Music, class and literacy in Harper Lee’s timeless novel.
by Carrie Allen Tipton
A full account of American music and social class in the South — how each informs and shapes the other in a chicken-and-egg dance — would occupy 10,000 pages. The two domains intersect implicitly and explicitly in a myriad of ways in the Southerner’s life. You may grow up 5 blocks from your best friend but end up knowing completely different hymns, because he goes to the mighty and pillared First Methodist Church and you go to the small and clapboarded Assemblies of God church.
And everybody knows that even though they share historical and ecclesiastical and even theological DNA, the Methodists and the Pentecostals surely do not share a hymnal. The whole thing is complicated. It is probably impossible to isolate the construct of social class from its poignantly relevant cousins — race, ethnicity, gender, geographical location, mass media, religion — in puzzling out how class and music mingle below the Mason-Dixon line.
The songs that are sung and played and heard by Southerners at any given moment rest contingent upon all of these intertwined elements. The convoluted processes of class-based musicking peep around nearly every cultural corner in the South. As it turns out, they even thread themselves like veins of silver through a book that lies at the very heart of the Southern literary canon.
Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is “about” many things, with class figuring into the tale just as much as race does. The social status of various white and black folk alike is carved onto nearly every page. One of the ways that the iconic novel quietly and powerfully delineates the social standing of its characters is by associating them with particular soundscapes.
Throughout the book, literacy (shorthand in Lee’s world for inner moral illumination and often bound up with music-making) also functions as a signal determinant of social class. While literacy did not guarantee upward mobility among black and white Southerners of the 1930s, the decade that “Mockingbird” roughly evokes, it surely would have been a minimal requirement for attaining middle- or upper-class status. And so in her book, Lee links literate or educated people with certain types of music and illiterate or uneducated people with other, less-savory sonic gestures.
Lee’s lower-class white characters inhabit their own distinctive sound world, cordoned off from upper-class whites by the barriers of dubious musical taste. In one passage, young Scout relays her teacher’s requirement that children bring to school newspaper clippings of current events, then summarizes the pitifully comic result of class-based interpretations of this edict:
“The rural children who could, usually brought clippings from what they called The Grit Paper, a spurious publication in the eyes of Miss Gates, our teacher. Why she frowned when a child read from The Grit Paper I never knew, but in some way it was associated with liking fiddling, eating syrupy biscuits for lunch, being a holy roller, singing Sweetly Sings the Donkey and pronouncing it dunkey, all of which the state paid teachers to discourage.”
Even when the country children sang the same song as children of higher classes, their mangled pronunciation inalterably marked their music as a product of the lower class. The tropes of rurality, subversive literacy, folk foodways, extremist religious practices and untutored dialect coalesce here to conjure the image of a group bound together with the awful and damning thread of liking fiddling.
The connection is reinforced when Scout asks her painfully class-conscious aunt about a friend, Walter Cunningham. Could he perhaps spend the night sometime? The aunt replies, “Jean Louise, there is no doubt in my mind that they’re good folks. But they’re not our kind of folks.” Scout’s brother, Jem, helpfully expounds upon the aunt’s unspoken message: What she really means is that the Cunninghams are “tacky. They like fiddling and things like that.”
The Grit Paper-readers and the Cunninghams aren’t the only white folks in “Mockingbird” that enjoy hearing a horsehair bow sawing on a wooden box, mind you; but when Mr. Byron Waller, identified briefly as a “prominent figure” in town, walks by Scout’s front porch, it is primly conveyed to the reader only that he “could play the violin.” Like Methodists and Pentecostals, the violin and fiddle are all at once genetically inseparable and socially stratified in the insular world of Maycomb.
Lee’s white characters do not always color inside the lines, though. Transgression of musically-articulated class boundaries occurs when Scout is told by her brother that their respectable father, Atticus Finch, has been seen to “pat his foot when there’s fiddlin’ on the radio.” Here, modern technology enables Atticus’ traversal of social borders through the explosion of mass media in the 1930s.
Unlike the country kids at school, whose love of fiddling Lee embedded within a full-bodied, rural existence, Atticus’ indulgence in fiddle music constitutes a safe armchair dalliance with the primitive “other,” beamed into his home by the sanitized and eminently controllable radio.
If Lee was indexing her own childhood in this scene, she may be recalling one of many old-time music shows popular on the radio in the 1930s, such as the National Barn Dance broadcast for many years by Chicago’s WLS. Listening to old-time fiddle music was permissible for Atticus, as long the activity denoted merely fond nostalgia for a simpler time (a notion that old-time music conveyed to many Americans during the long and hard 1930s).
