takes the form of drunkenness, prostitution, and illicit, interracial liaisons. The word "jazz" first appears in the novel as a verb as Ruby, Goodwin's common law wife, tells Temple about her efforts to get Goodwin out of jail after he had "killed another soldier over one of those nigger women and they sent him to Leavenworth. Then the war came and they let him out to go to it.... [W]hen it was over they put him back in Leavenworth until the lawyer got a congressman to get him out. Then I could quit jazzing again" (219). Temple is shocked by Ruby's admission of "jazzing"--that is, of prostitution. This exchange prefigures Temple's future experience in Miss Reba's Memphis brothel. Popeye essentially prostitutes her to Red; this arrangement later sours when Temple tries to leave Popeye for Red, and leads to the latter's death by Popeye's hand. The debate over "jazz" at Red's funeral is inflected by this earlier invocation of the term, as the genre is marked as libidinal, mercenary, and illicit.
The link between jazz and prostitution is reinforced elsewhere in the novel in the figure of Clarence Snopes. Snopes discovers Temple in the Memphis brothel where Popeye has imprisoned her, whereupon he contacts Horace Benbow. Snopes correctly surmises that Benbow will be interested in knowing Temple's whereabouts, since Temple's testimony would exonerate Goodwin (whom Benbow is defending) against the charges he faces of raping her and murdering Tommy. Snopes telephones Benbow, and their conversation is punctuated by the sounds of jazz emanating from Snopes's gramophone: "The victrola blared, faint, far away; [Benbow] could see the man, the soiled hat, the thick shoulders, leaning above the instrument--in a drugstore or a restaurant" (318). As Snopes offers to sell his information to Benbow, "[a]gainst Horace's ear the radio or the victrola performed a reedy arpeggio of saxophones. Obscene, facile, they seemed to be quarrelling with one another like two dexterous monkeys in a cage" (318). The technology at work here ("the radio or the victrola") is the same as that in the description of "ballads," though the effects it elicits are substantially different. While the earlier records are "lugubrious, harsh, and sad," these are "Obscene, facile," and monkey-like (257, 318).
In the funeral scene, jazz and the blues are inflected by this conflation of blackness and vulgar sensuality, though the mourner's identification of them as "American" illustrates that vaudeville, records, radio, and film had facilitated repeated cross-racial traversals of the musical color line. The term "blues" functions in this scene not in the folkloristic sense of a rural folk form, but rather as one element in a vernacular musical vocabulary associated with vaudeville. The song the jazz aficionado suggests, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," was featured in Blackbirds of 1928, a successful Broadway production (Lewine and Simon 188). It became a hit for Louis Armstrong in 1929, though he first recorded it in December of the previous year, the day before recording his well-known rendition of "St. James Infirmary" (Armstrong). The band settles on "Nearer My God to Thee"--a nineteenth-century hymn--and later "a male quartet engaged from a vaudeville house" sings "Sonny Boy," a sentimental song written for and sung by Al Jolson in the 1928 film, The Singing Fool (350). The blues forbidden by the speakeasy/funeral parlor's proprietor differ radically from the earnest hymn and maudlin, sentimental song he insists on, and offer a means of mourning more in keeping with the deceased's wishes. "Red wouldn't like it solemn," the jazz fan insists, "And you know it" (349). Or, as Copeland's dying crapshooter has it, "Don't be standing around me cryin' / Everybody Charleston while I'm dyin'."
Given Faulkner's well-known antipathy toward jukeboxes, vaudeville, and popular culture in general, this scene is remarkable for the fluency with current pop hits it exhibits. (8) It also suggests a potentially significant connection with the vernacular "ballad" tradition. The gambler's funeral scene in Sanctuary elaborates a narrative common to contemporary versions of the "Gambler's Blues"/"St. James Infirmary" family of songs. The novel's echoes of these songs include the plot of a gambler murdered over a woman, the setting ("Old Joe's barroom" in many versions of the song, a speakeasy and gambling den run by a man named Joe in the novel), even specific phrases ("She never had a pal like me" in Jimmie Rodgers's rendition, "he never had a better friend than me" in Faulkner's ). In its hundred-year history, the ballad mutates from the story of an unfortunate rake done in by syphilis to the story of a soldier killed in battle to that of a young woman who succumbs to an unnamed but doubtless unsavory affliction to that of a cowboy gunned down by a rival to a dying crapshooter's lament. Each of these transformations results from a shift of location, time, performance context, or medium. By the time he is writing Sanctuary, it has become thoroughly enmeshed in the popular musical realm that Faulkner draws on for the novel's "rhythm and jazzy tone." In the introduction to the 1932 Modern Library edition of Sanctuary, Faulkner claimed to have drawn on precisely such popular materials: thinking of "books in terms of possible money," he writes, "I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought was the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine" (vi). Sandburg's description of "Those Gambler's Blues" as "a gutter song" attributes to it the qualities of current popularity and tawdriness that Faulkner purported to draw on in writing the novel. I suggest that we understand Faulkner's use of such material in his novel not merely as commentary on the process of repetition with a difference that this ballad-cum-pop song tradition represents, but as a part of it. "Look at its [contents]," Sandburg wrote of The American Songbag, "Its human turmoil is terrific.... It is a volume full of gargoyles and gnomes, a terribly tragic book and one grinningly comic" (viii). The same might well be said of Sanctuary, of course, and its use of "ballads" and blues illustrates that in his "cheap idea," Faulkner found a surprising emotional and thematic resonance with the ballads and songs that so captivate and vex his characters.
