Keys to the Archive: A Lesson Before Dying

Radio Free Bayonne

Radio plays a complicated role in A Lesson Before Dying. On the one hand, when Grant gives Jefferson a battery operated Philco, they bond over a shared interest in popular music. On the other hand, the radio increases tension between Grant and his elders, who see popular music as sinful. To them, the radio is a dangerous distraction for Jefferson as he prepares for his execution. Beyond plot device, the radio also contributes to the historical setting of the novel, giving readers a realistic depiction of media consumption in the late-1940s. As a way to elaborate the novel’s historical realism, this playlist of popular songs from the period showcases some of the songs, artists, and styles Jefferson would likely have heard while tuning into whatever signal he could get.

With a few exceptions, the songs on this playlist were recorded before the 1948-49 timeline of the narrative. Grant notes one song by name, “You Are My Sunshine,” but doesn’t mention the performer. The Jimmie Davis recording appears here because it propelled the song to fame and because Davis served as Governor of Louisiana during this period. (His first term in office ended May 11, 1948.) Also included are two songs by recording artists that Grant mentions in conversation with Jefferson: Tampa Red and Mercy Dee. Both were popular by the 1940s, although these recordings would not have been available for radio broadcast during Jefferson’s time in jail. Mercy Dee found success as a live musician as early as the 1930s, but he only released his first recording in the summer of 1949. Tampa Red recorded hundreds of songs between 1928 and 1960; this particular recording came out in 1954. Although outside the historical moment of the novel, Red’s lyrics resonate with Jefferson’s experience. Similarly, Hank Williams’s famous recording of “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” came out in 1952, but appears here for its thematic relationship to Louisiana foodways. Follow the path below to read more about each song and its relationship to the novel.

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