My “Playlist”

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Sarah Johnson, whose “Reading the Past” blog is darn near required reading for people interested in historical fiction, was kind enough to let me guest post on it recently, with what I called my “playlist” for The Language of Trees. I’m reprinting that post here, with links to versions of the songs I mention (or in some cases, similar songs if I couldn’t find a good link to the original, or the same song by a different artist.) Enjoy the music, and start following Reading the Past!

Say “historical novel” to someone, and they’re likely to think of swords and swooning, which is why I’ve always been ambivalent about the phrase when it’s applied to my novels. There are no swords and essentially no swooning in my books; instead, I’m interested in everyday people swept up in extraordinary events, and how they cope with the tides of history. These are universal themes, and I’m particularly drawn to the odd tandem of optimism and exploitation that so often characterizes the American experience. So I listen to music that connects me to the struggles and triumphs of ordinary Americans. I immerse myself in period music when I’m writing and editing because doing so helps me recreate the mentality of people of the era, and in addition, it helps me work into the vocabulary of the times. Songs, letters, speeches, and diary entries all help make my diction accurate, but songs in particular help make it poetic. Here are some of the songs on my playlist while I was creating The Language of Trees.

Hard Times Come Again No More – Nanci Griffith

As I mentioned, I’m interested in the struggles of ordinary people and how those struggles reflect the concerns of the time, and few songs of the 19th century do that as well as Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.” People critique Foster’s maudlin and occasionally racist lyrics, but he also came up with songs of genius, and this is one of them. The “pale drooping maiden who toils her life away” is an image all too familiar in the America of that age, especially as the Industrial Revolution spread across the country and the concentration of production in factories, many of which employed young women because of their reliability and low wages, became widespread. As a native of the burgeoning industrial area around Pittsburgh, Foster would have seen this trend firsthand. Of the hundreds of recorded versions, I like Nanci Griffith’s, as she combines a great authenticity of presentation with a modern voice. The song is both old and new in her take.

Lily of the West – Van Colbert

There’s a lot of obsessive and seemingly hopeless love in my latest book, so I found myself listening to traditional music that reflects that thinking, of which there is an abundance. I try to listen only to period music that I can be sure my characters would have known (with a few exceptions, noted below), so songs that were identified in Vance Randolph’s great collection Ozark Folksongs get high priority. One of those, and one of the starkest, is “Lily of the West,” sometimes called “Flora.” There’s an eerie matter-of-factness in the way the narrator describes his fixation with Flora, her casual betrayal, and his murder of her new lover. The minor key and relentless speed of the song add to its effectiveness. Like most American folksongs, it’s an import from the British Isles, in this case Ireland, which helps explain the odd phrasing of some of the verses. Most people know it from the two Chieftains versions of the song, or the early Bob Dylan rendition, but I’m partial to Van Colbert’s unadorned version.

Fair and Tender Ladies – June Carter Cash

Male fixation is a recurring theme in folk music; female endangerment, alas, is another, and its frequent companion. The endangerment can be physical, spiritual, or economic. Perhaps it’s most bluntly stated in the opening lines of “Hard Is the Fortune”: “Hard is the fortune of all womankind; / They’re always controlled, they’re always confined. / Controlled by their parents until they are wives, / Then slaves to their husbands the rest of their lives.” When Josephine angrily tells Bridges in The Language of Trees that his promises are like the stars on a summer’s morning, she’s quoting “Fair and Tender Ladies,” an Appalachian song with antecedents in 17th-century England. I know it had reached the Ozarks, because in the 1940 book Ballads and Songs Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society a contributor recalls hearing it in 1906. June Carter Cash’s version is appropriately plaintive, and you get to hear her autoharp playing as a bonus. Another lovely version is the one by Bread and Bones.

Little Maggie – Doc Watson

I may be fudging on whether “Little Maggie” was a period piece during the time of the novel (1887-88), but music historians have identified family members of this tune since the late 1800s. So I don’t mind claiming it as a song of the era. It’s a great addition to the “songs of hopeless love” category; I first heard it on a recording by Doc Watson, and that’s still my favorite, although you hear the Stanley Brothers’ version more often. I spent several years trying to get my guitar playing to be as clean and effortless as Doc Watson’s until I realized I didn’t have the talent for it. But that’s all right—few do! I was fortunate to see Doc Watson perform a couple of years before he died, and he had passed the fast licks on to younger members of his band, but his voice was as distinctive as ever.

Mercy O Thou Son of David – Mount Pisgah Primitive Baptist Church congregation

When Barton Braswell starts “The Lord’s Barn” in The Language of Trees, this is the type of hymn I envision them singing: shape-note hymns, created so that even those who could not read music could follow their parts in hymnals such as Southern Harmony, Union Harmony, and The Sacred Harp. This song can be found in William Walker’s Southern Harmony from 1835. Shape-note singing, unearthly and unforgettable, uses a mix-and-match approach to tunes and lyrics; the lyrics for this hymn are from 1779, and although any tune with an 8-7-8-7 meter can be used with them, a frequent choice is a tune called “Restoration,” composed in 1758. My Unitarian-Universalist friends will recognize Restoration as the tune for their hymn “This Old World,” from which I take the title of my second book. Here’s another version with the familiar lyrics of “Come Thou Fount” set to the “Restoration” tune.

