A motif is an element that crops up repeatedly in a work of art -- a piece of music, a story or play, or even in the interior decoration of (say) a room. Think of a piece of embroidery: a given thread (say, bright yellow, of a fuzzy texture, or a thin strand of blue silk) pops up on the visible surface of the base cloth, runs for a while, and then dips down underneath out of visibility, only to return to sight somewhere else "later on."
In some music and in interior decoration, motifs may serve merely to lend a pleasing effect. But in literary works (including operas) -- and of course some music and even some interior decoration -- such repetition almost always has at least some thematic function. It serves to call the reader's or spectator's attention to the element in question. Moreover, a motif tends to take on certain associations from the particular situations in which it emerges. It can then carry some or all of those associations into subsequent contexts in which it (re)appears.
Hence as soon as we realize a motif is at work, it is always in order to ask "Why is my attention being called to this idea or image? What implications are getting attached to it, and why are these notions important in this work overall - and in this specific situation in particular?"
A common sort of motif in song and lyric poetry is the refrain. A more extensive relative of the refrain is the chorus, in which an entire series of lines, or stanza gets repeated at intervals between stanzas that advance the song by introducing new material. Sometimes a chorus or refrain can invites being understood in new ways (perhaps taking on ironic overtones) in its successive reappearances, depending on how our understanding of the narrative situation has developed in the meanwhile.
A particularly deft example is Mose Allison's great blues song "Parchman Farm." It's sung by a convict condemned to the Louisiana state work farm, which is notorious for the brutality of its conditions. The song fades out as the speaker launches into a repetition of the opening stanza, which we never hear the end of, but are prompted to complete in our mind. Here is the whole (lamentably absent the wonderful musical setting which energizes and complicates the nuances of the words):
- Well I'm gonna be here for the rest of my life.
- I'm gonna be on this farm for the rest of my natchrul life.
- Well I'm gonna be here for the rest of my life,
- And all I did was shoot my wife.
- I'm sittin' here on Parchman Farm....
We are launched on a powerful trajectory to complete the stanza, as a symmetrical frame to the whole, but when we do this we experience a kind of time bomb: we have to understand the final line in a completely different way than we initially did. Being forced to recall the end of the opening stanza in the light of the end of the next-to-last stanza drives home the vastness of the chasm between our own perspective on things and that of the narrator, with whom we thought we shared a common set of postulates about what constitutes fairness.
Instead of a victim of a miscarriage of justice, the speaker stands before us as a person who is so morally deranged as not even to know what counts as a person. The puzzlement we thought we were sharing was: How can a system go so wrong as to put a man away for life for something he never did? (If we are of an optimistic cast, we may find ourselves thinking, "Well, at least he wasn't dealt capital punishment. Where there's life, there's hope, and who knows? Maybe someday he'll be vindicated and released.)
But his puzzlement all along has been: Why would a jury of one's peers sentence one to life imprisonment for offing a creature that isn't in the category of peers in the first place?
We thus may end up considering a new perspective on life imprisonment: maybe this is the only place for such incorrigibles, people who cannot be expected to reform their conduct because they seem unable to learn what was wrong about it in the first place. And our puzzlement ends up including such questions as: How could it ever be possible to reach such people? And, if we are among those who favor the death penalty, our puzzlement may extend to wondering whether an injustice has indeed been committed in this case: perhaps the reason he got off with life imprisonment was that his "peers" realized that, after all, the person he killed was of a "second-class" sort. An additional irony may be then that the complainer never appreciates that his "peers" have done him a favor after all.
All this is set off by Allison's skillful exploitation of the device of motif. But it's essential to notice that the motif works the way it does because of the way all the rest of the poem is constructed. The writer's skill really embraces the whole lyric -- the setting up of the context within which "never done no man no harm" can emerge as a motif, and the deployment of that element as a motif in the exactly apt moment.
In theater and film, and in prose narratives, like short stories and novels, motifs do not crop up with such formal regularity as they do in compositions organized stanzaically, but they can nevertheless establish a recognizable rhythm. And they can sometimes behave like chameleons, taking on different colors in different surroundings. It's worth cultivating an alertness to this kind of possibility.
Further notes on Mose Allison's "Parchman Farm"
So far as I know, the first published recorded performance by Allison of this now famous piece was in 1957 (November 8, Van Gelder Studios, Hackensack, NJ), which appeared in the album Local Color (Prestige 7121, January 1958). It is most recently available on CD in Allison Wonderland: The Mose Allison Anthology (Rhino Records R2 71689). Additional versions appear on other Allison CDs that are currently available. Return above.
The song, in other words, is in the form of a dramatic monologue and the voice we hear is not the author but a fictional character, a persona. We will go seriously astray if we think we are hearing the thoughts and sentiments of the composer in any autobiographical capacity. In her notes to this piece that accompany Allison Wonderland, Patti Jones reports: "No, Mose never did time -- it's just a little piece of fiction based on a real penitentiary he lived near as a kid. He did once visit a friend who was incarcerated there. Along with his other "cotton-sack" songs, he no longer performs this number. The line about "all I did was shoot my wife" was intended to be ironic and humourous; he concedes: It's not funny anymore." The thoughts and feelings of the author are locatable through the piece, but only by taking account of the dramatic irony the author supposes his listeners are able to tune into. And an author can come to see additional objective implications in a situation he has created beyond the ones he may initially have been aware of in composing the piece in the first place. What Jones reports implies at least that Allison subsequently came to realize that some listeners were "appreciating" his song in a spirit in which he disapproved, and decided that rather than to lend himself to encouraging them in their delusions, to immoral effect, it would be better withdraw it from his concert repertoire. Nevertheless it is present on his recent comprehensive CD anthology (where it is accompanied by the program notes containing Jones' comment). Return above.
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This page last updated 12 January 1999.