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While F. Scott Fitzgerald is renowned for having defined America's metropolitan Jazz Age in his novels and stories, Faulkner's early fiction emphasizes instead the vernacular music of the rural South, most especially the blues. Soldiers' Pay boasts the appearance of a band performing such staples as "Yellow Dog Blues" and "Shake It and Break It," as well as the singing of a gospel choir (156-59, 255-56). (1) In Flags in the Dust, the Sartoris family's black servants croon blues as they work, a street musician performs in the town square, and young Bayard enlists a Negro band to help him serenade the unmarried women of Jefferson (560, 573-74, 638-39, 659, 664-65). Erich Nunn's recent analysis of Sanctuary, meanwhile, highlights the previously unappreciated centrality of both black and white popular music in Faulkner's most notorious novel. Finally, "That Evening Sun" famously derives its title and some of its plot elements from that celebrated adaptation of Southern musical traditions, W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." (2)

Although such early works established Faulkner's enthusiasm for Southern--and, especially, black--popular music, references to the blues, gospel, and jazz largely disappeared from the author's fiction after 1931. H. R. Stoneback suggests that "Pantaloon in Black" alludes to the lyrics of the blues song "Easy Rider" (241-43), and Handy's band gets a passing mention in The Town (64), but Faulkner largely ceased portraying black singers and vernacular music after his first few novels and stories. Consequently, some readers have been more surprised at "the scarcity of blues description" in Faulkner's work than intrigued by its presence (Evans qtd. in Gussow, "Plaintive Reiterations" 54).

Critics have tended to explain the disappearance of the blues and other African American music from Faulkner's fiction as a form of growth on the part of the author: instead of including black musicians in his stories for mere local color, the later Faulkner presents black people whose bluesiness is an inherent quality of character. In other words, if some of Faulkner's early African American characters play and sing the blues, his later black protagonists have the blues. Following Thadious M. Davis's pioneering work, for example, Adam Gussow persuasively argues that the blues in Faulkner's early fiction is largely "energetic, repetitive, sexualized, and profitable background music made by black performers to support dramas of white self-articulation." In later instances, however, Faulkner uses the blues to create "dramas of black self-articulation ... in which overwhelmed subjects suffer" because of the inability of white people to understand black experience ("Plaintive Reiterations" 64). (3)

If Faulkner was generally familiar with the blues as a folk tradition and pop culture phenomenon, it is unlikely that he knew the specific artists and works of the Mississippi Delta blues that we now think of as canonical. Although the mainstream adaptations of black music purveyed by the likes of Handy in the 1910s and 1920s were popular with diverse audiences, the consumers of country blues records were almost exclusively African American, at least until World War II. Faulkner enjoyed Handy's commercialized versions of the genre, listened to the singing of black farmhands on his Greenfield Farm (Gussow, "Plaintive Reiterations" 62-63), and even played records by the "Empress" of the urban blues, Bessie Smith, on an old windup Victrola at Rowan Oak (Haynes 441). Like most of the nation's white population, however, Faulkner probably was not aware of the now-legendary recorded works of such country blues avatars as Charley Patton, Geeshie Wiley, Son House, or Robert Johnson--even though they were virtual neighbors of the Oxfordbased author. Such artists were largely unknown outside black communities, and their records were in print only briefly until industrious aficionados in the 1950s demanded that the nation take notice of the long-neglected achievements of Mississippi musicians. For example, although Dockery's Plantation in Sunflower County was one of the major centers of prewar blues in the Delta, its white owners remained entirely unaware of its cultural and musical importance until long after the fact. As Keith Dockery later confessed to music critic Robert Palmer, "None of us really gave much thought to this blues thing, ... we never heard these people sing.... I wish we had realized that these people were so important" (55). Faulkner famously claimed to have worn out several copies of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" while writing Sanctuary, but he never gave any indication that he purchased so much as a single record of the Delta blues (Blotner 754). (4)

If anything suggests that the author possessed more than a passing knowledge of Mississippi's black musical revolutions, it is the fact that his brief period of literary interest in blues, gospel, and j azz coincided precisely with the golden age of vernacular American music on record. Soldiers' Pay was published in the same year as Louis Armstrong's first records as a bandleader with his legendary Hot Five--recordings that reconfigured the nature of jazz by foregrounding the significance of instrumental soloing. That historic year also witnessed the emergence of country blues on phonograph discs. Throughout the first half of the 1920s, blues songs were recorded almost exclusively in Northern urban centers, usually featuring female singers--Bessie Smith being merely the most renowned of many--backed by full jazz bands. For all their undeniable greatness, many of these records owed as much to contemporary trends in Tin Pan Alley, pop, and vaudeville as to the musical traditions of the South. In 1926, however, as Ted Gioia notes, "a blind street musician from Wortham, Texas ... shocked the music world into realizing that they could make money from the raw, unfiltered blues of rural America" (42). Blind Lemon Jefferson's music presented a dramatic alternative to the polished productions fronted by the urban women blues singers. There was no piano, no trumpet, no clarinet, no trombone, just the singer accompanying his sparse lyric on guitar, but Jefferson's first blues record was an unexpected hit amongst black communities in the spring of 1926. (5) In fact, it ushered in a new era of American music as record companies swiftly recruited other guitar-toting purveyors of down-home songs in hopes of replicating Jefferson's success. (6) For a few short years, a slew of talented singer-songwriters--many of them from Mississippi, including Patton, Wiley, House, Skip James, and Mississippi John Hurt--fed the appetite of black consumers for country blues records.

Faulkner's use of African American music in his fiction waned at the very moment that this great age of recorded Southern black music came to a sudden end because of the Great Depression's devastating impact on the music industry. Sales of phonograph discs fell by 40% in 1930 alone, and, by 1933, the major phonograph companies were generating only $6 million annually in sales compared to $128 million at the peak of their success in 1926 (Gioia 74; Barlow 115). By the end of 1931, record companies had largely abandoned the rural blues. The musicians who had recorded so prolifically and so gloriously for a few years disappeared back into local obscurity. Their stockpiled recordings from the previous few years emerged sporadically on commercial discs to smaller and smaller sales before tapering off almost completely by 1932. By the time the music industry rallied, the swing era was underway, and record companies focused once again upon urban-based blues artists, whose fuller band sound and--eventually--electric amplification profoundly altered the character of the music. Blues and other genres of Southern vernacular music are palpable presences in Soldiers' Pay, Sartoris--the 1929 abridgement of Flags in the Dust--Sanctuary, and "That Evening Sun," but after 1931, there are few direct references or even allusions to rural songs in Faulkner's canon. The blues disappears from Yoknapatawpha, then, at the very moment at which it began to move out of the Delta and into the city. (7) Although the coincidence of Faulkner's emphasis upon the blues in his fiction during its recorded heyday may be just happenstance, one of the very few times after 1931 that the author depicted a Southern black musician was in a story explicitly set in 1927--which is to say, at the height of the classic era of country blues recording. Faulkner's last significant rural blues musician appears in 1939's "Old Man"--one of the alternating narratives of The Wild Palms (now generally referred to by the writer's preferred title, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem)--long after direct depictions of black music had essentially disappeared from the author's work. Furthermore, the guitarist in "Old Man" demonstrates an impressive mastery of vernacular discourse in contrast to the story's protagonist, who struggles to develop a functional voice or meaningful narrative of his own.