The Lakes of Pontchartrain – Andy M. Stewart

In The Language of Trees, Ambrose Gardner sings this song and recollects that his commanders in the Civil War had sometimes banned it and other songs like it as being bad for morale. Such incidents did in fact happen during the war, with the immensely popular “Lorena” a frequent victim of censorship. Sad songs about lost love just don’t pep up the boys for battle. The lyrics are American, but the tune is Scottish, so I like hearing the late great Scottish balladeer Andy M. Stewart do his version of the song.

The Farmer Is the Man – Pete Seeger

As Charley Pettibone brings his prisoner to town in The Language of Trees, he grows concerned by the man’s cursing, which he knows will bother the townsfolk as they ride to the jail. So he sings to drown it out, and the song he chooses is “The Farmer Is the Man,” an anthem of the Grange movement of the Midwest. The growing rural/urban divide of the late 19th Century is an important theme in this book, and “The Farmer Is the Man” illustrates that divide perfectly. The song draws a vivid contrast between the farmer, who is dressed shabbily, whose wagon is broken down, and who “lives on credit till the fall,” and the essential nature of his work. The lyrics are a much more earthy restatement of a song by “the singing evangelist,” Knowles Shaw, who was popular during the 19th century. And who better to deliver a song of agrarian protest than Pete Seeger?

The Arkansas Traveler – Jimmie Driftwood

My grandfather was a square dance fiddler, whose fiddle (with rattlesnake rattle inside) still remains in the family. “The Arkansas Traveler,” which Josephine helps Jimmy Pettibone play in The Language of Trees, is one of the first tunes any fiddler or banjo player would learn. Today you can find a lot of instrumental versions, but few with the song’s mischievous lyrics, which in my mind is a shame. The dynamic between Traveler and Farmer, rube and city slicker, is multilayered and eternal, and after a while we can’t tell who is outfoxing whom. Jimmy Driftwood was a great champion of Ozark folk music, so it’s only appropriate to listen to his version of the song. Another favorite of my grandfather’s was “Rye Whiskey,” and I recall his glee when he would reach the verse in which “Hiccup! Oh golly, how bad I do feel” is repeated six times.

Overture to The Flying Dutchman – London Festival Orchestra

Adolphus Kessler, the visiting geologist in The Language of Trees, is a devotee of opera, and for a German Chicagoan who fancies himself culturally current, that could only mean Wagner. Riots did indeed occasionally break out at Wagner concerts, as Kessler mentions, and although I’m sure there was plenty of aspiration without comprehension in the public’s Wagner frenzy during the late 19th Century, one can’t listen to certain Wagner pieces (such as this early one) without imagining the marvelous sweep of emotions that would have come over an audience upon first hearing this insanely ambitious piece of music.

Angel Band (a.k.a. “My Latest Sun Is Sinking Fast”) – Jimmy Bullard/Beston Barnett

I first came across this song in 1972, when my mom brought home the album “Music of the Ozarks” from the library. It was produced by National Geographic magazine, and I have to say, it felt a little strange to see a national magazine putting out a compilation of music from my own home area. I felt quite exotic for a while. We were old-hymnal people in our church, favoring Fanny J. Crosby and the like, so this kind of unadorned, rather mystical hymn was foreign to me. When the angels gather around the dying narrator, and he declares, “I hear the noise of wings,” a chill comes through me that doesn’t go away for a long while. Most people nowadays are familiar with this song through Ralph Stanley’s version on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, although, alas, it omits the crucial verse with the noise of wings, as does Johnny Cash’s version. Too creepy for some, I suppose. I know nothing about Jimmy Bullard, the singer of that original experience, except that he lived in Timbo, Arkansas, and did a wonderful job on that now-unavailable vinyl LP. In my novel, the hymn is sung the way it’s intended to be—around a deathbed. Since Jimmy Bullard’s version can’t be found, and Ralph Stanley’s version is so familiar, try listening to Beston Barnett, who incredibly enough turns the mournful wail that we’re accustomed to into a joyful, reggae celebration of heaven-going.

Pretty Bird – Hazel Dickens

Staying on the “chills” theme for a moment, anyone who doesn’t get chills listening to Hazel Dickens’ “Pretty Bird” needs—I’m not sure what they need, maybe a heart transplant. This song ties in with the earlier theme of a woman’s longing for freedom, coupled with the aching, mournful delivery of a true Appalachian artist. This is not period music; Dickens composed the song in 1973. But oh my goodness, it rings with the truth of eternity. Listen, and then go buy that “Hazel and Alice” album. You know you want to.

