MLA Abstracts 2009

MLA Session 365. Music, Resistance, and “the Long Civil Rights Movement”, is scheduled to take place at 8:30+9:45 a.m. on 29-DEC-09 in Grand Ballroom Salon L, Philadelphia Marriott

1. Mark Breen Doerries, Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music

Literary Lynching Dramas and William Grant Still’s And They Lynched Him On A Tree: Reterritorializing the 1920s American Racial Landscape

Commenting upon his controversial 1940 choral ballade And They Lynched Him On A Tree, William Grant Still writes, “If I have a wish to express, it would be that my music may serve a purpose larger than mere, music. If it will help in some way to bring about better interracial understanding in America and in other countries, then I will feel that the work is justified.” Still’s graphic composition depicts a United States in the early 20th century reeling from institutionalized white supremacy manifested via intimidation and violence against black Americans. Still and librettist Katherine Garrison Chapin sought a balance between a desire to speak out against racism and aspirations of acceptance as established artists, on par with the white American and European male composers and writers of the early 20th century. And They Lynched Him On A Tree, despite its vitriolic title, is a compromise between these poles, rewritten no less than three times to temper its accusatory and inflammatory charges against white Americans – the work remains unperformed in Still’s home state of Mississippi. Finding inspiration in contemporary literature, the work models itself upon the literary genre of the lynching drama whose foundational authors include Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Alice Dunbar Nelson and Angelina Grimké. Out of an environment where threats of mob violence and hangings were acutely palpable, the voice of a generation of playwrights and musicians quietly protesting a sordid existence claimed their artistic freedom. The Harlem Renaissance of 1920 New York City gave credence to writers, actors, painters, and musicians to tell the narrative of the collective struggles of black Americans. Lynching dramas reached maturation during the mid 1920s becoming an important vehicle for civil protest and became a structural and narrative model for Still’s composition. This essay examines the literary lynching drama as an independent genre and suggests analogs within Still’s And They Lynched Him On A Tree in an effort to explore the role Still, Chapin, and their composition played in reterritorializing the racial landscape of the 20th century.

2. Ted Atkinson, Mississippi State University

Discord in the Segregated Self: Reworking Freedom Songs in Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi

In what can be called the dominant cultural narrative of the civil rights movement in America, a recurring scene—one projected repeatedly, for example, in documentaries and feature films—is a throng of protestors marching to the beat of the same drum: nonviolent resistance to the oppressive forces of white supremacy. Adding to the harmony of the protestors in such scenes is the inspirational and mobilizing power of the freedom song—a 1960s descendant of the work songs and spirituals sung by slaves to preserve human resilience and hope in a system designed to rob them of those very qualities. Underscoring the cohesive power of freedom songs, an article in the Encyclopedia of Black Studies defines them as “a unifying force” that served as “tools for survival that drew together people of differing backgrounds and experiences in a centralized struggle for human rights” (Simmons 250). In her memoir Coming of Age In Mississippi, Anne Moody draws on freedom songs for opposite effects, reworking them to reveal dissent among the dissenters and to express key components of her identity as a segregated self. References to freedom songs in Moody’s memoir, rather than evoking reconciliation and harmony, ironically call attention to her feelings of isolation and alienation. As an African American growing up in Mississippi during Jim Crow, Moody faces the full range of social, political, and cultural forces of oppression designed to preserve white supremacy; as the first member of her family to earn a college degree and to become a political activist, she feels like an alien among her relatives; as a determined young woman who works tirelessly for the NAACP, CORE, and SNCC, she encounters gender bias in a movement dominated by male figures such as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Moody’s perspective is forged from what Nellie McKay, in analyzing African American women’s autobiography, calls a “complex angle of vision” from which “the black female narrative self makes of black female identity an exploration of differences from—and limits of loyalty to—black men and all others” (97). Examining references to freedom songs in Moody’s memoir exposes how she appropriates them toward the ends that McKay describes, constructing an autobiographical self whose alienated stance broadens the terms of critique. For Moody, the critical focus fixes not only on the ideology and injustices of white supremacy but also on the myth of unqualified harmony weaved into cultural narratives of a male-dominated civil rights movement that Moody served with vigor but was reluctant to join completely.