The anomalous and anonymous blues guitarist in "Old Man" remains a neglected figure in Faulkner's fiction. Thadious Davis and Gussow only briefly acknowledge him in their astute discussions of African American music in Faulkner's canon. Thomas L. McHaney's book length study of the novel bypasses the black musician in a single sentence (69), and Patrick McHugh's analysis of the "Spirit of the Blues" in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem does not mention him at all. Cheryl Lester--one of few scholars to have given much attention to the unnamed blues guitarist--characterizes his appearance as a "cameo," and largely focuses upon the metaphorical treatment of black migration elsewhere in the novel ("Great Migration" 196).

Despite its brevity, the guitarist's appearance in "Old Man" is memorable and resonant, and the character has a notable effect upon the unnamed tall convict who is the tale's protagonist. The story, set during the historical Great Mississippi Flood, details the adventures of the convict after he is press-ganged into the relief effort. (8) Early in the narrative, as a boat loaded with refugees approaches the busy levee at the heart of the relief operation, "the faint plinking of a guitar" echoes across the water. As the boat's passengers disembark, the convict finally sees that the source of this sound is "a young, black, lean-hipped man, the guitar slung by a piece of cotton plow line about his neck. He mounted the levee, still picking it. He carried nothing else, no food, no change of clothes, not even a coat." In this striking passage, an African American man walks confidently through the chaotic aftermath of an immense natural disaster, providing the principal human presence and "voice" in the scene--courtesy of his guitar--despite the prevalence of nominally more authoritative figures. The tall convict is utterly transfixed by this figure, and is "so busy watching this [the guitarist] that he did not hear the guard until the guard stood directly beside him shouting his name" (63).

If literary critics have said relatively little about the character, Faulkner's anonymous guitarist commonly reminds blues scholars of the many black singers who made records about the 1927 flood. David Evans identifies more than twenty prewar recordings that depict the event, including Jefferson's "Rising High Water Blues" (1927), Sippie Wallace's "The Flood Blues" (1927), and Lonnie Johnson's "Broken Levee Blues" (1928). Evans characterizes these songs as subversive counter narratives to the official accounts of the disaster--as opportunities for the oppressed and silenced to tell their side of the story and to protest the injustices perpetrated by the ruling class.

Many agree with Evans's assessment that the definitive flood blues is Patton's magisterial two-part "High Water Everywhere," released in the spring of 1930. Evans characterizes this song as a bold indictment of the conditions at the refugee camps and an unsparing critique of those rescuers who "either did not care or did not make as strong an effort as they might have" when it came to black victims of the disaster ("High Water" 64). Certainly, the second part of the song is a somber account of the waters consuming "fifty families and children," while a white onlooker callously comments, "Tough luck, they can drown." (9)

The affecting narrative of communal African American suffering in the song's second part tends to eclipse the fact that the song's up-tempo first part celebrates a single black individual's ability to triumph over a natural disaster and human authorities simultaneously. Despite having the implacable waters pursue him all across the Delta and despite being "barred" from the refuge of the "hill country" by whites, "poor Charley" nonetheless travels freely from town to town and ultimately elects to return to that forbidden high ground where, he says, he "won't be worried no more."

Uncompromising as it is, Patton's song is also sly and subtle: it is funkily energetic musical diversion as well as subversive social commentary. In the song's first verse, the speaker asserts that he will "tell the world" his story, and it is true that "High Water Everywhere" is not so much about the flood as it is about Patton's ability to communicate that experience and its meanings for black Americans--from the self-contained courage of individual escapees (in part one) to the desperate plight of the African American community as a whole (in part two). Patton thus used the popular medium of blues--controlled and recorded by white businessmen and marketed to the African American population as entertainment--for a tale of black self-actualization and an eloquent protest against the inequities of the flood relief effort.

Both Evans and Francis Davis identify Patton's song with the guitarist in "Old Man." Without further elaboration, the former suggests that "High Water Everywhere" provides a "mirror image" for the scenes on the levee in Faulkner's story ("High Water" 12), while the latter imagines that "If the world was the creation of E. L. Doctorow ... Patton would have crossed paths with William Faulkner. The singer would have been the model for the 'young, black, lean-hipped man' who, still strumming his guitar, boards a skiff full of blacks rescued from the flood" (98).

In fact, Faulkner's unnamed guitarist is akin to both Patton and his song's protagonist in several distinct ways. As a black refugee dependent upon a white rescue effort, the African American musician in "Old Man" could easily appear to be a passive victim, albeit one who is more fortunate than the doomed families in the second part of "High Water Everywhere." Yet, he also resembles the assured and potent protagonist of the song's first part as well as the performer himself: the guitarist's music rings across the levee, asserting the man's individuality and agency. In addition, it transpires that the guitarist's music has caused at least one involuntary white listener considerable consternation.

After the tall convict vanishes while seeking refugees, the warden of Parchman Farm penitentiary investigates his disappearance by interviewing a man who has been plucked to safety from the roof of a sinking cotton house. This unnamed white man, however, is too consumed with "impotence and rage" to provide useful testimony (66):

"I set there on that sonabitching cotton house, expecting hit to go any minute ... and them boats come up and they never had no room for me. Full of bastard niggers and one of them setting there playing a guitar but there wasn't no room for me. A guitar!" he cried; now he began to scream, trembling, slavering, his face twitching and jerking. "Room for a bastard nigger guitar but not for me." (67)

It is significant that of all the black people in the rescue boat, the white man from the cotton house specifically focuses his rage upon the guitar player. If the second part of Patton's song suggests that white rescuers neglected black victims of the flood, here the tables are turned: a boat full of African American refugees floats serenely past an imperiled white man, while one of their number even serenades him with a tune. That the black man pleasantly strums his guitar, apparently oblivious to the white man's fear of imminent drowning, is more than incongruous; the cotton house man seems to read it as a deliberate affront. The object of the white man's anger shifts rhetorically from the people in the boat ("bastard niggers") to the instrument ("A guitar. ... a bastard nigger guitar"), suggesting his rage at the fact that both people of color and an inanimate object apparently have priority over him, but also implying that the music itself is the crowning insult.

