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Song: The Invisible Character in “Song of Solomon”

[By Cindy Lyles]

An instrumental or vocal musical track typically lingers in the background as the opening credits or initial scene of a film unfolds. Music, however, is less anticipated in the opening vignette of a novel, but Toni Morrison proves that song has a place in Song of Solomon far beyond the title. At the beginning of this novel, music serves a similar purpose that it does in film to establish and maintain the emotional mood of a scene for the audience. Yet, unlike in film, music in the opening of Song of Solomon is recognized by characters and consequently highly influential, therefore making it a character in its own respect.

Chapter one situates characters just outside of Mercy Hospital looking up at the rooftop with Robert Smith adorned with “his wide blue silk wings curved forward around his chest” (5). The daughters of Macon Dead, who are at the scene with their pregnant mother to watch Smith take his fatal flight, become distracted from the spectacle when a gust of wind disperses their basketful of red velvet rose-petals atop the winter snow.

As the daughters and a few onlookers scramble to collect the petals, other spectators could not decide whether to focus their attention on the rooftop or the rose-petals. In the midst of their confusion however, “The dilemma was solved when a woman suddenly burst into song” (5).

When the woman in the crowd begins singing with “a powerful contralto…O Sugarman done fly away / Sugarman done gone / Sugarman cut across the sky / Sugarman gone home,” spectators no longer have to decide what to watch as they become affixed on the singing woman. The narration lends to the idea that the singing sets a mood when “others listened as though it were the helpful and defining piano music in a silent movie” (6). The woman (who readers later learn is Pilate) singing indeed presents a soundtrack for that moment. Yet, the song functions as more than an emotionally-charging, background tune.

The music in the air captures onlookers’ attention offering them a place to direct their focus in the midst of what is seemingly a chaotic circumstance, thus giving music a powerful, active position in the scene. That music enters the opening vignette and characters recognize it and choose to focus on it reveal early on how song/music in Morrison’s Song of Solomon holds great significance. Based on the beginning of this novel alone, music is more than a mood setter; it is more so that invisible but very present character that unexpectedly enters and powerfully reels in and focuses others when they least anticipate it.