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Copeland, Martha. "Dyin' Crap-shooter's Blues." 1927. Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol. 1, 1923-1927. Document, 1995. CD.
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Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1977.
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(1) While critics have explored the significance of the blues to some of Faulkner's other works, the roles that vernacular music plays in Sanctuary's thematic treatments of racial identity and racial violence have gone unexamined. Specifically, the importance of music to Go Down, Moses, "That Evening Sun," Sartoris, and Soldiers' Pay has received substantial critical attention. For a consideration of the relative lack of attention to Faulkner's engagement with vernacular music, a thorough treatment of recent work on the subject, and a novel reading of Faulkner's relationship to the blues in particular, see Gussow, "Plaintive."
(2) Robert W. Hamblin and Charles A. Peek describe this story as "not quite apocryphal," and Joseph Blotner cites two separate sources who reported having seen a copy of Gershwin's record in Faulkner's library (Hamblin and Peek 261; Blotner 754, 1054).
(3) The rhetoric of "disembodied voices" at work here echoes similar language in As I Lay Dying. John Matthews discusses that novel's depiction of the graphophone (a type of phonograph) as a technology that "represents the displacement of labor and gratification into reified form--into a commodity" (76). Anticipating the argument I am making here for Sanctuary, for Matthews, this is an instance of "the disintegrative force of modernization," through which, as "the coherence of the world from the standpoint of certain privileged racial, class, and gender positions begins to disintegrate, new voices and subjectivities emerge" (84). Likewise, Sundquist reads the disembodied "community of voices" in As I Lay Dying as participating in the work of mourning--"the paradoxical action that grieving is, an action that expresses connections in order both to make them and let them go" (38). Sundquist's argument anticipates the one I make concerning Sanctuary in the third section of this essay.
(4) The debate over the racial significance of the spirituals was at its height during the period in which Sanctuary was written and published. See, for example, George Pullen Jackson's 1932 "The Genesis of the Negro Spiritual," in which he argues that "Negro spirituals" are derived wholesale from mid-nineteenth-century white Protestant hymns. Newman Ivey White advances a similar, though less categorical, argument in his 1928 American Negro Folk-Songs (44-53). Arthur Huff Fauset sardonically considers and dismisses this thesis in a 1929 article in Opportunity. For an overview of this debate, see Dena Epstein, "A White Origin for the Black Spiritual?" For detailed discussions of the history of the spirituals in American cultural discourse, see Jon Cruz, Culture on the Margins and Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals (191-238).
(5) This scene opens the original, rejected version of the novel; this placement both emphasizes the parallels between the negro murderer's fate and that of both Goodwin and Popeye and suggests the thematic importance of the scenes discussed in this essay. See Sanctuary: The Original Text 3-4.
(6) Both Joel Williamson and Deborah Barker maintain that this scene in the novel is based on a historical event from Faulkner's childhood, in which a black man, Nelse Patton, slit the throat of a white woman, Mattie McMillan (Williamson 161; Barker 158). In Sanctuary, the interracial dynamics of this historical event are sublimated into the story of the "negro murderer's" act of violence against his wife. A very similar scene appears in Faulkner's next novel, Light in August, in which Joanna Burden is beheaded (465-66).
(7) Though Sandburg does not note it, this song is a descendent of the nineteenth-century Anglo-Irish broadside ballad "The Unfortunate Rake" (Laws 122; Goldstein).
(8) On Faulkner's avowedly hostile attitude toward popular music, and evidence that this hostility was likely somewhat insincere, see Gussow, "Plaintive" 58, and Hamblin and Peek 260-62.
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|Publication:||The Faulkner Journal|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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