This scene in Faulkner's story is the exact reverse of an event that took place during the 1927 flood. In his remarkable history of the disaster, John M. Barry reports that, while black refugees in Greenville were forced to inhabit crude shelters and work on the levees, whites in the town were able to live much as usual and had freedom of movement, even traveling the river on steam boats. What is more, the white residents were not content to enjoy their privileged position silently: "Petty insults stirred more resentment. Whenever the steamer Capitol pulled away from the dock, its calliope routinely played 'Bye Bye Blackbird.' It was like a slap in the face to the blacks" (312). (10) The guitar player episode in "Old Man" turns this insult around. Now a rescued black man plays a tune for a stranded white man, and--whether or not the guitarist's choice of melody is as sarcastic as "Bye Bye Blackbird" in Barry's example--the rage of the cotton house man suggests that the guitarist's strumming is no less a slap in the face than the sound of the Capitofs calliope to Greenville's black community. Furthermore, there was at least one instance during the flood relief operation in which black people used music for thinly veiled social commentary. Hoping to secure Herbert Hoover's commitment to social reform in the Delta after the disaster, Robert R. Moton, the chairman of the Colored Advisory Commission, wrote of "a song that these people sang in the levee camps--that the flood had washed away the old account. They felt that the flood had emancipated them from a condition of peonage" (qtd. in Daniel 139-40).

In terms of their use of music as subtle social commentary, both Patton and the guitarist of "Old Man" resemble the biblical psalmist invoked in Faulkner's preferred choice for the title of his book. As Karl F. Zender notes, the full verse of Psalms 137 is "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning." Zender explains that "the cunning of which the Psalmist speaks is specifically his ability to perform as an artist" (59, 60). "Cunning" does not only connote artistic skill, however. As Vincent Allan King observes, the captive Jewish artist in Babylon
   must balance his audience's need for a song of liberation with the
   reality that this song will not be kindly received by the

   The psalmist, then, must sing two songs: the mirthful public song
   that his masters require and the more private and tragic song which
   reminds his people that they are never fully conquered as long as
   they can remember Jerusalem. (507)

In other words, the psalmist must be able to provide innocuous entertainment for the master class, while also being able to articulate subaltern counter narratives. Patton regularly performed for white audiences, providing both the mirth they demanded and, sometimes, subtle criticism that they may not have recognized. (11) Patton even presented a copy of his satirical record about local white authorities, "Tom Rushen Blues" (1929), to its eponymous subject, apparently confident that it would be accepted as jocular parody rather than pointed critique (Evans, "Charley Patton" 186). In Faulkner's story, the guitarist performs his supposedly innocuous musical entertainment from the safety of a boat, while the white man fears for his life stranded atop a sinking cotton house. In contrast to the Jews in Babylon, it is the audience, not the artist, who is literally captive on this occasion, and the guitarist's tune brings its listener not pleasure, but misery.

In response to the guitarist's spare but eloquent musicality--which implies a great deal without recourse to words--the white man can offer only hysterical verbiage and then impotent silence (JER 67). The Parchman warden gives the man from the cotton house the opportunity to regain control of his situation by narrating events in his own terms. His gibbering rage, however, only encourages the warden to ignore him, whereas the guitarist's tune is the dominant sound on the levee and is spellbinding to the tall convict.

A solo black guitarist in rural Mississippi in 1927 was almost inevitably a blues musician, and the cotton house man's complaint is an awkward imitation of blues verse. The impotent rage of the speaker distorts the elegant and economical AAB tradition of black folk music into an artless and redundant ABBB:
   I set there on that sonabitching cotton house, expecting hit to go
   any minute ... [T]hem boats come up and they never had no room for
   me. Full of bastard niggers and one of them setting there playing a
   guitar but there wasn't no room for me.... Room for a bastard
   nigger guitar but not for me. (67) (12)

The bluesman and the cotton house man evidently share a linguistic style, but the former's mastery of the genre is quite distinct from the latter's garbled hysteria.

Although the parallels between flood songs and the guitarist episode in "Old Man" make it tempting to speculate that Faulkner may have known something about canonical Delta blues recordings after all, my analysis is more concerned with the specific thematic function that the African American musician fulfills in the story. As Faulkner acknowledged, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem is a book organized around the principle of counterpoint (Lion in the Garden 247). Just as "Old Man" is a counterpoint to "The Wild Palms," so is the anonymous black guitarist a counterpoint to the equally anonymous convict-protagonist of "Old Man." Faulkner's story is centrally concerned with the discursive options and linguistic strategies available to the disenfranchised, whether white convicts or black flood refugees. The guitarist's aural prominence and the authority he possesses in the single scene in which he appears, as well as the palpable effects of his music upon both the cotton house man and the tall convict, reveal the potential for vernacular discourses to provide agency for the marginalized. In contrast, the tall convict struggles throughout the story to master either folk or popular discourses, ultimately becoming subject to them instead of liberated through them. If the guitarist has thoroughly mastered the skills of the Jewish psalmist in Babylon, the tall convict fails to control his narrative or to make his abilities as a storyteller work for him.

Critical opinion on Faulkner's tall convict--and thus the meanings of his story--has shifted fundamentally over the years. Recently, scholars have tended to emphasize the character's flaws, differing significantly from those earlier critics who focused upon his virtues. In one of the earliest book length studies of Faulkner's fiction, William Van O'Connor even describes the tall convict as "one of the most admirable figures Faulkner has created" and as "a man of great courage and almost unbelievable endurance" (Tangled Fire 105, 107). Another critic in the mid-1950s spoke similarly of the convict as "one of Faulkner's most engaging heroes, a man of awesome integrity" (Stonesifer 255). It is hard to imagine such unconditional endorsement in contemporary criticism. For McHugh, the tall convict is anything but heroic, characterized by "complacency rather than hubris, fear rather than courage, and impotence rather than strength" ("William Faulkner" 31). Anthony Dyer Hoefer describes the convict as merely "a comic fool" (551), and Daniel J. Singal goes still further, dismissing the character as "a pitifully inadequate being" (243). (13)

The differences among early and later critics concerning the tall convict are not as irreconcilable as they initially appear. The first generation of scholars commonly based its evaluations of the character primarily upon his conduct during the flood, whereas critics in recent years tend to concentrate upon his behavior at the end of Faulkner's story, particularly in relation to the tale that he narrates in the prison bunkhouse after his ultimate return to Parchman. In later life, Faulkner himself observed, semi-admiringly, that the tall convict is "just stupid and ignorant enough to bull right on through" the perils of the flood (Faulkner in the University 176-77). The author might reasonably have added, however, that, in the latter stages of the story, the convict is not astute or wise enough to weave his survival into a meaningful tale. The tall convict is a man of great potential while engaged in action, but who cannot achieve agency through narration.

