In Milan Kundera’s 1967 novel The Joke, a character speculates on the difference between poetry and folk music: ‘a folk song is born differently from a formal poem. Poets create in order to express themselves, to say what it is that makes them unique. In the folk song, one does not stand out from others but joins in with them.’ Kundera and James Kelman are much closer than we might think; they both see themselves as writing within a modernist lineage that starts with Kafka and flows through Beckett. Like Kundera, Kelman has always been interested in music, its compositional purity and, in particular, the collective nature of being in a band – the act of joining in to produce art rather than creating it outside society, as both the novelist and the poet do. In The Joke the finale takes place at a Moravian folk festival; in Dirt Road, Kelman’s ninth novel, the climax comes at the Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette, where musicians come together to celebrate zydeco and Cajun music, Louisiana’s folk sound, and their francophone heritage.
For Kelman, as for Kundera, music works to free the self from social boundaries. In Dirt Road Murdo, the sixteen-year-old protagonist, plays accordion with a zydeco band and finds a euphoric solace in the music:
It was all there in the song and playing of the song. There was nothing other,