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  • “And every day there is music”: Folksong Roots and the Highway Chain Gang in The Ballad of the Sad Café
  • Daniel Patrick Barlow (bio)

It is an interesting thought that perhaps all the music that Negroes in America have made might have been quite different if the work that they were brought here to do had been different. Suppose Negroes had been brought to this country to make vases or play basketball. How might the blues have developed then from the impetus of work songs geared to those occupations?

—Amiri Baraka, Blues People

Question: When is a ballad not a ballad?

Answer: When it has no tune.

—Bertrand H. Bronson, The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads

This essay explores the utility and musicality of the ballad relative to Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Café. Most often, this novella is perceived as a literary ballad, even if perfunctorily so. Joseph Millichap’s prominent analysis is one such example, wherein he states that “the description of her narrative as a ballad, so obviously presented in the title, provides a key to understanding which unlocks the novella’s difficulties of literary mode, point of view, characterization, and plot structure” [End Page 74] (329). Following through on this observation, Mary Ann Dazey offers a thorough and concise analysis of the novella in comparison with stanzaic ballad formulations, developing an important conclusion about the narrative structure: “the ballad voice tells the story, and the second voice provides the sad background music” (Dazey 39). This perspective is consistent with Virginia Carr’s biography of McCullers, in which the details of her musicianship come to the fore. As Carr writes, McCullers “later attributed her excellent sense of form and structure to her study of music” (26). Though her plans for concert performance were abandoned in 1932 after a debilitating bout of rheumatic fever, Carr explains that McCullers “had no regrets about losing music as the major dimension in her life . . . for she still listened and thrilled to it, even though she no longer played it herself” (492). With this added biographical reason, The Ballad of the Sad Café might be approached with an eye—or rather an ear—for its ballad-like qualities.

There is, however, a conflict between interpretations of the novella as ballad and of the significance of its ending, “The Twelve Mortal Men.” There we are privy to the labor and song of a chain gang through the voice of the narrator, but read only of the nature of their cries and rhythm of their picks. Their lyrics being omitted, we are left with an enigmatic portrait of the American work song. Compounding the matter, clues as to why the chain gang appears at all are ostensibly nebulous. This coda of rather bewildering intent has given rise to a dynamic variation in critical responses, even to the point of virulent debate.

My argument is that analyses of the novel’s utility as a ballad are incomplete. The significant evidence available to enhance our understanding of this point situates my argument among the aforementioned interpretations, but at the same time incorporates fundamental issues of the novella that critics have for the most part neglected. Among these are the pervasive, albeit subtle, musicality of The Ballad of the Sad Café (hereafter TBSC ) and the historical qualities of ballads and American work songs most pertinent to the text. Moreover, taking this musicological approach allows for a secure underscoring of connections between the coda and the central narrative. Through this approach we will find that the song of the chain gang pervades the text more so than heretofore considered, consequently revealing that TBSC bears qualities of song that significantly expand its utility as a “ballad” per se.

Properly, the ballad is a song intended to be danced to, as in the Italian ballare, to dance (“Ballad” 2), or the French ballade, a dancing-song (“Ballad” 1). Early musical ballads from the twelfth century took [End Page 75] their form mostly in lyrical dance-songs, but their emphasis on dance diminished. This may have contributed to the term’s more generalized sixteenth-century application as “anything singable, simple, popular in style, and for solo vocalists...


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pp. 74-85
Launched on MUSE
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Will Be Archived 2020
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