For Those Not Musically Inclined

Flannery O’Connor was a very creative woman who wrote many works of fiction, drew cartoons for her school newspaper, and enjoyed painting. However, there was one form of art with which she struggled, despite her attempts to understand it: music. This was a problem that plagued her throughout her life. In high school, she attempted to learn the accordion, liking how it “glittered and moved about” along with the clarinet and bass fiddle.[1] Flannery also took piano lessons from Sister Loretta Costa when the Sisters of St. Joseph were in Milledgeville but did not have much luck with it.[2] She insisted that she had no musical abilities or knowledge and said, “I have the Original Tin Ear, that is to say, the First and Prime Tin Ear. So I like music that is guaranteed good because I have no way of finding out for myself.”[3]

Andalusia Collection 2018.1.107

If you have visited Andalusia for a guided tour, you might remember the 1950s V-M brand Tri-O-Matic Model 560A record player which sits in the corner of Flannery’s bedroom. Flannery received this as a gift from the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. She had befriended the sisters after Sister Mary Evangeline wrote Flannery a letter asking her to consider writing a story about a young girl the sisters had cared for at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. The girl had a disfiguring facial tumor and died at the age of twelve from her illness. Flannery agreed to help the nuns but only as far as editing together their writings and adding an introduction. The book that resulted from this was A Memoir of Mary Ann.[4]

Dominican Nuns of Perpetual Help Home, A Memoir of Mary Ann. Savannah: Frederic C. Beil, 1991.

Flannery continued to stay in touch with the sisters after the book was finished and they gave her a few gifts, including the record player. In one of Flannery’s letters to her friend, Thomas Stritch, on January 22, 1964, she admits that before she got the record player from the sisters, she had been saving up money to buy herself a record player. However, Flannery decided that it was a lot of money to spend on “something you don’t already appreciate and no guarantee that you ever will.”[5] Instead, she used the money to buy something she knew would make her happy: a pair of swans. Her only swan had died recently, and she knew that the purchase of its successors would bring her more joy and possibly less regret than a record player. Shortly after Christmas in 1963, the sisters told Flannery that someone had given them a new record player and that they were sending her their old one, the one that now sits in the corner of her room.[6]

Stritch, after hearing that she had a record player, gifted her some albums to listen to that included mostly classical music, including mainly Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. Flannery listened to the albums and wrote Stritch a letter thanking him for them. In it, she said that the records were a real gift and that Regina was especially pleased with them. She also mentions that, at the age of thirty-eight, this was the first time she had listened to music except for once when she was at Yaddo. She tells Stritch that she thinks she likes the kind of music, “that is straight up and down rather than what slides around, if you know what I mean…”[7] In another letter to Stritch on June 28, 1964, she again mentions her lack of knowledge about music but includes, “Of the ones you sent I think I like the 4-hand piano Chopin thing; there is a point in it where the peafowls join in…”[8]

Although she gave happy reports of her music listening to Stritch, she still struggled with her ‘tin ear.’ During this time, she wrote in one of her letters to another friend that, “all classical music sounds alike to me and all the rest of it sounds like the Beatles.”[9] Besides classical music, Flannery’s collection also includes a few religious albums such as The Singing Nun, an album put out by a singing French nun who achieved fame in the early 60s, and an album of Gregorian chants. Whether or not she enjoyed listening to this religious music was not expressed in her letters, although she did mention in a 1964 letter that the congregation at Sacred Heart Catholic Church where Flannery attended mass daily, “never sings, partly I think in protest at the awful hymns.[10]

The lesson to be taken from this story is if you ever find the skills in one area of your life lacking, do not worry. Even the famous author, Flannery O’Connor, who achieved so much in her short life, did not know, “Mozart from Spike Jones.”[11]

[1] Flannery O’Connor, Letters of Flannery O’Connor The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 545.

[2] Sarah Gordon, A Literary Guide to Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia, ed. Craig Amason (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2008), 52.

[3] O’Connor, Habit of Being, 563.

[4] Ibid., 409.

[5] Ibid., 562.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 564-565.

[8] Ibid., 589.

[9] Ibid., 566.

[10] Ibid., 569.

[11] Ibid., 327.

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