Say Make Me, Remake Me: Ghosts in the Music of Toni Morrison’s Novel

Ghosts are subtle yet insistent, here but not here, memory and reality and fiction all jumbled together. Ghosts are as confusing and complicated as the living. And, I argue, ghosts are melodies—this is where we begin.

Reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Jazz using music as a theoretical lens allows us to engage with the narratives on their own terms: from the African American tradition, which is situated firmly in the analysis of tone, orality, rhythm, repetition, and so on. If we want to understand how the ghosts of Beloved and Dorcas operate within and influence the rhythm of the novel, we must begin by reconceptualizing the novel as a blend of the literary and the musical. While the two ghosts exhibit commonalities, which find their roots in the overlap between blues and jazz music, they play fundamentally different roles in the construction of their respective narratives.

Characteristics of Blues: Setting up Beloved

We see the characteristics of blues music most prominently in Beloved, the first book in Morrison’s trilogy on love. This is presumably due in some part to the blues tradition predating the evolution of jazz—although the two evolved side-by-side toward the end of the nineteenth and into the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Of the blues, Baker writes: “The blues are a synthesis (albeit one always synthesizing rather than one already hypostatized). Combining work songs, group seculars, field hollers, sacred harmonies, proverbial wisdom, folk philosophy, political commentary, ribald humor, elegiac lament, and much more, they constitute an amalgam that seems always to have been in motion in America—always becoming, shaping, transforming, displacing the peculiar experiences of Africans in the New World” (5). He likens the form of blues to a matrix—”a womb, a network, a fossil-bearing rock…the point of ceaseless input and output, a web of intersecting, crisscrossing impulses always in productive transit”—which is characterized by its incorporation of different musical mediums and its structured, perpetual cycles of repetition (Baker 3-4). In Beloved, Morrison invokes numerous cultural traditions, weaving in different references to create a cohesive whole much in the same way as do blues tunes. We observe references to: trees acting as primal altars and spiritual bridges as they do in the Voodoo tradition; the Yoruba concept of the Abiku, the angry child-spirit who returns with a vengeance; the Black Madonna and other countless instances of Christian symbolism; and even Classical epics such as Homer’s Odyssey. All of these allusions considered together situate Beloved firmly in the heart of the blues tradition.

Blues arose in large part from the conditions of the African American slave, who spent their lives doing back-breaking work in the fields on large plantations; as a result, the music is centered around the voice as its primary instrument. “If desire and absence are driving conditions of blues performance, the amelioration of such conditions is implied by the onomatopoeic training of blues voice and instrument,” asserts Baker. “Only a trained voice can sing the blues,” he writes, a distinction that becomes relevant particularly when we later consider the different narrators in Beloved (8, emphasis in original). Blues is also known for musical properties such as the 12-measure form and its distinct chord progressions and scales. Additionally, Baker writes that “[Train-wheels-over-track-junctures] is the ‘sign,’ as it were, of the blues, and it combines an intriguing melange of phonics: rattling gondolas, clattering flatbeds, quilling whistles, clanging bells, rumbling boxcars, and other railroad sounds. A blues text may… announce itself by the onomatopoeia of the train’s whistle sounded on the indrawn breath of a harmonica or a train bell tinkled on the high keys of an upright piano” (8). Much of the themes within blues music focus on “getting there” someday, which is reflected in the musical emphasis on the evocative sound of train tracks. A train ride is as much about the journey as it is about the destination, a time to meditate and reflect not only on where one is going but where one comes from—and perhaps most critically, to be fully present in the place between places, to be both moving and stationary at the same time.