Certainly, much of the recent scholarship on If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem emphasizes the protagonist's inability to convert his experience into compelling rhetoric or empowering discourse. King suggests that the tall convict in "Old Man" and the two lovers in the companion story, "Wild Palms," are "artist figures who refuse to respond creatively to their predicaments. They refuse to fashion their own life-stories. Instead, they confine themselves to pulp fictions, secondhand stories which are devoid of love and hope" (522). Similarly, Pamela Rhodes and Richard Godden argue that, after all his experiences, the convict has learned only how to "give his Parchman public what it wants--a verbal peep show, ... [an] oral tale of the proletariat as confined and impotent as Harry's reverie [at the end of 'Wild Palms']" (110). McHugh concludes that "Old Man" is "a satire of American capitalism and of the American working class's inability to imagine anything other than participation in its own exploitation" ("Birth of Tragedy" 64). (14)

It is true that the fundamental disparity between the convict's spare, laconic tale and Faulkner's lush, flamboyant story dramatically highlights the imaginative poverty of the former. Indeed, the profound contrast between the convict's dispassionate and perfunctory reportage and Faulkner's vibrant and affecting narrative art is another instance of the text's use of counterpoint. "After a while," the convict tells his fellow prisoners in Parchman, "we come to a house and we stayed there eight or nine days then they blew up the levee with dynamite so we had to leave" (211). This stark sentence's insufficiency is thrown into sharp relief by Faulkner's vivid eighteen-page dramatization of the same episode, in which the convict enters into a business partnership with the Cajan, a trapper, and discovers for the first time how fulfilling work can be outside the restrictive environment of the prison farm. The tall convict, in other words, leaves everything out of his description that really matters. As Cynthia Dobbs puts it, "the convict's terse version of events remains so much less interesting than Faulkner's.... [T]he convict has created only a dull tale of circularity" (832). (15) The problem is not that the tall convict cannot compete with Faulkner's sophisticated artistry. One does not have to be a literary writer to tell a powerful story, as the songs of the Delta blues reveal. There is no reason why the convict should not be able to weave his flood adventures into an oral narrative that is as simple and direct, yet as compelling and resonant, as "High Water Everywhere," but he does not.

The fundamental limitation of the tall convict's narrative--characterized by cynical irony and radical understatement--is that it fails to express either the substance of his experiences or the nature of his responses to them. Unlike Patton's powerful blues song about the flood, the convict's account deadens his adventures, draining them of all drama, emotion, detail, and meaning. The convict's deadpan and minimalist narrative voice barely hints at his habitual psychological state--bitter outrage, as the text repeatedly emphasizes (e.g., 21, 22, 123, 196). The story that he constructs is not a vehicle for conveying and exploring his experience; instead, it represses it. After all that he has endured and all he has seen, the only conclusion the tall convict can draw--his final statement in the book--is, at once, inarticulate, misogynistic, profane, and meaningless: "Women, shit" (287).

The convict's dispassionate narrative voice is not the natural, unmediated rhetoric of a stoic and laconic countryman, but an artifice of hardboiled impassivity, as mannered and contrived in its way as the rhetoric of the pulp crime stories that the convict curses for having influenced the outlaw behavior that brought him to Parchman in the first place. The convict is continually curt with the pregnant woman whom he saves from the flood. They seem to talk more during their initial encounter than they do throughout their lengthy association in the rest of the narrative (125-29). When questioned by a sympathetic doctor at one point in his odyssey, the convict gives the most cursory answers possible, reducing his crime to six simple words: "I tried to rob a train" (208). He is at his most effusive when communicating with his business partner, the Cajan, and, because of the language barrier, they converse only through mime. The convict finally elects to express himself only to the most insular and limited audience imaginable, a small coterie of men just like him: prisoners. Even before this audience, the convict assumes a mask of laconic pessimism that is entirely at odds with his frantically enraged mentality. (16) Where the guitarist--a marginalized black man--treats a nominally more powerful white man as a captive audience, emphasizing his own safety in contrast to the cotton house man's dire peril by casually strumming his guitar, the convict can only speak as a disenfranchised captive to other disenfranchised captives.

Adopting the role of the terse, macho, and self-assured cynic enables the convict to accept his lot with sarcastic humor, but prevents him from asserting himself or questioning the status quo. As a form of rhetoric, sardonic stoicism suggests that, lacking the power to change anything, people might as well find humor in the circumstances that they must endure. Although the convict becomes a celebrity in the prison bunkhouse for the bland account of his adventures, he also meekly accepts the unjust addition of ten years to his prison sentence as punishment for his unwitting disappearance during the flood. "All right," he says to the prison warden. "If that's the rule" (280). Legally, however, the convict is a free man: the prison authorities have officially discharged him because they assumed he was dead. Following his unexpected return, the warden and his associates move quickly to assure the convict that he must be punished for his absence. Although they narrate from a position of power and with more purpose and creativity than their prisoner, this manipulation is still entirely dependent upon the tall convict's complicity. Although he seems to understand that there is no substance to the dishonest bluster of the authorities, the convict is quite content to stay in prison. The story's grimly humorous punchline is that, in comparison to the perils of the flood, caring for a pregnant woman, and surviving a relentless series of frustrations, the convict prefers imprisonment to freedom.

Not only is the convict willing to be incarcerated, but twice in the narrative he is imprisoned through discourse. The convict's initial sentencing came about because he made the mistake of assuming that stories in pulp crime magazines could serve as reliable reference texts for the budding criminal. Following such examples "to the letter" led only to a disastrously inept attempt at a train robbery and to a prison cell, where he seethes with rage at the authors who misled him with "criminally false" information (21). At the end of the story, the tall convict loses his freedom again, but this time because of the lies of the Parchman authorities. He has come full circle, allowing others to shape and narrate his life for him once more. Although he cursed the pulp writers for inspiring his attempt at armed robbery, he does not question the lies of the Parchman authorities at all, nor does he criticize them, even privately, for returning him to prison. The convict's ultimate inability to convert his experience into productive narrative is curious given that "Old Man" initially appears to be a kind of bildungsroman, a narrative of experience and education, like that other great tale of a young man traveling down the Mississippi, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ursula Brumm even suggests that the river not only liberates the tall convict, but also "educates him to narrate his experience" (243). She claims that the convict's adventures turn him from a man who was "unable to express his thoughts and intentions" into "a creator, instead of an imitator of literature" (245, 247).

