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May 4, 2015

Book Notes - Tim A. Ryan "Yoknapatawpha Blues: Faulkner's Fiction and Southern Roots Music"

Yoknapatawpha Blues: Faulkner's Fiction and Southern Roots Music

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Tim A. Ryan's Yoknapatawpha Bluesa fascinating book that draws parallels between Falkner and the lyrics of Delta blues songs of the 1920s and 1930s, and is one of the finest works of criticism I have read on the confluence of literature and music.

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Tim A. Ryan's Book Notes music playlist for his book Yoknapatawpha Blues: Faulkner's Fiction and Southern Roots Music:

It always seemed strange to me that there wasn't a book about William Faulkner and the blues. The author was a neighbor of Charley Patton, Skip James, and Robert Johnson, and he produced his renowned fictional chronicle of the South—in such novels and stories as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and "A Rose for Emily"—at exactly the same time as those Delta musicians were making records like "A Spoonful Blues," "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues," and "Hell Hound on My Trail." I got a vivid sense of the close relationship between Faulkner and music during my first day in Mississippi, when I visited Elvis Presley's birth-house in Tupelo in the morning and Faulkner's home at Rowan Oak in the afternoon. The confluence of modernist literature and song in the South is so pervasive and so provocative that I couldn't resist writing about it.

I discuss several of the songs on this playlist in detail in Yoknapatawpha Blues; the other tracks are crucial inspirations.

"Jockey Full of Bourbon" (1985) by Tom Waits
Like many British teenagers of my generation, I fell in love with an exotic, imaginary America long before I ever came here: the land of Winesburg, Ohio and Zora Neale Hurston's Eatonville, film noir and screwball comedy, the Jazz Age and the New Deal, Thomas Hart Benton and Edward Hopper, bebop and the blues. Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County is a central fixture of that mythological American landscape and close kin to what Tom Waits calls his "surrural" musical world—simultaneously surreal and rural. Furthermore, just as Waits casually incorporates familiar folk songs into his compositions—such as the traditional English nursery rhyme, "Ladybird, Ladybird," in "Jockey Full of Bourbon"—Faulkner's works include myriad echoes of vernacular music and lyrics.

"High Water Everywhere, Part 1" (1930) by Charley Patton
Faulkner's story about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, "Old Man," includes among the refugees from the disaster a young black man who—seemingly oblivious to the chaos all around him—strums a guitar as he climbs out of a rescue boat and marches across the levee. It may be a brief cameo appearance, but this blues musician dominates the scene and transfixes the story's narrator. He is exactly like the character voiced by Charley Patton in "High Water Everywhere," who roams freely across the Mississippi Delta during the same calamity, singing of the devastation everywhere he goes.

"Burn, Don't Freeze" (1999) by Sleater-Kinney
My critical work is primarily concerned with connections, juxtapositions, dialogue, and parallels within and between texts and media. No surprise, then, that I never get tired of listening to the double-voiced "Burn, Don't Freeze," on which Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein take Sleater-Kinney's familiar twin-vocal approach to its logical extreme, each simultaneously singing an entirely separate song for three minutes. There's a wonderful competitive tension between the two voices as each vies for the attention of the listener. And there's the dramatic contrast of the two: Tucker's fiery, splenetic yelp ("Use me up just to fan the flame / But you'll be sorry as I'm walking away") and Brownstein's icily ironic reduction of breakup agony to a slick pop maxim ("Fire to water, fire / Baby, baby's putting me out"). Yet, these two warring vocal lines are also unexpectedly complementary and harmonious. "Burn, Don't Freeze" could have ended up as arch self-parody, but, instead, it's an electrifying tour-de-force.

"Dead Shrimp Blues" (1936) by Robert Johnson
Blues critics tend to be a little squeamish and evasive about the transparently crude metaphor for male sexual dysfunction in "Dead Shrimp Blues," but Faulkner didn't hesitate to use the same image in Sanctuary. Having stumbled into a nest of gangsters and bootleggers—where he imbibes way too much moonshine—the book's protagonist, impotent lawyer Horace Benbow, rants about his wife's regular demand for a package of shrimp: "All the way home it drips and drips," he laments. "Here lies Horace Benbow in a fading series of small stinking spots on a Mississippi sidewalk." When Johnson's speaker complains about his shrimp being dead and gone, he is essentially making the same confession.

"Good Morning Heartache" (1946) by Billie Holiday
Jazz purists often disdain the lushly-arranged pop records that Holiday made in the 1940s, but the interplay between the vocal and the orchestra on "Good Morning Heartache" is just beautiful. I was always skeptical of Donald Clarke's vague, second-hand story about Holiday hanging out with Faulkner, since no other biographer of either the singer or the author so much as alludes to such an encounter. And then I discovered the photograph of Billie and Bill together in New York that was taken by Ebony's Moneta Sleet. It's hard to imagine a more iconic pairing: after all, it's not like F. Scott Fitzgerald accompanied Bessie Smith to speakeasies or that Hemingway ever went fishing with Son House.

