On a breezy Saturday night Florence Dore pulls into Howlin’ Wolf Den in the New Orleans warehouse district. As the band’s three instrumentalists set up, the blonde-haired vocalist in slim-fit jeans arranges merchandise on a table. This midlife lady rocker might pass for an MTV presenter rather than a professor of English up at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
So come now, good people, sing it loud and sing it strong:
Praise the Lord!
Yes, let’s all give it up,
Dore unfurls dark blue T-shirts emblazoned with her guitar-wielding image along a row of the sales table. Adjacent to the T-shirts she arranges a row of her new CD, Highways & Rocketships (Propeller). Like most musicians on tour,
Florence Dore abides by the first law of the road: Carry enough product to sell when the fans get up close, in situ.
As people hover around the table, drummer Will Rigby on stage surveys the set up. Will is a veteran percussionist who worked with Steve Earle and the Dukes for 16 years, touring when Florence his wife was writing and teaching back home. Will and Florence have a daughter grown, the younger one heading off to college. Now they’re on tour together. From the title cut of Highways & Rocketships that Florence wrote, and will shortly sing:
Lay low for a while
No roses or wine
Never thought I could just fly away
Let’s take our time
Cause there’s a highway and a rocketship
Taking me to the night
I want to stay here next to you
Until we make it
Tomorrow the band has an all-day drive to the next gig in far-off Fayetteville, Arkansas. Will Rigby and the other sidemen—Gene Holder on bass, who like Rigby played for many years with the dB’s, Mark Spencer on guitar and lap steel—collectively have about a century backlogged of life on the road. Imagine the tales these boys could tell (or take the Fifth on) during some marathon oral history.
As the band tunes up, Dore is spacing out the two recent books that turned her academic career into an adventure traversing art forms and genres. Let’s take the first one first.
In Novel Sounds: Southern Fiction in the Age of Rock and Roll (Columbia: 2018) Dore argues that the seminal Southern sounds of Lead Belly, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, and early rockers held potent sway over novelists William Styron, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Robert Penn Warren among others; the old boundaries of high art and low brow got all shook up as 1950s rock ’n’ roll exploded into the national psyche. By Dore’s lights, the taproot lies in the ballad tradition, story-telling songs on both sides of the racial chasm that carried epic memory of love, death, escape, and survival, the raw materials of myth.
“One of the distinctive features of rock was that its artists tended to disregard the racial categories ballads had earlier seemed to require,” Dore writes. She pinpoints the vaulting influence of Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter), the great bluesman who had done time in Texas and Louisiana prisons where his classic song took shape, “The Midnight Special”—named for the train, a potent symbol of the freedom ride, sung by an inmate peering out the window as his woman arrives.
Yonder come Miss Rosie
How in the world did you know?
By the way she wears her apron
And the clothes she wore
Umbrella on her shoulder
Piece of paper in her hand
She come to see the gov’nor
She want to free her man, oh
Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me
Let the Midnight Special shine an ever-lovin’ light on me
Lead Belly gained freedom from Angola penitentiary in Louisiana with help from John Lomax, the pioneering song-collector and folk scholar who arranged for him to sing at the 1934 Modern Language Association conference in Philadelphia. Dore considers that MLA gathering a catalyst in academia’s awakening to folk ballads as inspiration for the literary psyche. (This may the most exalted moment in the history of MLA.) Lomax, she writes, believed that “folk ballads like Lead Belly’s are the modern replica of ancient minstrelsy.”
Dore advances Lead Belly’s singing as a leitmotif in William Styron’s Set This House on Fire, a novel of murder and betrayal among expatriates in post-World War II Italy. Near the end, we find Cass, a Southern blues devotee in a guilty no-man’s land shadowed by slavery and segregation; immersion in the blues, like a form of Xanax, helps Cass get by. He puts the Lead Belly disc on a turntable, “set the record spinning along its course, slightly electric and wobbling. Then, as the needle sputtered and hissed in the first worn gray grooves, he went over to the arm chair and sat down.”
Cass is a tortured figure, trying to live. “The presence of this record collector in a Southern novel written while Bob Dylan was learning Lead Belly songs creates a crucial precedent in midcentury Southern fiction,” writes Dore, foreshadowing Dylan’s arc later in her book, winning the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. “Set This House on Fire is filled with images of Cass’s records and their electric sounds, and Styron constellates these sounds around his nerd’s psychic development.”
Healthy psychic development follows Dore to the stage of Howlin’ Wolf Den and she launches into the set, blonde hair billowing like a cape of Spanish moss as she spools out the second song, “Rebel Debutante,” dedicated to women with problem moms.