With his class status already rock-solid in the novel, he can afford to jump across class lines occasionally in the privacy of his own living room. Atticus didn’t really live that life. He didn’t mispronounce “donkey,” and he didn’t eat syrupy biscuits at lunch. Jem defends their father’s social standing immediately after outing his occasional enjoyment of fiddling by reassuring Scout that “We’re still different somehow… Background doesn’t mean Old Family. I think it’s how long your family’s been readin’ and writin.’”
Like issues of class and literacy, religion runs through the novel like a stream, an underground aquifer animating and explaining characters’ actions and worldviews. Hymns bubble to the surface, popping gently up as soundbites of small-town Southern life, a sacred backdrop to mundane doings. Counterbalancing Atticus’ iniquitous consumption of fiddling, Lee situates him firmly as a member of the ultra-bourgeois community through his participation in Methodist church worship.
One morning in church, Atticus is heard by Scout to be singing the staid old hymn “Nearer My God To Thee” — alone — a few seats away from his children. Though part of a communal religious ritual, Atticus still raises a single voice, audible and visible as one set apart. The implications for his character are obvious, foreshadowing later semi-solitary acts of justice.
The tune nearly always used with “Nearer My God,” “Bethany” is itself a bastion of middle-class respectability — a musical product of Lowell Mason, the 19th century composer and arranger known for his crusade to reform American hymnody, civilizing rough Yankee worship into something vaguely more European and classical. Mason’s reforms caught on and spread across the country, including the South; the very name of the hymn points to a crucial taste-making period in American sacred song and deftly lands Atticus safe in the harbor of respectability.
Lee adds another tune to her middlebrow Methodist soundtrack, this time to humorously skewer the hypocritical ethics of the Merriweathers. Her description of the uppity Merriweathers as good Methodists (members of the Maycomb, Alabama, ME Church of the South) is reified by the assurance that when they sing the words to “Amazing Grace,” Mr. Merriweather understood there was nothing “personal” in the “wretch” terminology.
Lee thus slyly marks his music-making as inauthentic, despite his identity as a white, upper-class person; he doesn’t really mean the words he sings. Lee summons musical terminology to represent his wife as an instrument, a mouthpiece, of the established church on the race issue: “Mrs. Merriweather played her voice like an organ; every word she said received its full measure” as she described the “darkness” and “immorality” of an African culture. Lee later links Mrs. Merriweather’s voice to that most high-brow of ecclesiastical instruments, voiced through Scout’s observation:
“I was reminded of the ancient little organ in the chapel at Finch’s Landing. When I was very small, and if I had been very good during the day, Atticus would let me pump its bellows while he picked out a tune with one finger. The last note would linger as long as there was air to sustain it. Mrs. Merriweather had run out of air, I judged …”
Mainstream Southern Protestantism is sonically defined here as the communicative organ of the white ruling oppressive class, yet one that Scout prophetically identified in the 1930s (or, rather, Lee described in the 1950s) as “running out of air.”
Class, literacy and religion intersect again when Scout ruminates on the roots of her own ability to read. Predictably, her teacher is upset when she finds out Scout can read; conveying literacy is the province of the formalized educational system, an enterprise not to be undertaken lightly by amateurs. In trying to answer her teacher’s queries about how she learned to read, Scout links her probable journey to literacy to sacred song: “I never deliberately learned to read … In the long hours of church — was it then I learned? I could not remember not being able to read hymns.”
Church, where words were spun, sometimes in the air and sometimes on paper, seemed like a reasonable place to learn to read. The hymns sung in one’s church are an important part of one’s social DNA in the little town of Maycomb; they index, confirm and even create class identification when they impart fringe benefits such as literacy.
Of course it was the black maid Calpurnia who taught Scout to read. Calpurnia, part of the other Methodist church in town — the black church, the one that sang hymns without even reading them at all. Harper Lee paints those Methodists as the ones who sang authentically. As Lee depicts it, African American modes of musical worship enable members of the small black Methodist church to transcend illiteracy. The texts they sing point to ultimate deliverance, invested with a weight denied to upper-middle-class white people who sing in church without really meaning the words.
Lee describes for several pages in vivid detail the black lining-out tradition (called in some Southern regions “Dr. Watts” hymns, or “old meter” songs), in a shining scene in which the novel’s threads of privilege, oppression, literacy, illiteracy, moral knowledge and hope intersect. (She provides a description so clear, in fact, that one wonders if she witnessed the tradition firsthand.)
