One of my favorite moments in the novel A Lesson Before Dying is when a self-righteous, old-school southern minister in 1940s Louisiana rails at a young schoolteacher for supplying an imprisoned man with a radio. "He needs God in that cell, and not that sin box."
A sin box!!??
I burst out laughing the first time I read that line. The author's inspired term for a radio in the eyes of Reverend Ambrose offers some much needed comic relief in this heart-breaker of a book. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, A Lesson Before Dying is the story of a young black schoolteacher, Grant, assigned to instill a sense of worth, courage and pride in Jefferson, an 18-year-old black man wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in the Jim Crow South.
Referred to by his own defense lawyer as a hog ("Why, I'd just as soon put a hog in the the electric chair as this"), Jefferson has been repeatedly degraded and denied his humanity by an unjust society, and is understandably embittered. When Grant begins visiting the imprisoned Jefferson, Jefferson is virtually unreachable. He is uncommunicative and beaten-down.
But then Jefferson begins to change. It is a seemingly small change: when the schoolteacher comes to visit him one day, Jefferson looks at him without hate. "Last Friday," Grant tells the Reverend, "was the first time he ever asked me a question or answered me without accusing me for his condition."
What brought about the change in the imprisoned Jefferson? That little "sin box" the schoolteacher gave him.
I'm a great believer in the power of music. I'm convinced that it reaches some part of us that words cannot. When I first got into Beethoven, I remember telling someone that Beethoven was good for the soul. I still believe that. I also feel the music of Bruce Springsteen is good for the soul, though my appreciation for both puzzles some. (To which I'd reply with a Leonard Bernstein line: there are only two categories of music that matter--good and bad.)
Which is why I love it when the schoolteacher in A Lesson Before Dying balks at the possible removal the "sin box" from Jefferson's cell. "You can take it from him," Jefferson tells the Reverend. "But you won't reach him if you do. The only thing that keeps him from thinking he is not a hog is that radio." The radio and the music that comes out of it has lifted Jefferson to a higher plane.
An equally powerful depiction of the power of music is in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Although Stephen King wrote the novella on which the movie is based, this scene is not in the novella, and full credit must go to the empathetic imagination of screenwriter and director Frank Darabont.
This scene also takes place in a prison, Shawshank Prison, where a prisoner played by Tim Robbins bars the door to the guard's station, places a record on the turntable, and then broadcasts the music over the PA system, so that every prisoner in Shawshank can hear it. Everything in the prison comes to a halt as the men stand transfixed by the music, staring at the speakers from which a duet from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is broadcast.
In the movie's voice-over, Red, played by Morgan Freeman, says:
"I have no idea to this day what them two Italian ladies were singin' about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singin' about something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it."
Do you have a favorite example of the power of music in literature, film or our lives? Feel free to share it!