The final characteristic of blues which we examine is its participatory nature. “Repetition in blues is seldom word for word and the definition of worrying the line includes changes in stress and pitch, the addition of exclamatory phrases, changes in word order, repetitions of phrases within the line itself, and the wordless blues cries which often punctuate the performance of the songs,” explains Williams. She goes on to connect these techniques and patterns to the artist/audience relationship, saying: “The classic song form itself internalizes and echoes, through the statement/response pattern, the thematic relationship between individual and group experience which is implied in these evocations of social and political reality” (546). Baker elaborates on the ways in which the blues facilitates a collaborative relationship between artist and audience, writing that “rather than a rigidly personalized form, the blues offer…a nonlinear, freely associative, nonsequential meditation…of species experience. What emerges is not a filled subject, but an anonymous (nameless) voice issuing from the black (w)hole…The ‘you’ (audience) addressed is always free to invoke the X(ed) spot in the body’s absence. For the signature comprises a scripted authentication of ‘your’ feelings. Its mark is an invitation to energizing intersubjectivity” (5). Morrison herself is aware of this intersubjectivity, of the artist’s position in the context of community and arising as an individual from community under this literary conception. She refers to the concept in her own critical theory as being both “genuinely representative of the tribe and in it; when an artist [has] both a tribal or racial sensibility and an individual expression of it” (Rootedness 56). The blues is concerned not just with individuals but with the collective, with engaging numerous voices as much as elevating solitary ones.

Characteristics of Jazz: Setting up Jazz

As we can tell from its title, Jazz, the second book in Morrison’s love trilogy, is composed according to the principles of jazz music. Merriam and Garner cite the most likely linguistic origin for the word “jazz” as coming from French, explaining: “The French verb jaser means ‘to chat,’ ‘to chatter,’ ‘to prattle,’ ‘to talk a lot.’ In French literature, jaser is often used to describe a conversation that touches on a variety of subjects, with everyone speaking together; and in addition, jaser also means more specifically ‘a playful whispering about little nothings’” (18). Considering the multitude of characters in Jazz, most of whom are given dedicated sections of the novel in both third and first person perspectives, and all of whom touch on their many different concerns, the assertion that their narratives amount to “whispering about little nothings” is more than a little contentious. And yet, despite the gravity imparted to the narrative by the anonymous first-person narrator appearing throughout the novel, the text does nudge us toward this as a primary interpretation of jazz: “Below [the buildings] is shadow where any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things” (Beloved 7). The phrase “any blasé thing” evokes the same light, chattering tone suggested by Merriam and Garner’s cited definition, and the multiplicity of “things” occurring simultaneously in the City maps onto jazz’s construction through overlapping musical themes and instrumental “voices” (since jazz relies more heavily on instruments than on voice, often having compositions with no vocals at all).

One of the most critical differences between the jazz and blues traditions is jazz’s incorporation of improvisation. Because blues is one of jazz’s direct predecessors, the new genre builds on the structure of blues and diverges from it, resulting in many similarities between the two musical styles. “Improvisation does not mean that anything goes,” writes Sawyer; “Improvisation always occurs within a structure,” and when it comes to jazz improvisation, the process is the product (157, 150). Sawyer distinguishes between problem-solving and problem-finding approaches to art, with jazz firmly situated in the latter category, since it improvises rather than merely executes art. Snead adds to this distinction that Black culture, through repetition that repeatedly “cuts” back to the start, “attempts to confront accident and rupture not by covering them over but by making room for them inside the system itself” (69-70, emphasis mine). This is what jazz, and Jazz, does: make room for the complexities and dissonances caused by the problem, without feeling the need to resolve it (especially given that it may be unresolvable). In her writings, Morrison makes this concept explicit by asserting that a novel “should be beautiful, and powerful, but it should also work. It should have something in it that enlightens; something in it that opens the door and points the way. Something in it that suggests what the conflicts are, what the problems are. But it need not solve those problems because it is not a case study, it is not a recipe” (“Rootedness” 58-59).

