Study Guide

Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories Music & Music Makers

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Music & Music Makers

Mister Macy's Magic Guitar

Marvin's guitar is faithful as a pet, accompanying him everywhere no matter what. After the crime spree that would land him in jail, the cops find him "drunk, on the floor of a tourist cabin, his guitar by his side [...]" (Ballad.96).

Later he seems to use it as a nonchalant weapon, making quiet, insistent noise and taking up space, as when he's waiting for supper at the Hale house, sitting on the porch and ready to eat more than his share, "lazily picking his guitar" (Ballad.167).

As the story progresses, the role of his guitar comes into a terrible focus, in this long passage about Marvin taking up residence in Amelia's café:

Marvin Macy, most likely, would pick up the guitar from the floor beside his chair. His voice was wet and slimy, as he always had too much spit in his mouth. And the tunes he sang glided slowly from his throat like eels. (Ballad.199)

In modern music scholarship of rock and roll, a male musician's guitar has commonly been pointed to as an extension of masculinity, and it seems that in this, McCullers may have been well ahead of her time. The sounds Marvin makes express his presence, reminding Miss Amelia and the townspeople of, what? Threat, hurt, revenge to come?

Music That's More Than Melody

The characters here have so few lines of dialogue, it's worth wondering whether music sometimes takes the role of speech and a more outright reflection. And this is nowhere more obvious than in the novella's coda, as the men of the chain gang unite in song:

The voices are dark in the golden glare, the music intricately blended, both somber and joyful . The music will swell until at last it seems that the sound does not come from the twelve men on the gang, but from the earth itself, or the wide sky. (Ballad.232)

In the shorter stories, literal music provides nostalgic cues, like when Elizabeth Bailey plays a song for the lonely birthday boy John Ferris in "The Sojourner." The dinner bell rings before Elizabeth can finish and Ferris sighs, dramatically:

"There's nothing that makes you so aware of the improvisation of human existence as a song unfinished." (Sojourner.67)

In "Wunderkind" and "Madam Zilensky," the ability or inability to play or write music well becomes a central character trait: Frances is found lacking, and probable liar Madame Zilensky works tirelessly and impressively on her own compositions.

In "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud," the old man remembers the woman who spurned him, when he's least expecting it, at the cue of a piece of glass, a shadow, or "a nickel tune in a music box." (Tree.58)

Music is a tiny tune and a major progression in the lives of McCullers's characters. And McCullers herself was a serious piano player with plans to attend Julliard. She didn't have the money to attend, in the end, and perhaps this speaks a bit to the central part music plays in her work.

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