The Music of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”
An insistence not just upon a musical phrase, but upon a soundtrack too, give life to Sal and Dean’s adventures.
On the Road is the most acclaimed novel of Beat poet and novelist, Jack Kerouac. According to legend, it was written in a sustained stream of consciousness (and in some versions, with ongoing doses of stimulants) during three weeks in April of 1951. The book’s influence on American narrative and in world literature notwithstanding, Kerouac’s prose is based on a musicality of phrases with as little interruption as possible to the thread of words (unhindered by punctuation marks), has been bequeathed to many subsequent artists and writers.
One more way to enjoy the novel is simply to watch for the music. This can sometimes turns into a character itself on the coast-to-coast journey undertaken by Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise. Set in the 1940s of the last century, in the full of the musical outpouring of jazz, Kerouac’s novel lets itself be moved along by the force and emotion of the bands of the time.
The Los Angeles music scene provides a “background noise” for some sections. So do the vinyl records during the holidays, the rock bands, and the explosions of bee bop that form the sonorous correlate of a vital expression. We hear the horn of Miles Davis alongside a tragic Charlie Parker at moments, but also Red Norvo and Dexter Gordon, who appear as ghosts or references in the adventures of the characters.
A playlist on YouTube lets you hook into a cadence of the drums, the coming and going of saxophones and trumpets, and even while the pages of On the Road fill with smoke and our eyes are transported just for a moment precisely to this place in world literature. It’s that place where the novel is freed from its mimetic chains, close to traditional rhetoric, and where it allows itself to be infected by a recognizable but unclassifiable rhythm of the colloquial phrase, a stream of consciousness, and where emotion itself returns to gesture and word.
Kerouac himself warns in various essays and poems on “spontaneous prose” that “time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.”
This statement allows the reader to notice the exigency required of him or her. By looking through words and decoding them in phrases, scenes, and chapters, we mustn’t overlook the idea that Kerouac’s work is intended to be a musical score rather than a traditional book. Here the reader assumes the role of a “performer.” A musician doesn’t only play the notes indicated, but adds a rhythm of his or her own, an expression and cadence. This is the heady feeling of careful reading and then listening without restraint. It’s also part of the legacy – neither the most nor the least – of the great Jack Kerouac.
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