The Music of his Times

It was known that William Faulkner did not enjoy the music of his time. Stories abound about how Faulkner would actually walk out of a drug store or diners when juke boxes were played. Nevertheless, a sense of the music that surrounded Faulkner during his most prodigious literary period can assist any study of Faulkner with the mood and tone of his settings in the 1920's and 1930's.

A good start to gain an appreciation for the music in Mississippi is visiting the Mississippi Musicians' Hall of Fame. At that site a terrific cd called "Legendary Musicians Whose Art Has Changed the World, A Sampler" can be purchased.

On it I've enjoyed the likes of Charlie Patton singing "Green River Blues." He was called "King of the Delta Blues." Listening to him sing helps you picture that down home, kick back on the old rickity porch in a rocking chair image that fills so many of Faulkner's pages with the black folk of his time and the oppressive times that gave birth to the blues. A biography of Charlie Patton and opportunities to hear his music are available on the Starkville Mississippli Writers and Musicicans Project site.

On the cd, too, is a recording of Train Whistle Blues recorded in August of 1929, around the same time that The Sound and the Fury was published, by Jimmie Rodgers. He was known for taking blues sounds in Mississippi and turning them into "country music," thereby donning him with the title "Father of Country Music." It's hard to listen to "Train Whistle" and not picture a minstral strolling down a dirt path nearby train tracks and old, dilapidated shacks with old time porches strewn across his view. A more extensive biography and listing of his works are available at the Starkville Mississipp Writers and Musicians Project.

On April 16, 1929, almost the same exact date in which Benji, Jason, and Dilsey's stories get told in The Sound and the Fury, a recording of "Dry Town Blues" by The Leake County Revelers was made. The "Revelers" provide a solid example of the fiddle bands in the 1920's. For me, this foot stompin' sound is what must have come from the kinds of carnivals depicted in Jason's section or the sounds that dominate in the soundtrack to Oh Brother Where Art Though. Again, Faulkner probably had an aversion to it or perhaps the sound of it reminded him of an ugly part of Southern Culture. A black character, Tommy ("Tawmy"), from Faulkner's Sanctuary who is mistreated, ridiculed, and eventually killed, is the focus of this line with a unfavorable reference to "fiddle" music:

"From time to time he would feel that acute surge go over him, like his blood was too hot all of a sudden, dying away into that warm unhappy feeling that fiddle music gave him" (93).

Click here for more on the Leake County Revelers and the roots of early fiddle music.

In the 1930's James Blackwood recorded "Angels Watch Over Me." When I listen to this gospel song I get an immediate picture of Dilsey at the church in chapter four in The Sound and the Fury. This is the sound of true religion--not the hypocritical kind Faulkner loathed--the kind that springs from pure faith, devotion, and compassion, the kind that comes from the words in "The Canticle of the Sun." Learn more about James Blackwood and southern gospel at the Southern Gospel History Website.

Music Faulkner Enjoyed

Even though Faulkner was known to not appreciate the music that must have surrounded him during his lifetime, he did enjoy music, but it was of the classical kind. His three favorite musicians were Beethoven, Mozart, and the Russian composer, Prokofiev. Linking the sounds of these composers and the feelings, moods, or sensations they arouse to Faulkner's life could result in some interesting conclusions to draw about Faulkner himself, of course, but maybe even something about the demeanor and person of the characters he tended to favor, like Caddy or Dilsey, and perhaps even about the sensitive heart of Quentin.

Kenneth Haxton

In almost every instance that I can think of research I have done has worked to change my life in ways I could never have expected. My research in the summer of 2002 for this Faulkner project was no exception. As I began to look for Faulkner resources I came across the name of a Mississippi writer and musician by the name of Kenneth Haxton. What caught my attention right away was that under his credits he composed a classical score for The Sound and the Fury. Naturally, my curiosity grew and I became excited about being able to "listen" to someone's interpretation of this complex novel and about my students being able to experience such a unique musicial companion in their reading.

After a few calls and a few e-mails triggered by articles and websites I found dedicated to Kenneth Haxton, I actually obtained his phone number. I called and he answered. I'll never forget his first words to me in an unmistakably Mississippian accent, "Hi, Jim, I was expectin' your call. Let me put this carton of ice cream back in the ice box." He proceeded to tell me about his work and that he was thrilled that I would find use of it for my students. He graciously and genorously promised to send me his work and told me I could call him anytime.

Sometime in July, I received a sizable package in the mail from Mississippi. I opened it with great anticipation. It contained not only an audio tape of The Sound and the Fury movements performed by the University of Mississippi's orchestra in 1983, but the printed music itself, descriptions of the musical intentions he had for each character (Benji, Quentin, Caddy, Jason, and Dilsey), and a crossword puzzle he created for William Faulkner. It was like opening up a treasure chest!

I immediately called him to thank him for his genorous gifts--afterall-- that's what they were! He was modest and seemed very pleased with my excited reaction and genuine admiration of his work. He stayed on the phone for quite some time that day and shared several stories about Faulkner and about editions of books and stories that he was actually involved in. I'll share one story below:

He told me that back in the fifties or so that his town was running a local performance of an obscure and original play. He was involved with the production in some way and he and several others thought it would be terrific if Faulkner himself would visit the opening performance and perhaps critique it. Well, sure enough, Faulkner did attend, and after the performance he asked him what he thought. And Faulkner, in "vintage-Faulkner," replied, "It wasn't awful but it would have been a lot better if in the middle of the play someone shot off a shotgun in the air dropping a wild turkey on the stage." I guess the point was clear: the play was a bomb and needed something to keep its audience awake.

I called him a few more times and wound up speaking to him once more when I had the chance to let him know how much his music and writing would help me teach and help my students learn. He seemed pleased. I was glad to have that last opportunity because my subsequent calls went unanswered and I later learned that Kenneth Haxton had died this past fall (see bottom of page from this link for his obituary. His death is a loss to anyone interested in Faulkner studies, and to the arts in general, as he continued to write scores and even a novel (see second half of this link for a review) right up to the last years of his life.

I would like to finish with words of my own expressing a little bit how Haxton's music affected me. First off, segments of his movements for each character can be found in this project when you enter the rooms of the Compson house.

I'll start with his composition of "A Rose for Emily." I find the music to be an invitation into the mind of Emily. I hear the peace, conflict, and a twisted anguish. Click on the title above to hear it.

In "Benjamin" the improvisation that Haxton himself says is key to the performance, reflects for me Benji's inability to distinguish the present from the past. His slipping in an out of reality--our reality--triggered by a an image (Caddy's slipper), sound (golfers yelling "caddy!", or smell ("smells like trees") is reflected in the chaos depicted at times in Haxton's movement.

In "Candace" (Caddy), the progression from the "soft" sounds of the waltz to the magnificent power and strength that builds and builds to a crescendo, for me, captures her compassion and independence.

In "Quentin," I hear the drum beat of self-destruction and the sadness of his life, the weight and burden that he labored under imposed by so many outside forces.

Dilsey's movement contains beats and rhythms that convey her original African roots. I hear within it celebration--Haxton says he's shooting for "the human element." To me, it's the celebration of humanity--the purist form of humanity--which contains emotion, compassion and selflessness--aspects of a life-giving force absent from the novel's landscape but embodied in the heart and soul of Dilsey.

In "Jason," I hear the opposite. Haxton says the movement should contain "cold and metronomic intensity." And to me it really does. What I hear most is what I don't hear--the emotion, celebration of life, and love that pours from Dilsey's movement. Haxton, for me, captures Jason's hatred, fury, and complete selfishness.

 

Copyright 2003. Jim Cody. All Rights Reserved.