In 1934, folk singer Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter performed at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, the largest gathering of literary scholars in the United States. The concert was paired with a talk by the folklorist John Lomax, who, a year earlier, had “discovered” Lead Belly while recording folk songs in the American South with his son, Alan Lomax. The singer had been an inmate at the Angola labor camp in Louisiana until the Lomaxes petitioned the governor to commute his sentence. They hired him as a chauffeur, and the three set out on a tour of prestigious northeast universities, where an interest in American folk ballads was growing.
Lead Belly would go on to modest success in the ’40s in New York City’s burgeoning folk scene and maintained a lifelong friendship with Alan Lomax. But it is his debut on the intellectual stage, at the 1934 MLA, that serves as the germ for Florence Dore‘s book, Novel Sounds: Southern Fiction in the Age of Rock and Roll. For Dore, this episode was an important catalyst in the evolution of two art forms that we often think of as distinct—rock ‘n’ roll and literary fiction—but that in fact developed in “surprising reciprocity” over the course of the 20th century (115).
In Novel Sounds, Dore is interested in how a mass cultural phenomenon like rock ‘n’ roll can help illuminate realities about institutionalized high culture. Beginning with the case of Lead Belly, she traces the low and high cultural currents that the folk singer helped set in motion, specifically the mass popularization of Southern black music as “rock ‘n’ roll” and the intellectual enthusiasm for folk ballads. By the ’50s, the writers and critics who had turned to folk forms in the ’30s in search of a distinct American tradition were beginning to dread what it meant for those forms to be electrified and broadcast to the public.
A professor of English at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, Dore’s primary objects are texts by Southern literary fiction writers like Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, and William Styron—those writers who were groomed and canonized by the Southern Agrarians, a network of English professors at Vanderbilt University and the University of the South. She locates in these texts a glaring suppression of rock ‘n’ roll, a suppression that suggests a profound anxiety about the racial and technological transformations that rock music represented.
While the deeply segregationist southern literati fought to keep their culture “pure”, they doubted their ability to stave off rock ‘n’ roll’s transformational influence. In the mid-20th century, southern Agrarian critics like Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Andrew Lytle published a series of prescriptive texts about writing and reading with the goal of elevating literature above mere “information”. In this latter category, they included radio broadcasts and recorded music. To their minds, technological mediation was at odds with the experiential immediacy that, for example, a well-crafted poem ought to produce.
As Dore shows, these lofty prescriptions had racist motivations. If the Southern Agrarians disapproved of the proliferation of broadcast technologies in society, it is because such technology challenged a delineated sense of race relations. Coming through a radio speaker and divorced from a raced body, music became culturally ambiguous. In response to this new phenomenon, the Southern Agrarians argued that the cultural artifacts of the American South, such as folk ballads, were best enjoyed either in a live performance, where the race of a performer like Lead Belly could be confidently established, or else quietly on the printed page, where the problem of race could be thrown out entirely.
In a series of readings, Dore demonstrates how prevalent this Southern Agrarian attitude was among Southern writers of literary fiction and how the emergence of culturally hybrid rock ‘n’ roll music exacerbated their worries. Dore refreshes such English 101 chestnuts as O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” with accessible readings of gender performance in a decade when pop music and the phonograph were troubling conceptions about performance more broadly. Elsewhere, she documents the “minstrel realism” in the novels of Styron and Faulkner, for example, who tried to channel the immediacy of the black southern ballad tradition as a remedy to an increasingly modernized South.
At times, rock ‘n’ roll can feel as absent from Novel Sounds as it is from the books Dore writes about. This is because she’s not interested in establishing a direct link between rock and literary fiction; rather, she looks for the places where their reciprocity can be felt and asks what we can learn about the historical time period in which the two forms coexisted. It’s an era that’s ripe for recontextualization as it is an era that’s coming to an end—it may have even already ended. A little more than half a century after Bob Dylan released “Like a Rolling Stone”, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, an event that capped rock ‘n’ roll as an epoch of American literature. With Dylan’s Nobel win, the dialectic of high culture and pop music that emerged with Lead Belly in the ’30s was resolved. Rock became fully institutional, and with that, it lost what little revolutionary potential it had left.
American institutions today—from government to universities—perpetuate inequality in increasingly chaotic ways, gobbling up all forms of dissent until they are unwieldy, contradictory things that exist for their own sake alone. At the end of the rock ‘n’ roll era, it’s unclear whether these institutions will be challenged from the outside by a revolutionary cultural energy, or whether they will be best dismantled from within.