Narratives voices in songs? Who would have guessed? Even as a highly-trained literary scholar (yes, my tongue is in my cheek), I remember first thinking seriously about this idea in pop music when Killer Mike identified the racism that makes folks think that his songs are autobiographical while Johnny Cash can sing about a killer and be celebrated as an artist. So I’m not surprised that it took me longer than the average bear to think seriously about how these things work.
In particular, I’ve often been troubled by what I thought was my misreading of a song. I thought that perhaps the songwriters were confused, or I was confused, or something odd was happening. The song – “Man of Constant Sorrow,” best known as being the “hit” song that spurs the Soggy Bottom Boys to pop music stardom in the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou?
As I was listening to the Mountain Stage (on NPR of course – all you heathens should check it out) while driving through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia when I realized my mistake. “Man of Constant Sorrow” gently mocks the first-person narrator who tells the audience his story. It’s not some jaunty (man that word feels so 19th century), happy music used to describe a man’s life as he describes the problems – it’s more a tongue-in-cheek poke at a guy who doesn’t realize that his problems are of his own creation. Even as he sings that he has no friends, his friends in the chorus repeat the line, either proving him wrong or perhaps proving just why he, uh, has no friends. As he sings of his own constant sorrows and all the trouble he’s had, he merely complains, offering no evidence, again allowing the narrator to allow us as the audience to identify the true source of his troubles. The shame he feels (actually, he doesn’t) clues us into just how we are supposed to view the story that he’s telling and his own lack of self-awareness.
A crafty narrative voice? Identifying but not identifying with the first person who is telling the story? Well-played Soggy Bottom Boys, well-played…especially as we examine the ways in which the myths and legends of these United States get crafted, a post for another time.