Works Cited
McKay, Nellie. “The Narrative Self: Race, Politics, and Culture in Black American Women’s Autobiography.” Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader. Ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1998. 96-107.

Moody, Anne. Coming of Age in Mississippi. New York: Dell, 1968.

Simmons, Mawusi Renee . “Freedom Songs.” Encylopedia of Black Studies. Ed. Molefi K. Asante and Ama Mazama. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005. 250-252.

3. Gary Richards, University of Mary Washington

Calpurnia; or, Not Much Change: Imagining the U.S. South in the Contemporary American Musical

Drawing upon theories of racial and regional identity and seeking to address the relative absence of region-based lenses in critical assessments of musical theater, this paper surveys the vexed status of the U.S. South as depicted in (primarily) twenty-first-century Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals. With few exceptions, this dramatic form presents the South exclusively as a site of racial tension between black and white Americans, the shadow of the nation’s racist past and thus largely the same South as depicted in Broadway’s now-canonical foundational works such as Show Boat (1927) and Porgy and Bess (1935). The ostensibly groundbreaking Caroline, or Change (2004), Dessa Rose (2005), The Color Purple (2005), and even Hairspray (2002), seemingly dismissible in its giddiness alongside these self-consciously serious productions, not only usefully and all too accurately remind of the South’s post-slavery legacy of racial strife but also, given the relative absence of other southern representations, reduce the South to only this legacy. Even musicals with southern settings that move beyond overt depictions of black/white conflict, such as Parade (1998) and The Great American Trailer Park Musical (2005), remain squarely within the realm of racially- or ethnically-defined tensions. To do so, the settings are almost always relegated to the past: the 1960s of Caroline and Hairspray, the early twentieth century and the Depression of Parade and The Color Purple, the antebellum era of Dessa Rose. Missing is any sort of contemporary harmonious southern multiculturalism, such as that showcased in Avenue Q (2003) and its northern urban setting, despite the fact that a majority of southerners now live in urban and suburban areas, including international southern cities like Houston, Atlanta, and Miami that showcase Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and Latino/a presences as well as African American and European American ones. This limited scope of representation potentially functions in several ways—to reassure non-southerners of their supposed lack of involvement with racist America, to shore up a rigid binarism of cosmopolitan sophistication and hinterland backwardness that is regionalized, to provide opportunities for African American artists and performers, to meet the general demand for clichéd representations that fuels much of tourist-driven Broadway theatre, or some combination thereof—but it stands that the region’s complexities are minimized in its depictions on the New York stage. And yet this pattern also throws into sharp relief the rare musicals that break free of or least push these limitations and subtly force theatergoers to reassess their understandings of southern regional identity. Thus the paper concludes with an appreciative analysis of The Light in the Piazza (2005) to argue that Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas, building upon Elizabeth Spencer’s delicate novella, present the South with richer complexity and, via the Italian setting, intricately explore how regional and national identity complicate one another, especially as perceived in an international context that retains a focus on ethnic difference.


MLA Session 712. Music and Writing in the United States South, is scheduled to take place at 12:00 noon+1:15 p.m. on 30-DEC-09 in Liberty Ballroom Salon B, Philadelphia Marriott.

1. Jürgen E. Grandt, Georgia Institute of Technology

“A song don’t just spring outer nowhere”: Recording Technology and the Invention of Authenticity in Lee Smith’s The Devil’s Dream

Lee Smith’s saga of the origins and development of country and western music, The Devil’s Dream, spans more than a century, from the pre-modern hinterlands of the Appalachian mountains to the postmodern commercialism of Opryland. Critical discussions of Smith’s roman à clef have heretofore focused on its historical prototypes (the Carter family, Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, et alii), its concern with gendered artistic creativity (the role of the female artist in a socio-cultural context with firmly defined gender roles), or its compulsive suppression of an Africanist presence (the various narrators’ mnemonic whitewashing). While these critical endeavors all either celebrate or deconstruct the novel’s heavy investment in a discourse of cultural authenticity, of Benjaminian “aura,” they do not address the crucial role of the technologies of sound reproduction in a text resonant with disembodied voices.

