From The Side of the Road… context in attribution matters!

Quotations aren’t always what they seem when taken out of context. Be especially wary when authors who write both fiction and non-fiction are quoted. It happens often, especially on calendars for some reason (the month of July is notorious for this), that writers are quoted using a line spoken by one of their fictional characters from a novel, but presented as  statements or opinions by the authors themselves. This can lead to great misunderstandings. 

For example, you might see something like this:

 “I don’t take no stock in mathematics anyway.” — Mark Twain. 

Before you conclude that Mark Twain—who wrote a range of political and social commentary and satire—was advocating that we stop learning math, you should know that this was actually Twain’s character Huck Finn talking, not the voice of Twain himself. That’s misleading at best.

In his non-fiction writing, C.S. Lewis was a highly respected writer on subjects of Christian theology and religious philosophy, and was certainly very quotable on these subjects. He was also a well-known writer of fiction, especially fantasy literature like The Chronicles of Narnia. A less-than-honest advocate for the present-day habit of “doing your own research” online while ignoring experts in a given subject, might use this quote:

“. . . let him read no science, but be given a grand general idea that he knows it all, and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is ‘the results of modern investigation’.” — C.S. Lewis

The problem with this is that these are the words spoken by Uncle Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood in The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape is literally a “devil’s advocate,” and so would represent the opposite of what Lewis himself would suggest.

What if we did this with bluegrass lyrics, attributing lines from standard songs in our genre to the songwriter or even the singer, when these lines are part of a fictional story? These are some quotes we might come up with (note that in most cases these are quotes of the singers not necessarily the songwriters, since the singers are the ones who made these public statements, into a microphone, no less):

Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson confess to serious crimes:

“I killed Pretty Polly.”

“I killed Little Sadie in the first degree.”

Lester Flatt and Del McCoury offer their unconventional pet care advice:

“I’ll lock the door, put out the cat, and I’ll go steppin’ too.”

“I’m walkin’ the dog all day and all night.”

Jimmy Martin has high office ambitions:

“Who knows someday I might become this nation’s president.”

These artists have high relationship standards:

“You gotta brush the flies off me while I rest.” — Sonny Osborne

“You say it best when you say nothing at all.” — Keith Whitley, and Alison Krauss agrees

Aubrey Holt and Lester Flatt feel the hardships of aging:

“The pain is unreal and my body’s so weak.”

“I’m old, I’m helpless, and feeble.” 

Carter Stanley has unusual theories about alcoholic beverages:

“If your liquor’s too red, it’ll swell up your head.”

Generalizations from Larry Sparks:

“Sweet country girls don’t complain”

Vague statements, open to interpretation:

“Hey, hey, hey, hey!” — Carter Stanley

“Hi-dee-diddly-ho-dee-hum.” — Jimmy Martin

Bill Monroe clarifies the status of his mom’s health:

“Mother’s not dead, she’s only sleeping.”