The play Fences is set in the 1950s and presents themes regarding the African American experience during this time in American history. Music has always played an important role in the African American community, and groundbreaking musical contributions have been made by this community, especially in the areas of jazz,...
The play Fences is set in the 1950s and presents themes regarding the African American experience during this time in American history. Music has always played an important role in the African American community, and groundbreaking musical contributions have been made by this community, especially in the areas of jazz, gospel, and blues (and later, rock n' roll). Wilson uses these three genres as symbols to reflect the lives of his characters.
In scene 2 of act 1, Rose is hanging up laundry, singing an old gospel hymn:
Jesus, be a fence all around me every day Jesus, I want you to protect me as I travel on my way. Jesus, be a fence all around me every day. Jesus, I want you to protect me as I travel on my way.
This hymn reflects Rose's deep faith and the importance in her life of God and the church. It also fortifies the symbol of the "fence" that Wilson uses throughout the play. In this metaphor, Rose is beseeching Jesus for protection, just as she asks Troy to repair the physical fence in their yard to serve as protection for the ones who she loves. The gospel hymn serves as a prayer for Rose and as a way to express the desires of her heart.
Lyons, Troy's son from a previous marriage, is a jazz musician. Jazz is a genre of music that revels in breaking the conventional rules of music composition with its unexpected chordal progressions and its allowance of soloists improvising in the moment. This is also how Lyons lives his life: he doesn't follow the conventional rules of what is expected of him by Troy or society. He is more than content to have his wife be the breadwinner as he pursues life as a jazz musician. When Troy tells Lyons that he can get him a position working as a garbage man, as he does, Lyons turns his nose up at this idea. The reader is left with the impression that it is beneath him; Lyons would rather make his own way and figure out his own path, as is also the way in jazz music, than follow the traditional path of his father.
In act 1, scene 4, Troy introduces a blues song about his old dog Blue. The lyrics in this genre are typically about heartache and suffering. The more the audience learns about Troy's life, the more they can see how this is a fitting genre. Troy grew up with an abusive and neglectful father, ran away from home, and spent time in the penitentiary; he doesn't get drafted into the professional baseball league because he is African American, and in the end, he loses all who are most important to him. Troy's life is a blue's song, making this an appropriate genre for Wilson to put into the mouth of his protagonist. At the end of the play, serving as a bookend, Troy's children Cory and Raynell sing this blues song in memory of Troy as they prepare for his funeral.
Wilson uses the genres of jazz, gospel, and blues because of their familiarity to the African American community during the 1950s and as a reflection of the lives of his characters.