A key chapter of The Devil’s Dream is closely modeled after the famous 1927 Bristol sessions of June and A. P. Carter, which would come to be known as the “big bang” of country and western music. Their fictional counterparts, Lucie and R. C. Bailey, experience their first encounter with modern recording technology quite differently. To Lucie, “it seems . . . that they have just given up something precious by singing these songs here to these strangers, and she feels a sudden terrible sense of loss.” In contrast, R. C.—Lucie’s husband and the musical mastermind of the Bailey clan—is very pleased with the recording of his original song “Melungeon Man,” a (carefully encoded) nod to his own multiracial lineage that will become the biggest and most influential hit the Bristol sessions yield. Ironically, these very sessions in which the original participants heard either a validation of hybridity or a loss of “aura” are referenced as the benchmark of authentic country music by subsequent generations of Baileys: Smith’s narrator-artists recurrently articulate an anti-modern(ist) impulse borne from a veneration of the vestigial. Thus, the intervention of recording technology does not so much preserve the vestigial, but actually manufactures it and hence becomes integral to its veneration. While this is most explicit in the novel’s frame narrative, where the ostensibly redemptive recovery of cultural authenticity is undermined by a postmodernist setting suffused with simulacra and images of hybridity, technology intervenes even in the first-hand account of the pre-modern, ‘undiluted’ origins of the music.

Similar to the characters’ veneration of the vestigial that mediates the role of recording technology, the text itself ultimately seeks to obscure the role of print technology by positioning oral history as either untainted by, or providing a corrective to, the centrifugal forces of (post)modernity. The novel thus oscillates between a recognition that all authenticities are constructed on the one hand, and a defensive demarcation of Appalachia as the genus loci of country music on the other. In straining to deliver an ‘authentic’ account of Appalachian roots music and its subsequent permutations, The Devil’s Dream ironically counteracts its creator’s own veneration of the vestigial.

2. Tim A. Ryan, Northern Illinois University

Lost Lightning: Self-Reflexivity and Southern Nostalgia in the Final Works of William Faulkner and Howlin’ Wolf

It is an intriguing coincidence that two of the most influential bodies of work by American artists in the twentieth century—William Faulkner’s major fiction and the seminal recordings of the Delta blues—emerged simultaneously and in the same locality: the northern half of Mississippi in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Faulkner’s use of a fragment of a famous blues lyric for the title of one of his most renowned short stories—“That Evening Sun” (1931)—has encouraged a small handful of writers to consider the relationship between the author’s fiction and the blues genre. Such studies, however, routinely suffer from wishful thinking about Faulkner’s intimacy with the blues and a broadly abstract approach to the music that is almost exclusively dependent upon secondary sources instead of being rooted in close analysis of those crucial primary texts—the songs of canonical blues artists. Those few scholars who have acknowledged the curious historical and geographical correlation between Faulkner’s novels and the Delta blues have struggled to make much of the relationship.

My purpose is not to identify a tangible link or actual exchange between Faulkner’s fiction and the Delta blues tradition. Instead, the goal of my current research is to institute a dynamic intertextual dialogue between the two, reading them comparatively in order to illuminate both in new and unexpected ways.

This paper focuses upon the twilight works of Faulkner and Chester Burnett, the Delta expatriate who became famous in Chicago as “Howlin’ Wolf.” After World War II, Faulkner found new appreciation with the publication of The Portable Faulkner (1946) and receipt of the Nobel Prize, the National Book Award, and two Pulitzer Prizes, but the elderly author now struggled to produce fiction to match his reputation and earlier literary achievements. Equally, the blues found global recognition when Howlin’ Wolf (and his chief rival, Muddy Waters) moved from Mississippi to the urban North and utilized electric amplification, inspiring a whole generation of white rockers, including Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. Wolf’s belated fame arrived, however, just as he was entering the autumn of his life—and just as developments in popular music threatened to eclipse him and to render his music outdated.

