restricted access Yoknapatawpha Blues: Faulkner’s Fiction and Southern Roots Music by Tim A. Ryan (review)
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Reviewed by
Tim A. Ryan. Yoknapatawpha Blues: Faulkner’s Fiction and Southern Roots Music. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2015. xii + 278 pp.

Tim Ryan’s Yoknapatawpha Blues is the first book-length study of Faulkner and the blues, and it is an insightful, original contribution to both Faulkner studies and music criticism. Ryan’s book continues the recent trend in Faulkner scholarship of situating and understanding [End Page 189] Faulkner’s work in relation to the popular cultures of his era. The relationship of Faulkner and the blues artists working at the same time just down the road from Oxford in the Mississippi Delta, however, has been a neglected area of inquiry, as Ryan notes: “Very few articles in the vast and ever-expanding body of Faulkner criticism address the blues, and those that do are almost exclusively concerned with the author’s demonstrable awareness of the music: with what Faulkner knew about the blues and when he knew it” (14). Ryan’s approach, instead, is to bridge the high-low cultural divide and create an intertextual dialogue among specific Faulkner novels and particular blues songs, and he successfully makes the case that the esteemed author and his musical neighbors respond to the same sets of issues, events, and tensions: “the relationships between Faulkner and the blues—historical, regional, and thematic—are substantial and specific, rather than vague or tenuous.”

The first chapter provides helpful background on blues scholarship, primarily aiming to inform an audience of literary critics about how the blues has been treated as an object of analysis in music criticism, as well as in the popular imagination. Ryan is a deft tour guide, providing a concise and illuminating summary of the scholarship of the blues in order to make the case that the genre is worthy of academic study and that other scholars have produced lyrical analyses that finds blues singer-songwriters (at least obliquely) tackling subjects such as race, gender, and lynching.

The book strives to appeal to different audiences with a brief historical survey of the blues as well as a summary of Faulkner’s life and work, suggesting that both divide into a pre-World War II phase of remarkable creativity with limited recognition and a postwar move into the national mainstream while detailing specific and significant parallels in the two career arcs, such as “self-narration and racial performativity” (38). Ryan may raise some eyebrows among Faulkner scholars when he claims that “a canonical prewar country blues recording . . . is as complex and redolent with meaning as If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, ‘That Evening Sun,’ or Sanctuary” (22), but he makes a compelling case with an approach that blends cultural studies, new historicism, and identity studies with close reading, writing in an accessible, jargon-free style that will appeal to a wide range of readers, not just literary critics.

Subsequent chapters employ the design of pairing a specific Faulkner work and a single blues song as the primary objects of textual and intertextual analysis, a method that helps ground Ryan’s study in close readings and allows for often surprising connections to emerge. The second chapter, for instance, compares representations of the great Mississippi River flood of 1927 in Charley Patton’s “High [End Page 190] Water Everywhere” (1930) and the “Old Man” section of Faulkner’s The Wild Palms [If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem] (1939). Similarities between these two works extend beyond the flood itself to a larger theme, that of the individual versus society, which both texts deal with, Ryan argues, in terms of voice, “each exploring how an individual might mobilize vernacular discourses to challenge existing social hierarchies—as an act of individual self-assertion and in the name of communal justice” (44). Ryan’s attention to the two-part, divided structure of both Faulkner’s novel and the blues tune further illuminates and substantiates his claims of inherent similarity.

Chapter 3 pairs “That Evening Sun” (1931) and Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues” (1930) and demonstrates how each employs coded, even unconscious, representations of lynching. Ryan does a superb job of tracing numerous and detailed connections between Faulkner’s story and multiple blues texts and artists...


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