In jazz, as in blues, rhythm and melody combine to distinguish the genres from other musical forms, and in certain ways, from each other. However, jazz has a somewhat more complicated history; it has been shaped not only by a hybrid of musical forms (African, European, and the already hybridized blues traditions) but by its reception in popular American culture. White Americans consumed, condemned, and played jazz music during a period in which Americans were “redefining their ideas about ‘culture’”, in which the fledgling music industry was just beginning to select for artists and musical forms it would (or wouldn’t) support (Porter 8). As a result, “jazz was simply difficult to celebrate as an important African American cultural expression for much of the 1920s because of its status as a popular music,” writes Porter. “Not only was it seen as less artistically ‘authentic’ than spirituals, but it was also clear that whites controlled the music industry, were highly visible as practitioners, and as an audience demanded that black artists conform to their expectations” (12). This is critical to understanding jazz music as Morrison writes it: a genre born out of multiple musical traditions, following from blues and sharing many of its qualities, yet at the same time inventing and reinventing itself using new melodies and layers of improvisation. A genre that both struggles to define itself and that resists definition.

Beloved’s Ghosts: It is Always Now

When we analyze Beloved within the tradition of blues music, it becomes easier to see how Beloved’s death is the thematic idea to which we continuously return. We cannot look away; Morrison refuses to let us. Beloved becomes the ghost orienting the novel, either in her physical presence or in her conspicuous absence. We see this even in the numerology of Sethe and Denver’s address: 124 enumerates Sethe’s surviving children (Howard, Buglar, and Denver) with Beloved, the third, glaringly left out. She is the ghost who watches over 124 even in its name; although three is absent from the address proper, the number 124 remains defined by its three digits, three being its unseen organizing principle. Although we observe Beloved return to Sethe in a physical body, it is during the moments when her “unspeakable thoughts unspoken” are narrated to us that we see most clearly how the novel treats her as a ghost within the musical framework of blues:

“All of it is now     it is always now     there will never be a time when I am not crouching   and watching others who are crouching too     I am always crouching…

“there is no one to want me     to say me my name…

“in the night I hear chewing and swallowing and laughter     it belongs to me     she is the laugh     I am the laughter     I see her face which is mine…

“I am looking for the join     I am loving my face so much     my dark face is close to me I want to join…I want to be the two of us     I want the join” (Beloved 210-213).

These are Beloved’s fragmented thoughts amidst her descriptions of being taken across the Atlantic ocean in a slave ship, with a dead man lying on her face and not enough water in her body for tears. Her claim that “all of it is now,” followed by an inverted repeated claim that “it is always now” invokes Snead’s comments on repetition in Black culture: “In Black culture, repetition means that the thing circulates…there in an an equilibrium. In European culture, repetition must be seen to be not just circulation and flow but accumulation and growth” (69, emphasis in original). Beloved signifies not just Sethe’s actions and their consequences, but the entire “Sixty Million and more” slaves who died being taken across the Atlantic (with “Sixty Million” capitalized as in a proper noun—specifically a name) to whom Morrison refers in her epigraph. Keeping this signification in mind, we can read her saying “all of it is now” as meaning that these slaves are still crossing the ocean, as long as violence and conditions of oppression still exist to keep Black Americans in a subhuman position. Similarly, when Beloved says that she has nobody to want her or to say her name, she is speaking not just of Sethe forgetting and “leaving” her, but of being forced into a new reality as a slave where her identity and connections to other human beings is obliterated.

Beloved speaks of Sethe when she says that “she is the laugh” and Beloved is the laughter—an important distinction, since a laugh is a single occurrence but laughter determines how deep and how long any one laugh will last. Beloved also equates Sethe’s face with her own in a bluesy repetition which returns always to the idea that they are the same being with the same body. Beloved “want[s] the join,” wants to be “the two of [them],” statements which imply the separation between the two (for how can you be joined unless you were initially apart?), yet simultaneously claims Sethe’s face as her own, using “my,” “me,” and “mine” to repeatedly assert her ownership. Under the theoretical conception of blues, this apparent paradox becomes legible: Beloved is speaking here as both part of a whole and the whole itself. She can be Sethe because she is from Sethe, even as she can be other than Sethe because she is also herself. Yet because of her position, disconnected from humanity and forced out of a life with the people she loves—being either Sethe and Denver or a slave stolen from her home—of course she longs for “the join.” Beloved is terrified of being left again, beyond furious at having such injustice done to her, and deeply lonely. She, these, are the themes that animate the composition of Beloved as a blues text. Beloved is the ghost in the spaces between her sentences in the unspeakable words unspoken, she herself the “wordless blues cry” punctuating the song. As we see definitively at the novel’s end, Morrison will not let us forget. We must confront Beloved’s betrayal and pain at every turn; we return to it without expectation of growth. We must return.