In their final works—Faulkner’s novel, The Reivers (1962), and Wolf’s LP, The Back Door Wolf (1973)—both artists look back nostalgically to the Mississippi of their youths, even as they ponder the implications of the contemporary world and their places in it. Both texts, furthermore, explore this theme through self-reflexivity, with each artist revisiting, revising, and engaging in complex dialogue with his previous works. Through close textual analysis of the songs on The Back Door Wolf and the text of The Reivers, I examine how Faulkner and Wolf create works of artistic value while meditating on the loss of their powers and mourning the disappearance of the South that both mythologized so vividly.

3. Adam Gussow, University of Mississippi

“I’m Going to Marry the Devil’s Daughter”: Decentering Robert Johnson and Reconsidering the “Devil’s Music” in Southern Social Context

Any claim about the contemporary valence of the devil in the blues tradition must begin by acknowledging the centrality of one particular myth: the Faustian (or Legba-esque) legend of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson selling his soul at some midnight Mississippi crossroads in exchange for unearthly prowess on the guitar. This legend has been more than 70 years in the making and has, as Graves (2008) recently noted, transformed Johnson from an historical figure into the latter-day equivalent of Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, or Davy Crockett. A narrative of the myth’s emergence and consolidation might reference John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” Concert at Carnegie Hall (1938); impressionistic reveries about Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail” by Rudy Blesh (1946) and Samuel Charters (1959); the release of “King of the Delta Blues Singers” (1961) at the height of the folk music boom; an interview with Ledell Johnson in which he claimed that his brother, bluesman Tommy Johnson (no relation), had reported selling his soul to the devil (1966); the movie Crossroads starring Ralph Macchio and Joe Seneca (1986), which brought the soul-sale vividly to life; and the release of Robert Johnson’s Complete Recordings (1990), which won a Grammy and sold more than a million copies.

Although recent revisionist studies of Johnson by Pearson and McCullough (2003), Wald (2004), and Schroeder (2004) have helped clarify Johnson’s debt to a preexisting tradition of “devil’s blues” and inculcated a healthy skepticism about the degree to which Johnson’s artistry has been obscured by crossroads myth, the revisionists, like their precursors, have failed to take the full measure of the devil-theme in the blues tradition and think critically about the social context that animates the blues devil in his (and her) various incarnations.

In an effort to decenter familiar crossroads mythologies and make space for new dialogue, I’d like to focus on a lesser-known song by another Mississippi bluesman, Big Bill Broonzy, entitled “Hell Ain’t But a Mile and a Quarter.” Broonzy’s devil, I will claim, is a coded stand-in for the southern white man in his malign aspect, as a violent guarantor of Jim Crow “justice,” and his lyricized “hell” signifies both the segregated space of a southern town and the reprisal that awaits a black man who violates social protocols. “If you go down there,” Broonzy sings, “you will have to obey the devil’s orders,” and he references Ponchatoula, a Louisiana town known for its so-called “Christmas Tree” where four black men had been hung during a lynching. Broonzy also sings, brazenly and wittily, of how he’s going to “marry the devil’s daughter”; I read this boast in tandem with Peetie Wheatraw’s self-identification as the “Devil’s Son-in-Law” (i.e., the man who marries the devil’s daughter) and see both men engaged in a much edgier game of signifying than they’ve been given credit for. (Wheatstraw was remembered by his friends, it should be noted, as someone who paraded boldly through his St. Louis neighborhood with a white woman on his arm and a small white dog on a leash.) In an effort to flesh out my claims, I’ll draw on evidence from Broonzy’s autobiography, Big Bill Blues, and autobiographies by bluesmen Mance Lipscomb, Honeyboy Edwards, and Henry Townsend