It is true that Faulkner's story and the flood give the convict a second chance--an opportunity to wrestle with real life adventures straight out of a pulp magazine and to become the narrator of his own exploits instead of remaining the victim of somebody else's stories of derring-do. As Brumm suggests, to some extent the passive consumer of misleading and sensationalist fiction becomes the authoritative reporter of unvarnished nonfiction. During his adventures on the river, the tall convict encounters a variety of examples of self-expression, which he adopts and works through, picking and choosing from them as he seeks to develop a voice of his own that will be more authentic and functional than the rhetoric of the popular crime stories by which he feels so betrayed. As the convict begins to tell his story to his fellow prisoners, he genuinely seems to be on the verge of a creative epiphany: "Then, suddenly and quietly, something--the inarticulateness, the innate and inherited reluctance for speech, dissolved and he found himself, listened to himself, telling it quietly, the words coming not fast but easily to the tongue as he required them" (280).

The ultimate limitations of the convict's narrative in the Parchman bunkhouse suggest, however, that something has gone awry. Conventionally, critics attribute the convict's failure as a narrator to inherent flaws in his character, such as his "monumental lack of imagination" (Millgate 177). (17) The convict's inability to master discourse is not necessarily inevitable; indeed, what is ironic and tragic about the convict's story is how he manages to wrest failure from the jaws of the potential victory outlined by Brumm. This failure, furthermore, is not purely the result of such inherent character traits as complacency or fear (McHugh, "William Faulkner" 31). It is not so much that the convict is doomed by a permanent flaw of character, but that an error is made: something crucial is lacking from his education or a vital lesson is misunderstood somewhere along the line.

At the outset of "Old Man," the tall convict does not understand or trust the power of discourse, having been led to prison by his misplaced faith in the fantasies of pulp magazines. Feeling betrayed by narrative and language, he withdraws from any attempt to express himself. He is unable to explain his motives at his initial trial because "he could not tell them at the trial, did not know how to tell them." While serving his sentence at Parchman Farm, he spends his time in silent bitterness, or "at times as he trod the richly shearing black earth behind his plow or with a hoe thinned the sprouting cotton and corn or lay on his sullen back in his bunk after supper, he cursed in a harsh steady unrepetitive stream" (22). This is the only reference to the tall convict speaking aloud in the story's opening chapter. Clearly, he has considerable facility for language if he can curse in a steady stream apparently without repeating himself--an act of oral improvisation as impressive as any blues singer's extemporaneous invention. The problem is that a stream of profanities is an entirely meaningless form of expression, however artfully arranged. The convict must develop a new faith in language, and he must find a more compelling form of discourse.

The first lesson that the tall convict receives during the flood is that those in authority are apt to ignore raised and desperate voices, although it is a lesson he initially fails to internalize. Early in the narrative, the truck carrying the Parchman convicts to the flood zone passes a cabin with water "up to the window ledges" and an imperiled black family perching upon the roof, awaiting help: "The woman on the housetop began to shriek at the passing truck, her voice carrying faint and melodious across the brown water, becoming fainter and fainter as the truck passed and went on, ceasing at last, whether because of distance or because she had stopped screaming those in the truck did not know" (54). The scene is reminiscent of Patton's "Tough luck, they can drown": the white rescue mission does not pause for a moment to consider the plight of an African American family. This passage reveals that even the loudest, most plaintive sounds are ineffective and, thus, essentially meaningless when uttered by those with no power. Indeed, one of the other convicts in the truck begins screaming for the guards to unlock their chains, but "for all the answer he got the men within radius of his voice might have been dead" (55). The bound lower-class white convicts are virtually as helpless as the black flood victims. Both are second-class citizens whose welfare is dependent upon the whims of the powerful and whose cries for mercy are apt to be ignored.

On two separate occasions later in the tale, the convict forgets this lesson and makes the mistake of raising his voice when trying to surrender to the authorities. Both times, his surrender is refused. After he gets lost in the flood, he begs a group of armed refugees to return him to prison, but they reject his pleas, assuming that he is insane or inebriated (140). Later, upon spying some soldiers, the convict runs toward them, shouting, "I want to surrender!" and receives only a burst of machine gun fire in reply (146). The tall convict must remember that those with power do not respond favorably to the shouted pleas of those without power and that he must find another mode of expression.

In the second chapter of the story, the convict encounters two instances of highly effective understatement, both of which influence the form of discourse that he ultimately adopts in the Parchman bunkhouse. Both examples derive from African American sources and each either involves or alludes to music. The convict's understanding of these forms of discourse, however, remains partial and incomplete.

The first instance is the moment when a Negro levee worker identifies the "profound deep whisper" of the river as the voice of the "Ole Man" (61). "He dont have to brag," another black character helpfully explains (62). Here is an important lesson: the most powerful do not have to shout or even speak above a whisper. The Mississippi River, which can wreak immense devastation, is authoritatively eloquent while barely "speaking." Although it is unlikely that Faulkner would have heard such flood blues records as "High Water Everywhere," he was surely familiar with Jerome Kern's and Oscar Hammerstein's Show Boat, the popular musical about theatrical folk on the Mississippi. The observation that the river "dont have to brag" is clearly indebted to Show Boat's most famous number, "Ol' Man River," in which Paul Robeson sings that the Mississippi 'Thus' know something / But don't say nothin'." (18)

If the river is so mighty that it need only whisper, then the convict can appear strong by similarly refusing to boast. This insight is the seed for the voice that the convict eventually develops in the prison bunkhouse. He emulates the river, submerging his impotent rage under a surface of blank irony. He adopts the narrative persona of one who "dont have to brag" and who knows more than he says. This allows him a measure of self-assertion, but it prevents him from incorporating into his narrative all the drama he has witnessed and all the heroism he has performed. In addition, nature has no actual speech, so for the convict to impersonate the river's "voice" is an implicit denial of his own humanity. Furthermore, to choose close-mouthed understatement in imitation of the river is to choose the rhetoric of the powerful without possessing the substance of that power. The convict's laconic cynicism is a verbal approximation of the Ole Man's whisper, but devoid of the force to back it up, it is as empty and meaningless as the character's earlier reliance upon streams of profanity.

Immediately after hearing about the Ole Man's whispering power, the convict encounters a more accessible and germane lesson on the potential of understatement when the black guitarist arrives on the levee. This figure's confident self-assertion is so dazzling that the convict becomes as deaf to the shouts of the guard as those in authority are to the screams of powerless victims of the flood. It is one thing for the convict to aspire to the soft-spoken power of the Ole Man, but the black guitarist provides a rather more attainable example. Faulkner's guitarist is the antithesis of the screaming, desperate victims of the flood. He is a man made powerful simply by his skills of musical discourse. Despite his position in the social hierarchy, he is indeed a human equivalent of Ole Man Mississippi--he does not need to shout or brag to make his presence and authority felt. In fact, he does not even need to speak at all: the strumming of his guitar is sufficient eloquence.