Garden party drunk and buying Tupperware
Another glass of sherry and a blank stare
Music city the suburbs could be anywhere
Pynchon’s heroines ain’t got nothing on her
Ain’t got nothing on her
E.R.A. and Dylan on the radio,
Kicked her husband out and now she’s flat broke
Dropped the kids, went down to Genesco
Her daddy gave her the mortgage on a rescue
Of a rebel debutante.
Daddy didn’t say no,
she was never shown how to do without
With all that breeding she learned how to say please, Yeah, she could say please.
The children played on the bridge while their mama got high, she was a rebel debutante.
In a recent WUNC 91.5 FM interview about Highways & Rocketships, Dore recalled Nashville in the 1960s, growing up with bohemian parents, her father a Vanderbilt professor of English, her mother arrested during civil rights protests. “I always had a lot of respect for her politics, but she was such an awful mother, that it was really confusing. So that song,” she told host Eric Hodge,” I worried that it was a little mad, but my sister thinks it’s kind of an homage as well. It’s one of those things where if you have a terrible parent who is not able to love you, and yet it’s part of the fabric of your life, and they bring you your life such as it is, and if you’re happy about your life, you figure out ways to weave it into something beautiful. And I hope that’s what I’ve done.”
“Like many creative Southerners, Florence Dore followed the exile road to enlightenment in far-off places, the other America, before something primordial pulled her back.”
Dore grew up averse to “the Christ-haunted South”—Flannery O’Connor’s line of eternal precision whose interpretations include a white South that fabricated Jesus’ tolerance of the bloody history of repressing Blacks, a haunted Christianity sanitized by the MAGA road show of pols doing that old Caucasian shuffle, conspiring to thwart Blacks from voting in the name of clean elections.
Like many creative Southerners, Florence Dore followed the exile road to enlightenment in far-off places, the other America (U. C. Berkeley for a doctorate in English), before something primordial pulled her back, wellsprings of the downhome music she found echoed in Dylan and other rockers who had done their own deep digging in the folk music origins. Meanwhile, the novels she read fed a spiraling curiosity over a more mysterious Southland, the terrain of racial tragedy seeded with sources of transcendent art.
Dore views the conferral of the Nobel Prize in Literature on Dylan as a chronicle of art foretold. A half-century ago, Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, founders of the New Criticism, included songs of Lead Belly, Bessie Smith, and Robert Johnson in the 1973 edition of American Literature: The Makers and the Making, putting the blues artists as poets rubbing elbows with Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Of the Yale editors, including R. W. B. Lewis, Dore asks, with a rhetorical wink, “Had the gatekeepers of high culture finally learned how to rock?”
Sure seems that way with the monopoly of hindsight. Tracking these crossover trails led Dore to edit the anthology, just out, called The Ink in The Groove: Conversations on Literature and Rock ‘n’ Roll (Cornell), a gathering of essays and interviews, voices steeped in spoken rhythms, writers on musicians and musicians on writers. Bob Dylan is the beam of light rolling through this book, as country music singer Laura Cantrell reflects in a touchstone piece:
His blending of the darkness and mystery of folk and blues song traditions into the rhythms and electricity of rock and roll, along with his ability to write critically about the culture of our times, showed everyone from the Beatles to Dion to Sam Cooke a higher form of lyrical accomplishment.
“His blending of the darkness and mystery of folk and blues song traditions into the rhythms and electricity of rock and roll, along with his ability to write critically about the culture of our times, showed everyone from the Beatles to Dion to Sam Cooke a higher form of lyrical accomplishment.”
Cantrell goes on, citing Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One, “in which he says ‘a song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true.’ They’re like strange countries you have to enter.”
That slant on songs as dreams taking us to other cultures, other countries, serves as a bridge motif through The Ink in the Groove, taking us to places where the South’s folk imagination flowers far from the historical hatreds trying to push Black people down.
Exhibit A. Roddy Doyle hatched an Everyman of Irish history in A Star Called Henry (1999), the IRA rebel Henry Smart who survives the 1916 uprising against England as a hunted man—and flees. In the sequel, Oh, Play That Thing (the title is a legendary line from “Dippermouth Blues” with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong on the cornets), Henry surfaces in Chicago and becomes a running podna with Armstrong. Doyle orchestrates Henry’s clipped, Irish cadences like a ground beat and draws out the Black speech patterns as a cross-rhythm, creating an argot of coded short hand. There, in the muscle of the Midwest, the city of the stockyards, Armstrong tells Smart he has an odor issue.
–Can’t be having that smell, O’Pops. We the people who eat the meat. We
don’t be smelling like it.
–It can’t be the suit, I told him. I never wear it to work.
–It you, Pops.
He looked at my feet on the pedals.
–That right, he said. – Lift the right, slowly, slowly, good and holy. The boots, he said. –They have to go.
–No, I said.
We were somewhere near Back O’ the Yards; I wasn’t sure. We argued all the way.