The black lining tradition, redolent of both white Protestant New England psalm-singing and the call-and-response structures of West African music, emerged in the murky pre-Emancipation past as a way for black worshippers to absorb hymn texts without the need for the printed page. The process involves a leader singing out a long, slow, embellished line of text, followed by the congregation’s echo of the line; the entire hymn is thus sung in slow motion, phrase by painstaking phrase. Lining out enabled black Americans to do an end-run around illiteracy and lack of material resources.
In Lee’s scene, the African American worshippers line out what has surely been a top 10 hit for both white and black Southern Protestants: “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand,” in which they declare that they cast their weary eyes “towards Canaan’s fair and happy land, where my possession lies.”
Later in the service, they line a hymn titled “Jubilee,” which also talks of a land beyond the river. The scene is rendered through Scout’s eyes — eyes full of what is not present in the black church, which lacked organ, piano, hymnals — “familiar ecclesiastical impedimenta we saw each Sunday,” according to the disoriented Scout. It is relayed to the reader that in the entire black Methodist congregation, only four people could read, with Calpurnia constituting 25 percent of that tiny literate band.
Thus, the only black music-making in the novel is conducted in private, away from the white gaze. In highlighting a cloistered ritual moment of black sacred song, Lee transforms the congregation’s linguistic illiteracy into a sort of moral literacy that supersedes the mere inability to decipher symbols on a page. Three dimensions of Methodist singing are thus represented in the novel: Atticus’ lone voice, separate from the pack of worshippers; Mr. Merriweather’s hollow confession of wretchedness; and the black Methodists’ cry for a home far from Maycomb, beyond the river Jordan. Only two of the accounts possess any degree of religious sincerity, and the musical message ringing in the reader’s ears is that you can be high class, and you can be good, but that you don’t have to be one to be the other.
The school pageant that constitutes the book’s grand finale is supposed to culminate in an act of communal song, with attendant implications of faux class unity. In an effort to paper over demographic differences, united by common geography, the schoolchildren are meant to belt out “Maycomb County, Maycomb County, we will aye be true to thee.”
The moment would have been Orphic, as the town tries to save itself by singing away the troubles of race and region and violence and tattered justice. (Appropriately, the pageant features band renditions of both “Dixie” and the U.S. National Anthem, sonically situating the fictional Alabama town at the troubling nexus between regional identity and national citizenship that befuddled the South in the eras of the novel’s production and setting.) However, Scout’s failure to walk onstage in her pork costume at the proper time derails the pageant, disrupting the chance for redemptive communal song. Maycomb’s white citizens are thus denied the chance to collectively sing their way to transcendence, unlike the black worshipers mentioned earlier.
In fact, the central conceit of the novel turns on the idea of a redemptive sort of music, created from a position of moral purity — only not the sort of music made by humans and certainly not the kind tied to class boundaries. As a neighbor admonishes Scout:
“Your father’s right … Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up peoples’ gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their heart out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
The music made by the mockingbird is for “us” — anyone in Maycomb, Alabama, or in the whole wide reading world who has an ear to hear. The book is shot through with the echo of the song of the mockingbird, the only music in the novel not fettered by the bonds of class organization.
In 1964, Harper Lee told the New York radio station WQXR in a rare interview, “Well, my objectives are very limited … I would like to be the chronicler of something that I think is going down the drain very swiftly, and that is small-town, middle-class Southern life. There is something universal in it. Something decent to be said for it, and something to lament, once it goes, in its passing. In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.”
Her statement ratchets open an interpretive window to understanding how the novel’s soundscapes contribute to the realism of the text, helping Lee to paint with sharp clarity a world in which taste and music and class and literacy waltzed together in a glorious Southern muddle.
Harper Lee’s South of the 1930s boasts a robust sonic diversity in which Southerners of many stripes were defined by vastly different soundbites, accompanied by varying levels of moral authority or ethical barrenness. Fiddling, violin music, white Protestant hymns, black lined hymns, band music — these musical utterances form a composite soundtrack for Lee’s cinematic work, at once delineating and critiquing Southern class boundaries through sonic imprints that resonate almost audibly in the reader’s mind.
Carrie Allen Tipton lives in Houston and writes and lectures about classical music, American popular music, religion and Southern culture. Most recently, she has lectured on black gospel music history in Texas at the Houston Ebony Opera Guilds annual summer concert. She holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of Georgia, as well as degrees in Music Education and Piano Performance. She has taught university classes on topics ranging from African American music to sacred music in the United States and classical music. Her work has appeared inPop Matters, the Equals Record, Curator Magazine, Religion Dispatches, Black Grooves and the Journal of the Society for American Music, among other places. New work is upcoming in Texas Heritage Magazine and the new Grove Dictionary of American Music.