The convict does not realize that his brief vision of the guitarist constitutes only half a lesson. There are only two scenes in "Old Man" in which the tall convict is not present, both of which are important precisely because of the absence of the story's central viewpoint character. The two scenes are linked, furthermore, by the presence of the Parchman warden. The second such scene is in the story's final chapter, when the prison authorities discuss how they will manipulate the convict into returning to his cell. This episode paves the way for the convict's ultimate failure as a narrator, as it shows the prison administrators reasserting their rhetorical authority: the convict--who is legally free--will return to prison simply because they say he should. Their power over language is also their power over his future. In the course of his adventures, the convict has developed no desire for freedom, has found no way to question authority, and has discovered no form of discourse that will provide him with any real agency.

Ironically, the other scene in which the convict is not present provides a noteworthy example of how the powerless can speak truth to power, a lesson that could have inspired the tall convict to choose a very different rhetorical and narrative style--and a very different outcome--if only he had witnessed it. The tall convict is not present for the warden's interview with the man from the cotton house and thus does not get a sense of how the guitarist's music made a white person feel utterly powerless. The cotton house man's response to a perceived violation of conventional racial priorities is the same bitter and impotent rage displayed by the weakest and most vulnerable characters in the story--the black woman crying from the roof of the flooded house, the screaming convict in the truck, and the protagonist's stream of curses in prison as well as his pitiful attempts to surrender later in the narrative. The story provides no information about the man on the cotton house, but his location during the flood associates him with the financial and social power of the white planter: he is literally on top of the cotton economy. This figure, however, is rendered secondary to a black guitarist and, through his inarticulate shouting, is reduced to the level of an abandoned flood victim or a hapless lower-class convict.

The tall convict, however, sees the guitarist speaking only for himself, commanding everyone's attention but without apparently disturbing conventional hierarchies. In short, the convict learns only half a lesson from the guitarist: he learns the potential power that understated discourse possesses for the marginalized, and he learns how one can express oneself, even in the most oppressive of circumstances and in the sparest of terms. But the convict does not learn that the powerless can subvert authority, that the marginalized can speak back to power, or that the nominally weak can assert their freedom and independence through vernacular discourse.

In this respect, the convict resembles some of the pioneering blues scholars after World War II, who defined the music's lyric tradition as being essentially personal and rarely concerned with social commentary. In 1963, for example, the pioneering blues critic, Samuel Charters, declared that "[t]here is little social protest in the blues" (152), and concluded that "the Negro in America ... has turned to the blues as the expression of his personal and immediate experience" (173). Similarly, Peter Guralnick asserted in 1971 that "blues for the most part confines itself to a very restricted range of subjects: women and whiskey, but rarely social conditions; sexual but never political innuendo" (39).

In contrast, recent scholars draw attention to a subtext of social resistance in the blues. Gussow, for example, demonstrates through incisive study of specific songs and related writings how "black southerners evolved blues song as a way of speaking back to, and maintaining psychic health in the face of, an ongoing threat of lynching" (Seems Like Murder xii).19 If the tall convict reads the blues like Charters and Guralnick, the man on the cotton house is almost as attentive as Gussow to the potential social implications of an apparently innocuous song--although the latter character is enraged by such a performance, whereas the blues critic celebrates the music's implicit rebellion. The convict hears the Mississippi psalmist's music only as public entertainment, whereas the cotton house man appears to recognize the private song of resistance.

As a consequence of his semi-education, the convict develops a voice that is spare and minimal--like the whisper of the Ole Man and like the guitarplaying of the black man--but which lacks either the authority of the river or the subtle subversion of the bluesman's music. The convict imitates the superficial forms of these discourses--just as he earlier imitated the style of pulp fiction--without any of their substance. Although the cynical, deadpan language that the convict adopts has the potential for resistance, he merely conforms to what the system demands of him.

As well as failing to understand the potential of discourse to subvert power, the tall convict continues to lack insight about the importance of context. He was originally imprisoned because of his failure to understand that stories in pulp magazines are fantastic inventions, not reflections of or guides to reality. Although the guitarist provides a vivid lesson in the importance of context, the convict remains none the wiser. The guitarist uses an understated rhetoric--music without words--because he is not powerful, unlike the Mississippi River, which whispers because it is all-powerful. In a context in which it would be dangerous to speak openly, the black musician does not sing a lyric as overt as "High Water Everywhere" and appears to be doing nothing more than innocently strumming on a guitar. But the very fact that he deigns to play entertaining music while a white man is in danger of drowning is a subtly subversive act. The absence of vocals, furthermore, implies that there are lyrics the guitarist could sing, but chooses not to sing in this context. Equally, Robert Palmer speculates that Patton's recorded version of "High Water Everywhere" may be less overt in its social commentary than when the bluesman performed the song for exclusively black audiences (75).

The tall convict adopts the guitarist's understated form of rhetoric, but without any apparent sense of its function, purpose, or how it is tailored for a specific situation and audience. The convict learns to use a minimalist style of discourse in all situations as if he does not discern the relationship between the guitarist's particular choice of discourse and the specific context in which this discourse is used. Even within the safety of the bunkhouse, amongst his fellow prisoners, the convict relies upon the same, understated style that the guitarist mobilizes in dangerous circumstances and before potentially hostile listeners. The tall convict's narrative, then, is a slavish imitation of a model that is essentially irrelevant to his context. Just as he misapplied the discourses of pulp fiction, so does he misapply the rhetoric of both the Ole Man and the blues guitarist.

In sum, the convict is an inept reader of popular culture. His experiences during the flood could have taught him that contexts can change radically--that a river can flow backward and that a convict can freely sail the waterways--but he never learns how to develop forms of vernacular discourse that can be mobilized effectively in a variety of situations and for different audiences. If the guitarist achieves agency through folk discourse, the convict's attempts to mobilize vernacular rhetoric merely provide a narrative framework and philosophical rationale for his incarceration and disenfranchisement.

Given Faulkner's interest in rural African American traditions and his renowned distaste for mass culture, it is tempting to read "Old Man" as both a celebration of the empowering nature of authentic black folk culture and a critique of the emptiness of commercial popular culture. Divorced from any tradition he can truly call his own, the tall convict first becomes subject to the mass-manufactured fantasies of pulp fiction and, later, a clueless emulator of African American folk expression. He engages with both forms in an entirely superficial manner, merely impersonating their outward characteristics and postures. He is unable to define himself in relation to either consumer society's escapist entertainment (because it is essentially meaningless) or black America's countercultural expression (because he does not understand its meanings).