–It in the boots, he said. –That cow blood in the laces. Got to go.
–I’ll get new laces.
–Nay, nay, he said. –Boots stink Pops. Right and left. Right into the leather, the only part of the cow should be on your feet. We’ll buy you some nice shoes.
The musicality of Roddy Doyle’s prose through this and other novels is a grand performance of literature. Dore includes Doyle’s autobiographical essay on his breakthrough novel, The Commitments, from which Alan Parker made the timeless, comic film about a band of roughhouse guys and gals, covering soul songs in Dublin clubs. Doyle opens with a punch-line: “I hated Irish music. All of it… I hated a lot of things when I was seventeen—my teachers, my country, my religion, myself.”
Doyle is only getting warmed up: “Anything with Irish-language lyrics, anything that mentioned a town that wasn’t Dublin, any song that had the words ‘fields,’ or ‘curlew’ or ‘lassie’ or ‘lad’ or ‘whiskey’ or ‘Amerikay,’ or ‘foe’ or ‘river,’ or any of the mountains that sloped down to the sea, or any ‘boy,’ including, and especially, Danny Boy and the Minstrel Boy. I spat on any boy who ever popped out of an Irish song.”
But just when you think he may be tilting toward A Clockwork Orange form of youth, Doyle pivots to his adolescent home life, the da who played LPs like The Best of Nat King Cole and South Pacific, plus records by Paul Robeson, a more expansive musical baseline against which to rebel. “I roamed my patch of suburban Dublin with my friends and fellow haters. Dylan, Springsteen, and Lou Reed were our men. Their words shaped our heads… The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle—I climbed into that record. And Blood on the Tracks. And Transformer. And Can’t Buy a Thrill.”
Out of college, a school teacher for several years, Doyle began his first novel by imagining the bandmembers coming together. “And by the time I got to them, after I’d conquered the dialogue, and I started choosing the songs that would work and began to transcribe them, I knew the lyrics would have to be given a Dublin accent.”
The Commitments is a wondrously rocking tale of the upstart Dublin band electrifying dense-packed clubs with the soul music of Wilson Picket and Otis Redding. Doyle writes of turning “what” into “wha,” and “of” into “o,” to capture the spoken tongue reacting to a cross-current from the Black South. “I thought I was inventing something. And I was: Dublin soul. It was fictional music but it was music, and, somehow, it was Irish. Urban Irish, Dublin Irish.”
Florence Dore’s search along the seam of rock music and fiction evinces rare moments in the lives of writers and musicians, epiphanies suggesting a shared psyche of art seeking freedom, art quaking with hungers of expression that anyone who has gone stomp-down dancing in a club where the music soars will feel into the bone.
“One follows Florence Dore on her search for cosmic truth, trying to capture the linkage of novels and rock ’n roll, an epic task when you think about it.”
One of the best passages in this assemblage of voices is that of Levon Helm (Mavis Staples, can we beg a shout-out for that fabled collaboration on “The Weight”?). Levon Helm, future drummer for The Band and one its three vocalists, here recalls his Arkansas roots, how he met Sonny Boy Williamson, and got run out of a barbecue joint by a racist cop for sitting in with the fabled bluesman. Helm taught himself drumming by playing along to Williamson’s records, finding Black music as a lodestar as Roddy Doyle would do in Dublin many years later. Levon Helm, looking back on the birth of rock and roll, realized that something new was happening, and tells us this:
Traditionally, white people played country music, and Black people played the blues. But in the thirties white musicians like my dad began to sing the blues with a twang, and it become something else with a different bump to it. That was the seed. In the late forties and early fifties Muddy Waters came out with the first electric R&B band and a string of R&B hits—‘She Loves Me,’ ‘I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,’ ’I Just Wanna Make Love to You,’ ‘You Got My Mojo Working’—that appealed to Black people and white people alike where we lived. Over at KFFA, the radio people noticed the telephone requests for Sonny Boy Williamson were as likely to come from the ladies at the white beauty parlor as from the Black.
Across the pages of The Ink in the Grooves, one follows Florence Dore on her search for cosmic truth, trying to capture the linkage of novels and rock ’n roll, an epic task when you think about it. Dore adroitly references the rise of rock ’n roll from Southern blues and the post-war surge of rhythm and blues.
As the rock-lady on stage takes her final bow, imagine her going to sleep in ninety minutes or so, trying not to think about that wake-up call to get you off in time for the day-long drive up to Fayetteville, bolting out of sweet slumber with a din of Lead Belly, Dylan, Whitman, Ellison, Bessie Smith, Jonathan Lethem, so many wordsmiths and rhythm-makers raising a ruckus, demanding their textured cameos before first caffeine. Roll on, Professor, roll on.