Jazz’s Ghosts: Because Because Because

Jazz ends on a deceptively high note: Joe and Violet have reconciled, Felice and Alice Mansfield are doing well, and everyone seems to have a hopeful future. However, the fact remains: Dorcas is still dead. In this novel, Dorcas is the ghost whose presence orients the jazz music and layered improvisational voices of its numerous narrators, yet she grounds it very differently from Beloved. We can see echoes of Dorcas’s role in her first-person narration:

“He said, You want me to leave my wife?

“I said, No! I want you to leave me. I don’t want you inside me. I don’t want you beside me. I hate this room. I don’t want to be here and don’t come looking for me.

“He said, Why?

“I said, Because. Because. Because.

“He said, Because what?

“I said, Because you make me sick.

“Sick? I make you sick?

“Sick of myself and sick of you.

“I didn’t mean that part…about being sick. He didn’t. Make me sick, I mean. What I wanted to let him know was that I had this chance to have Acton and I wanted it and I wanted girlfriends to talk to about it. About where we went and what he did. About things. About stuff. What good are secrets if you can’t talk to anybody about them? I sort of hinted about Joe and me to Felice and she laughed before she stared at me and then frowned.

“I couldn’t tell him all that because I had practiced the other points and got mixed up” (Jazz 189).

Dorcas’s narration exhibits more subtlety than Beloved’s. Like Beloved, Dorcas incorporates aspect of blues form, invoking the audience with phrases like “I mean” and her rhetorical questions; even Morrison’s use of quotation marks to mark the beginning of Dorcas’s paragraphs sets up this section of the narration as a spoken, rather than written, message. The element of improvisation becomes apparent in Dorcas’s repeated use of “because,” which seems to indicate a failure to improvise in time to provide a more concrete answer, drawing attention to itself in the process. When she does provide Joe an answer, she tells him something she doesn’t mean, something which Joe later tells us he knows she didn’t mean, yet which still sticks with him and arguably helps drive him to the point of murder. Dorcas says she “practiced the other points and got mixed up;” in other words, she doesn’t know how to play jazz well enough to move away from the rhythm and find it again once her “solo” is completed. Snead writes that “in Black culture, the thing (the ritual, the dance, the beat) is ‘there for you to pick it up when you come back to get it.’ If there is a goal in such a culture, it is always deferred; it continually ‘cuts’ back to the start, in the musical meaning of ‘cut’ as an abrupt, seemingly unmotivated break…with a series already in progress and a willed return to a prior series” (69). Dorcas’s problem, it seems, is that she is not “cutting” back to the novel’s central concern—which, contrary to Beloved, is not her, neither her life nor her death.

Dorcas’s voice is important because she colors the composition of the novel, but it is not the voice in the same way as Beloved’s is. Analyzing both texts through a musical lens allows us to use the language of blues and jazz to understand the distinction. “Because one rhythm always defines another in Black music, and beat is an entity of relation, any ‘self-consciousness” or “achievement’ in the sense of an individual participant working towards his or her own rhythmic or tonal climax ‘above the mass’ would have disastrous results,” argues Snead (71). Jazz functions differently from blues in this way: while both invoke the individual as both part of and separate from the whole, jazz also places emphasis on the relatively equal importance of all the instruments in its composition. We need to understand Dorcas’s motivations in order to hear the richness of the whole composition, but her melodic line is not the one to which we return. While Beloved exists in the past and the present, via her physical body, Dorcas exists only in the past; we encounter her in the novel as a way of processing the past and moving toward the future, returning to the issues of displacement and love with which the characters struggled before they even met Dorcas. Her presence as a ghost is critical because she colors our perception of the rest of the narrative song, like a jazz riff that repeats and repeats in the middle of the song and then, suddenly, is gone and does not return. Our understanding of the rest of the piece is changed by it, but no longer is it the main idea.