From a twenty-first-century perspective, however, the division between folk and popular culture is entirely artificial. Indeed, the blues is an instructive example of a form that erases the distinction between such categories as folk and popular: the genre began as an oral tradition and achieved global prominence as a popular form disseminated through mass media. Today, "Old Man" effectively operates as a dramatization of two conflicting conceptions of popular culture. The spell cast over the convict by pulp fiction suggests a crudely Marxist notion of popular culture, in which the masses are simply helpless subjects of a dominant hegemony. In contrast, the black guitarist's command of musical rhetoric reflects a more contemporary notion of popular culture as having the potential to resist or evade the power of socially dominant forces and ideologies (Fiske 20). The tall convict is a classic stooge of ruling-class hegemony, whereas the lean-hipped guitarist subverts the status quo, demonstrating that popular culture "is made by the people, not imposed upon them.... Popular culture is the art of making do with what the system provides" (25).

The guitarist's tune and the rage that it engenders in the cotton house man signals a temporary disruption of conventional racial hierarchies brought about by the flood, but the convict is unable to profit from such disruption. If the white man from the cotton house temporarily becomes socially less important than a man of color, then the tall convict symbolically becomes less than white. In fact, one early Faulkner scholar even mistakenly assumed that the protagonist of "Old Man" was "a Negro convict from the vicinity of Frenchman's Bend" (Miner 101). More recently, Lester claims that, although the convict clearly is not literally African American, his "marginal status in relation to the community and his experience of the flood code him black" ("Great Migration" 201). Certainly, as Lester observes, the text consistently equates the Parchman convicts with Negroes or even slaves. More specifically, the tall convict takes on the characteristics of two particular black figures. He is a victim of the flood, like the woman screaming from the roof of the shack, and he is a survivor and narrator of the event, like the guitarist. What is most significant about the convict's symbolic blackness, however, is that he is not able to convert his blurred racial identity into any kind of advantage. (20) He adopts the style of the guitarist while remaining as powerless as the screaming woman. Faulkner's guitarist turns the breakdown of racial orthodoxies brought about by the flood into cause for celebration. For the convict, in contrast, being coded as black simply means becoming subject to the most negative of racial stereotypes.

A decade before the Mississippi flood, a famous study of American slavery by an esteemed historian from Georgia encapsulated conservative Southern orthodoxies regarding people of color. Ulrich Bonnell Phillips's American Negro Slavery (1918) describes black Americans of the past as being characterized by "obsequious obedience, the avoidance of open indolence and vice, the attainment of moderate skill in industry, and the cultivation of the master's good will" (328). In short, "negroes furnished inertly obeying minds and muscles; slavery provided a police" (339). In his book's preface, furthermore, Phillips talks of his experiences at a modern army camp, observing that, in the present day, "negroes ... show the same easy-going, amiable, serio-comic obedience and the same personal attachments to white men, as well as the same sturdy light-heartedness and the same love of laughter ... which distinguished their forbears" in slavery (xxiv).

Parchman Farm essentially took up where the antebellum plantation left off. If, for Phillips, slave plantations had been "the best schools yet invented for the mass training of that sort of inert and backward people which the bulk of the American negroes represented," then some commentators defined the state prison as fulfilling an equivalent role in the twentieth century (343). As David M. Oshinsky notes in his study of incarceration in Jim Crow Mississippi, the memoir of one white Southerner even characterizes time at "Parchman as a smooth and simple extension of normal black life: 'They do the same work, eat the same food, sing the same songs, play the same games of dice and cards, fraternize with their fellows, attend religious services on Sunday mornings and receive visitors on Sunday afternoons'" (136).

African American commentators rejected such a benevolent vision of life at Parchman, just as they dismissed romanticized notions about paternal slavery. As Oshinsky observes, "The black convicts took a rather different view. Their prison songs ... portrayed Long-Chain Charlie [the traveling sergeant of Parchman] as an evil man who stole their freedom and brought them despair" (136). Certainly, no blues song on the subject of the Mississippi penitentiary likens servitude there to "normal black life." The protagonist of Bukka White's "Parchman Farm Blues" (1940), for example, complains of being separated from his loving wife and having to work daily from dawn to sunset. He concludes that, "If you wanna do good, you better stay off ol' Parchman Farm." (21)

The tall convict in "Old Man" conforms to the stereotypes that such whites as Phillips wished to believe about black people and their experiences in such institutions as prison or slavery. The story's description of Parchman Farm emphasizes its similarities to the antebellum plantation: "there is no walled penitentiary in Mississippi; it is a cotton plantation which the convicts work under the rifles and shotguns of guards and trusties" (21). In every respect, the tall convict is a submissive, loyal, hardworking, and sober slave on this plantation, with an amiable line in ironic but unthreatening humor. During his adventure in the flood, he thinks longingly of "the familiar fields where he did work he had learned to do well" (139). In Phillips's terms--the terms of the Jim Crow South--the tall convict is everything that a slave or person of color is supposed to be. He certainly is no Charley Patton, and, while the convict may imitate his understated rhetoric, he is nothing like Faulkner's guitarist either.

The limitations of the convict's rhetoric in contrast to that of the guitarist reveal that "Old Man" represents a transitional moment in Faulkner's depiction of black people. In the author's earlier fiction that engages directly with issues of race, the African American or mixed-race characters tend to be doomed tragic victims (such as Joe Christmas in Light in August or Charles Bon in Absalom, Absalom!) or models of patient endurance (most notably, Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury). Faulkner's few subversive black characters prior to the guitarist--such as Caspey in Flags in the Dust or Loosh in The Unvanquished--tend to be both unsympathetic and ridiculous. However, Faulkner's great work of the 1940s, Go Down, Moses, conceptualizes a much broader range of possibilities for black characters--from the victimization of Rider in "Pantaloon in Black" to the rebellious antics of the proud and confident Lucas Beauchamp in "The Fire and the Hearth." Indeed, the contrast between the guitarist's triumphant mobilization of discourse and the impoverished rhetoric of the tall convict in "Old Man" paves the way for the emergence of Lucas--and for his resistance to and manipulation of the powerful planter, Carothers McCaslin, as well as his canny exploitation of a hapless white salesman.

In contrast, despite his consumption of pulp fiction and his evident admiration for the black guitarist, the tall convict cannot fashion a vernacular narrative that provides him with any agency. He embraces the discourse of tough guy minimalism in the Parchman bunkhouse because he lacks the rhetorical skills to negotiate and to make sense of life in the outside world. He proves incapable of constructing a vernacular tale that might invest his experience with meaning--a tale that conceptualizes the majestic chaos of the flood, the tragedy of the family abandoned to the rising waters, the terror of a snake-infested Indian mound, the patient courage of his pregnant female companion, the joy of working for himself in the Louisiana swamps, or the hypocrisy of the prison system. For all his heroism, the convict cannot sing a song of himself as empowering or dramatic as either "High Water Everywhere" or the wordless tune of Faulkner's forgotten bluesman.

