Street music

You see I like emotion, I approve of it – in fact am capable of wallowing in it. … It’s life according to my gospel – and in some strange way discord or an ice cold feeling can be emotional don’t you think?

Jean Rhys, Letters

I have been haunted by popular songs all my life. Waking to some tune in my head. Walking, talking to it…

‘Songs My Mother Didn’t Teach Me’, Jean Rhys archive, 1920-1991, The University of Tulsa, McFarlin Library, Department of Special Collections & University Archives.

In an unpublished essay written later in her life, Jean Rhys affirms her affinity with ‘street music’ as she calls it, and in her fiction she scatters references to songs and fragments of lyrics. Collecting these references to music and lyrics together, I wondered if it might be possible to tell a story through those songs alone, the sounds of the streets, and the popular music Rhys and her protagonists listen to. Street music is something I will return to throughout my project as I think it’s significant to her work. It seems likely that an interest in performance and her background in music hall and the chorus influenced Rhys.

There was a barrel organ playing at the corner of Torrington Square. It played Destiny and La Paloma and Le Reve Passe, all tunes I liked, and the wind was warm and kind not spiteful, which doesn’t happen often in London.

Jean Rhys, Till September Petronella

In her essay Rhys writes: ‘Sometimes I think I can divide my life into neat sections headed by the songs I loved at the time.’ There are correlations with the songs Rhys threads into Voyage in the Dark and her short story, ‘Till September Petronella’, and the songs she remembers from before the 1914 war. Music in Rhys is often overheard, through windows and on street corners and squares, reflecting the popularity of music at the time, including music hall songs, folk songs and ballads, waltzes and dance rhythms from Vienna, and American ragtime music.

The popularity of ragtime is illustrated in Rhys’s reference to particular places associated with the music. In Voyage, Anna mentions going to Oddenino’s: ‘Melville Gideon was at the piano; he was singing rather well.’ Melville Gideon was a composer and performer of ragtime who had a residency at Oddenino’s Imperial Restaurant on Regent Street. Sue Thomas writes that Rhys’s reference is ‘a historical marker of the transatlantic commercialization of ragtime and its reach into white performance and dance cultures.’ (Thomas, S., 2016. Jean Rhys’s Piecing of the Local and the Transnational in Voyage in the Dark.Affirmations: of the modern, 4(1), pp.187–207).

Laurie began to sing Moonlight Bay.

You have stolen my heart,

So don’t go away.


I looked out of the window at a barrel-organ. It was playing Moonlight Bay.

Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark

In Voyage in the Dark there are repeated references to ‘Moonlight Bay’, a hit song recorded by the American Quartet in 1912. In her essay, Rhys refers to the circulation of songs through others singing or whistling them, and these are tied into the state of mind of her listener. Rhys registers this in Voyage: ‘The tune of the Robert E. Lee was going in my head’ (‘Waiting for the Robert E. Lee’ was a popular ragtime song recorded by the Heidelberg Quintette in 1911) and ‘The tune of Camptown Racecourse was going in my head. All that evening I did everything to the tune of Camptown Racecourse’. They are hauntings, or ‘earworms’; to be enthralled by a song is to be under its spell.

There was always some old man trailing along singing hymns […] Invisible men, they were. But the oldest one of all played The Girl I Let Behind Me on a penny whistle.

Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark

After leaving the bedsit room in Judd Street, Anna lives in rooms in Adelaide Road, Chalk Farm. Rhys registers the way songs are carried through the air, and the way they can travel from place to place, and cross borders and boundaries, often changing and adapting by time and place. ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’, an old folk song, adapted and popularised during the American Civil War. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, a trail of itinerant city life winds its way through the books; the presence of transient figures who drift in and out of the narrative, like music from the streets drifting in through windows, troubles the already tenuous identities of Rhys protagonists and their uncertain status.

Rhys reflects discussions around public spaces, sound and public order, and makes reference to the ongoing debate in Victorian London on the street music problem, and widespread perceptions of street performers and musicians as a disruptive nuisance. This debate focused on the intrusive nature, the noise and presence of street musicians; a debate which reveals tensions around national identity and class.

[…] itinerant performers were and are still very often viewed suspiciously by the authorities, and society as a whole, for their very mobility. Being perpetually on the move can mean that these individuals do not obviously fit within common social structures based around belonging and boundaries.

Paul Simpson, ‘The History of Street Performance: ‘Music by handle’ and the Silencing of Street Musicians in the Metropolis’, Lecture at Barnard’s Hall Inn, Gresham College, September 2015

From her room in Judd Street, Anna hears someone singing in the street outside. This references a song performed by Harry Champion, dating from 1911. Harry Champion was one of music hall’s most successful artists whose songs ‘often featured food and were sung at breakneck speed’. A standard feature of coster songs was their jerky rhythm and leaping melody, and this seems reflected in Anna’s response to it.

Somebody went past in the street, singing. Bawling…

Bread, bread, bread,

Standard bread,

A little bit er Standard bread, Pom, pom.

… over and over again. I thought, ‘What a song! Mad as a hatter that song is. It’s the tune that’s so awful; it’s like blows.’ But the words went over and over again in my head and I began to breathe in time to them.

Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark

Rhys’s work features organ-grinders and buskers, street traders or costers, and the man ‘bawling’ seems to chime with the appearance of ‘The Cries of London’ later in the novel. The Cries of London were a series of pictures depicting street sellers, a popular tradition of illustrated prints that began in the 17th century, revealing a concern with the poor and dispossessed, and portraying the street cries as part of the panorama of city life.

In the 20th century, the ‘Cries of London’ found their way onto cigarette cards, chocolate boxes and, famously, tins of Yardley talcum powder, becoming divorced from the reality they once represented as time went by, copied and recopied by different artists.

The Gentle Author, ‘The Cries of London‘, Discovering Literature (British Library)

As her writing develops and becomes more experimental and fragmented, Rhys increasingly incorporates references to popular culture through song lyrics, speech and phrases, advertising, street signs, shop windows, venues and night life, and cinema (more on cinema later). This creates another layer of interest and of tangents and asides for the shadow – the detective of literary signs and symbols – to pursue.

I still don’t understand why I find popular music so enthralling. I’m not deaf to better things. But they fade away gently, gracefully, no haunting. […] Now I miss my hauntings and long to hear a lively tune everyone else is whistling.

Jean Rhys, ‘Songs my mother didn’t teach me’

One thought on “Street music

  1. Pingback: Points of surfacing: Voyage in the Dark | And The Street Walks In

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