"Ping Pong" (1994) by Stereolab
I have never forgotten Kurt Vonnegut's judgment that "Any person who can't explain his work to a fourteen-year-old is a charlatan." I aspire to write literary scholarship that isn't turgid, spiritless, or arcane, and I admire people who condense complex ideas into accessible, succinct, and engaging terms. "Ping Pong," for example, provides a blisteringly ironic Marxist analysis of the boom-bust cycle of late-capitalist economies and the necessarily grim implications for humanity—in just three minutes, with a cool Gallic accent, over a frisky piece of alternative pop.

"Folsom Prison Blues" (1955) by Johnny Cash
Faulkner's fiction frequently echoes country music as well as the blues. In The Mansion, convict Mink Snopes glares enviously at the passing trains with "lighted cars . . . in which people were eating supper." Faulkner wrote this scene just a couple of years after the inmate in Johnny Cash's country-chart-topping "Folsom Prison Blues" observed, "I bet there's rich folks eatin' in a fancy dining car / They're probably drinkin' coffee and smoking big cigars."

"Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" (1971) by Marvin Gaye
Despite its title, the final track on What's Going On is not technically blues, but it does draw upon some of the genre's impulses, themes, and techniques. Where Patton sang of Jim-Crow-era Mississippi as a place where every day seems like murder, Gaye sings of poverty, oppression, and violence in modern urban America. Just like a 1920s blues song, "Inner City Blues" advances its incisive and multilayered commentary through impressively minimalist and pithy rhymes ("Rockets, moonshots / Spend it on the have-nots"). Like Robert Johnson's recordings—and even some of Faulkner's more astute stories about race—Gaye's song, for all its dour subject matter, is a beautiful work of art that testifies to the resilience of African American communities and the vibrancy of black music. When a journalist asked Scottish songwriter Paul Buchanan of the Blue Nile where he'd most like to live, his simple reply was: "in the first sixteen bars of Marvin Gaye's 'Inner City Blues.'"

"Last Kind Words Blues" (1930) by Geeshie Wiley
In what is the eeriest and most ethereal of blues songs—both musically and lyrically—Wiley's speaker seems to describe a ghostly encounter with the husband who left her to serve in World War I and never returned. It cannot help but remind me of Faulkner's "That Evening Sun," in which Nancy is convinced that her mysteriously absent lover has come back to haunt the kitchen of the white family for whom she works. As I studied the song and the story closely, it gradually dawned on me that, as well as their shared emphasis upon the supernatural, each features imagery—hanging and burning in Faulkner, buzzards feasting on human remains in Wiley—that subtly implies, without ever being explicit, the most horrifying fact of black experience in Jim Crow America: lynching.

"You Better Run" (1955) by Dorothy Love Coates and the Original Gospel Harmonettes
"You Better Run" evokes the unsettling passage in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! concerning "that dream-state in which you run without moving from a terror in which you can not believe, toward a safety in which you have no faith." Even as Coates exhorts sinners to flee to refuge—in a voice that is equal parts effervescent youth and imperious matriarch—she coldly declares such flight to be utterly futile. She's a wonderful gospel singer, but she'd make one hell of an intimidating Sunday school teacher.

"You Are What You Love" (2006) by Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins
As a citizen of the present who is interested in the culture of the past, I'm intrigued by contemporary engagements with the pre-Beatles musical universe. Lewis's Rabbit Fur Coat album stages a series of encounters between sharp, smart-alecky indie songwriting and soulful, cosmopolitan country (with occasional echoes of gospel, r&b, folk, and rock 'n' roll): the late-1950s filtered through the early 21st century. I particularly enjoy how "You Are What You Love" dramatizes the contrast between the unvarnished expression of raw experience that we associate with old-time music—such as blues and country—and the self-conscious contrivances of the privileged artist in an insulated, air-conditioned, and digitally-mediated world: "I'm fraudulent, a thief at best / A coward who paints a bullshit canvas / Things that will never happen to me."

"Star Eyes" (1950) by Charlie Parker
If there are numerous references and allusions to blues, country, and gospel in Faulkner's fiction, he wrote surprisingly little about jazz. After the memorable description of a hot dance orchestra's "rhythmic troubling obscenities of saxophones" in his first novel, Soldiers' Pay, Faulkner seemed barely conscious of such music. He may have produced his most imperishable fiction during the Jazz Age and the Big Band Era, but he expected restauranteurs and storeowners to unplug radios and jukeboxes whenever he graced their premises, and he once claimed to "prefer silence to sound." He probably wouldn't have tolerated bop for a second, even though it showcased the same kind of modernist innovation in music that he brought to American fiction. I, however, can't imagine any kind of playlist that doesn't feature Charlie Parker.

"Moving" (1973) by Howlin' Wolf
A portrait of the artist as an old man: aged 62, the Wolf gamely tries to recapture the spark of his glory days. Unable to commit the lyrics of "Moving" to memory, he relies upon an embarrassingly audible prompter shouting each line into his ear, yet still manages to mangle the second verse. Even so, it's a great recording: the valorous battle of a former musical giant against the cruel ravages of age and poor health, aided by Hubert Sumlin's reliably perky guitar. This song reminds me that Faulkner similarly kept writing into his final years, and—even as he acknowledged that he had no fire left in him anymore—still produced some great fiction.

Tim A. Ryan and Yoknapatawpha Blues: Faulkner's Fiction and Southern Roots Music links:

the author's website
the book's website

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
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guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
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Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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