Stories to Pass On: Look Where You Are Now

“This is not a story to pass on. Down by the stream in the back of 124 her footprints come and go, come and go. They are so familiar. Should a child, an adult place his feet in them, they will fit. Take them out and they disappear again as though nobody ever walked there.

“By and by all trace is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss.

“Beloved” (Beloved 175).

“I envy them their public love. I myself have only known it in secret, shared it in secret and longed, aw longed to show it—to be able to say out loud what they have no need to say at all: That I have loved only you, surrendered my whole self reckless to you and nobody else. That I want you to love me back and show it to me. That I love the way you hold me, how close you let me be to you. I like your fingers on and on, lifting, turning. I have watched your face for a long time now, and missed your eyes when you went away from me. Talking to you and hearing you answer—that’s the kick.

“But I can’t say that aloud; I can’t tell anyone that I have been waiting for this all my life and that being chosen to wait is the reason I can. If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now” (Jazz 239).

“This is not a story to pass on” is a warning to us—an explicit one, as can be expected from the straightforward blues narrative. “The assertion of self usually comes at the end of the blues song after the description/analysis of the situation or problem and is often the only solution to that problem or situation,” writes Williams, and we see it in the last line of the novel: “Beloved” (549). This is who I am. This is who she is. In her unspeakable words unspoken, Beloved says “I am not dead     I am not,” and it is true (Beloved 213). The problem is in the forgetting, of Beloved and of the Sixty Million, of the fact that the feet fit in the footprints and the heritage of violence and slavery in Beloved is our heritage whether we like it or not.

“I have watched your face for a long time now, and missed your eyes when you went away from me:” in true jazz form, it is difficult to tell whether Joe, or Violet, or the anonymous narrator, is speaking here. Perhaps it is even Dorcas, speaking not to Acton who takes her for granted and never “answers” when she talks to him, but to some lover she never got to know. Nonetheless, the novel releases us at the end of the song, tells us that despite all the trauma and unforgivable mistakes, we are still free to be made and remade. “Fixity is a function of power,” explains Baker. “Those who maintain place, who decide what takes place and dictate what has taken place, are power brokers of the traditional. The ‘placeless,’ by contrast, are translators of the nontraditional…Their lineage is fluid, nomadic, transitional. Their appropriate mark is a crossing sign at the junction…It signifies, always, change, motion, transience, process…‘Do what you can,’ it demands. ‘Do what you can—right here—on this placeless-place, this spotless-spot—to capture manifold intonations and implications of fluid experience!’” (202).

This is jazz, but it is also blues. It is Beloved the ghost made physical and Dorcas the ghost made memory. It is a way of being and knowing that insists on (re)turning things over, moving forward and moving back at the same time, being a part and a whole in the same instant, leaving but always returning to the rhythm of the music. “Look, look”—where are your hands? They are not in space: they are in now. Now.


Baker, Houston A. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1984. Print.

Merriam, Alan P., and Fradley H. Garner. “Jazz—The Word.” The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. Ed. Robert G. O’Meally. New York: Columbia U Press, 2007. 7-31. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. London: Vintage, 1987. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Jazz. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. Print.

Morrison, Toni. “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” Black Women Writers: Arguments and Interviews. Ed. Mari Evans. New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1984. 339-45. Print.

Porter, Eric. What is This Thing Called Jazz?: African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists. Berkeley: U of California Press, 2007. Print.

Sawyer, R. Keith. “Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 58.2 (2000): 149-61. Web.

Snead, James A. “Repetition as a Figure of Black Culture.” The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. Ed. Robert G. O’Meally. New York: Columbia U Press, 2007. 63-81. Print.

Williams, Sherley A. “The Blues Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry.” The Massachusetts Review 18.3 (1977): 542-54. Web.

written under the supervision of Dr. Valorie Thomas,
Special Topics in American Literature: Toni Morrison