Northern Illinois University


Patton's song was not published during the performer's lifetime. The primitive sound quality of the existing recordings and the singer's rumbling delivery make accurate transcription of the lyrics a challenging task. In creating the following version, I have taken the recording as my copy-text, but have also consulted a variety of published transcriptions, particularly those by Dick Spottswood, David Evans ("High Water"), and Stephen Calt and Gayle Wardlow. Italics denote Patton's frequent spoken interjections.


1 The backwater done rose around Sumner now, drove me down the line Backwater done rose at Sumner, drove poor Charley down the line And I'll tell the world the water done struck Drew'ses town.

2 Lord, the whole round country, Lord, river has overflowed Lord, the whole round country, man, is overblowed You know I can't stay here, I'm--I'll go where it's high, boy I would go to the hill country, but they got me barred

3 Now looky here, now, Leland, river was risin' high Looky here, boys around Leland tell me, river is ragin' high Boy, it's risin' over there, yeah I'm gonna move over to Greenville 'fore I bid you goodbye

4 Looky here, the water done, Lordy, done broke, rose most everywhere The water at Greenville and Leland, mowin' down rows everywhere Boy, you can't never stay here I would go down to Rosedale, but they tell me it's water there

5 Now, the water now, mama, done struck Shaw'ses town Well, they tell me the water done struck Shaw'ses town Boy, you can't never stay here Well, I'm goin' to Vicksburg on a high of mine

6 I am goin' out high water, where lands don't never flow Well, I'm goin' over the hill where water, oh it don't never blow Boy, Sharkey County and Issaquena's drowned and inched over Bolivar Country was inchin' over that Tallahatchie shore Boy, went to Tallahatchie, they got it over there

7 Lord, the water done rushed all up that old Jackson road Lord, the water done raise-ed over the Jackson road Boy, it starched my clothes I'm goin' back to the hilly country, won't be worried no more


1 Backwater at Blytheville, backed up all around Backwater at Blytheville, done took Joiner town It was fifty families and children suffer to sink and drown

2 The water was risin' up in my friend's door The water was risin' up in my friend's door The man said to his womenfolk, "Lord, wed better go"

3 The water was risin', got up in my bed Lord, the water rollin', got up to my bed I thought I would take a trip, Lord, out on the big ice sled

4 Oh, I hear the horn blow, blowin' upon my door Blowin'? ... Couldn't hear it I hear the ice boat, Lord, was sinkin' down I couldn't get no boat there, levee and city gone down

5 Oh, high the water risin', our men sinkin' down Sayin' the water was risin', airplanes is all around Boy, they's all around It were fifty men and children: "Tough luck, they can drown"

6 Oh-oooh, Lordy, women and grown men down Ahh-oh, women, children sinkin' down Lord, have mercy! I couldn't see nobody home and was no one to be found

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(1) See Adam Gussow, "Plaintive Reiterations and Meaningless Strains: Faulker's Blues Understandings," and Thadious M. Davis for examination of these elements in Faulkner's early fiction.

(2) For analysis of blues elements in "That Evening Sun," see Ken Bennett, Carol B. Gartner, Charles A. Peek, and Gussow, "Plaintive Reiterations."

(3) For discussion of the protagonist of "Pantaloon in Black" as a non-musical blues figure, see Gussow, "Plaintive Reiterations" (55).

(4) Regarding Faulkner's increasing antipathy to radios, jukeboxes, gramophones, and amplified sound of any kind, see Joseph Blotner (1220, 1291), Joel Williamson (254), Karl F. Zender (20-23), and Cheryl Lester, "Make Room for Elvis" (158-63).

(5) Jefferson recorded his first blues sides in March 1926, and his first blues record was advertised in the Chicago Defender on April 3, just five weeks after the appearance of Faulkner's debut novel on February 25. Reliable sales figures are not available, but Gioia suggests that Jefferson's records may have sold in six-figure quantities (43).

(6) Traditional country music made a similar breakthrough almost simultaneously with the first historic recordings by the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers taking place in 1927. See Bill C. Malone.

(7) See William Barlow for an account of how the blues developed during its journey from the country to the city.

(8) For discussion of blues songs about the flood, see David Evans, "High Water Everywhere: Blues and Gospel Commentary on the 1927 Mississippi Flood." For analysis of the influence of the flood upon Faulkner's fiction, see Anthony Dyer Hoefer and Susan Scott Parrish.

(9) See the appendix for a full transcription of the song's lyrics.

(10) David M. Oshinsky reports a parallel instance in Hernando, Mississippi in 1934 in which white onlookers sang "Bye, Bye, Blackbird" at the funerals of three African American men who had been executed for allegedly raping a white girl (210-13).

(11) See Evans, "Charley Patton: The Conscience of the Delta" (152, 157), and Stephen Calt and Gayle Wardlow (79) for discussion of Patton's engagement with white audiences.

(12) This is not the only occasion in which speech in Faulkner's fiction resembles blues verse. Peek's illuminating analysis of a scene in "That Evening Sun" shows that if one omits other characters' interjections and isolates the lines spoken by the black character Nancy, it becomes apparent that she is speaking an AAB blues-form lyric (134).

(13) Anne Goodwyn Jones even likens the tall convict's attitudes to those of Hitler's Freikorps (157).

(14) For other views of the convict's failures as narrator, see Gary Harrington and King.

(15) As Michael Grimwood puts it, "when the hero of 'Old Man' opens his mouth ... he cannot speak quickly or articulately enough for the circumlocutory narrator, who impatiently breaks in to translate" (108).

(16) The convict's style of narration may be an acid caricature of Hemingway's prose and a parody of the speech of that author's taciturn male heroes. See W. R. Moses, Edward H. Richardson, and O'Connor, "Faulkner's One-Sided 'Dialogue' with Hemingway" for consideration of Faulkner's engagement with Hemingway's work in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem.

(17) For a different reading of "Old Man" as a story of failed enlightenment, see Rhodes and Godden.

(18) The song was a national hit in 1928, and the first film version of the musical--also featuring Robeson--emerged in May 1936 during Faulkner's tenure at Twentieth-Century Fox as a screenwriter. For discussion of both the musical and "Ol' Man River," see Todd Decker and Miles Kreuger.

(19) For extensive studies of the political and ideological dimensions of the blues, see Angela Y. Davis and R. A. Lawson.

(20) In this respect, the tall convict is much like Faulkner's most famous racially ambiguous protagonist, the tragic and doomed Joe Christmas of Light in August.

(21) I transcribed these lyrics from the recording.
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Author:Ryan, Tim A.
Publication:The Faulkner Journal
Date:Mar 22, 2013

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