Tam Lin and Clyde’s Water – Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer

I had Mitchell and Hamer’s Child Ballads EP pretty much on continuous play while writing the last four chapters of my novel, for several reasons. First, these two songs in particular have thematic connections. “Clyde’s Water” (which they title as “Clyde Waters”) has the powerful imagery of overwhelming love that struggles against all impediments, human and natural, and in addition it has one of the scariest drowning scenes in all of music. “Tam Lin,” one of the weirdest and most magical of the Child ballads, has a moment that affirms the idea that holding on obsessively to the one you love, against all reason and good sense, might actually work, and instead of ending up with a fierce beast, you find yourself with a shivering, naked man to wrap up and take home. So it has a thread of hope among all the strangeness. Finally, Mitchell and Hamer stay true to the ancient roots of the songs while recasting them in a contemporary way. They capture the old in the new, and that action speaks to me as I seek to do the same in my creative work.

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The Great Storm

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Forgotten Storm

In a week when the news is full of terrible storms, I found myself reading this book in preparation for work on a future novel. The deadliest tornado (by far) in American history, this tornado killed at least 695 people as it raced through Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana for more than 200 miles, the longest tornado in history.

My family moved to Annapolis, Missouri, the first town destroyed by the Tri-State Tornado, in 1965, and at that time, forty years after the event, there were people around who had lived through it. I particularly remember hearing the story of the tornado from Mr. Vincent Sutton, a kindly gentleman who went to our church and had served as the mayor of the town for many years. His memory was of how fast the tornado arrived, and how little time anyone had to act.

In an era of satellite weather forecasting and instant telecommunication, it’s hard to recall what a tornado would have been like in 1925. This book (which, by the way, is written by a meteorologist and probably best appreciated by fellow meteorology fanatics) describes the arrival of the storm to the many towns it devastated. People going about their ordinary business, children at school, workers on the job, families at home; occasionally a sense of unease at the size of the gathering clouds; then the storm’s unimaginably swift onslaught.

Imagine an F5 tornado appearing over the horizon, traveling at seventy miles an hour, a path of devastation more than a mile wide, and no word of warning or sirens, because such a system had not yet been invented. No wonder the people who lived through this storm talked about it in tones of awe.

An Ozarks Eccentric Passes

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I’ve written about Chief Wana Dubie before, but this weekend came the news that he had died. You’re only an eccentric until everybody comes round to your way of thinking, and the gradual spread of legalized marijuana around the country might presage the movement of the Chief from crank to prophet.

A scholarly presentation I once attended made the point that the Ozarks’ “mind your own business” mentality allows truly scary people to flourish in its hollows. Witness the neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups that set up quarters in the region from time to time. But minding one’s own business also leaves room for the colorful personalities to inhabit. I prefer a lawn that has some dandelions to one that’s a uniform green.

The Humble PawPaw

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Pawpaws

My friend Darren Osburn sent me this photo of some unripe pawpaws recently, which got me thinking. I remember eating pawpaws as a youngster; I liked the taste, which vaguely resembled that of a banana, but the seeds had to be worked around. A crude but reasonably effective way of telling when they’re ripe is to watch for raccoon scat—once you start to see pawpaw seeds in it, you know the pawpaws are ready. As with persimmons, eating an unripe one is a mistake made only once.

My mom used to sing “Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch,” which some of you may remember. It’s a children’s tune about poor little Susie (or Nellie in other versions), who is way down yonder, etc., picking up pawpaws and putting them in her pocket, accompanied by hand gestures to match. Poor little Nellie had the good sense to pick the pawpaws off the ground, which meant that they were ripe, rather than off the tree.

My reading tells me that the pawpaw is the largest indigenous native fruit in North America and that chilled pawpaws were one of George Washington’s favorite desserts. There is also a dinosaur called the Pawpawsaurus, so named not because it dined on pawpaws (although it was a herbivore), but because its fossils were found in a rock formation in Texas known as the Paw Paw Formation. Still, I like the idea of pawpawsauruses roaming the earth in bygone times.

 

Virgin Pine

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virgin pine postcard

Postcard from the Boston Public Library.

On a recent float trip, I drove down Highway 19 south of Salem, through the 41 acres known as Missouri’s Virgin Pine Forest. I remember being taken here as a kid, not really understanding what “virgin forest” meant—to me they just looked like regular pine trees.

Since then, I’ve visited the forest several times. There’s a two-mile drive that departs from the highway, passes through the grove, and goes a little way into the Pioneer Forest, the owner of the Virgin Pine Forest. (The highway is paved now, unlike in that historic postcard, although it still has the same stomach-wrenching twists and turns.)

For a time I doubted whether the forest had really remained uncut all these years; it’s not inaccessible, and it is located in the heart of timber country which was utterly decimated by pine loggers in the late 1880s. But this pamphlet from the L-A-D Foundation, which owns and manages the Pioneer Forest along with a lot of other Ozark land, cites research showing that some of the trees indeed predate the logging era, so I guess I’ll have to quiet my doubt, although the pamphlet is carefully worded. You’ll see considerable debate online as to whether the preservation of some old-growth trees means that the tract is truly “virgin,” i.e., uncut. It’s clear that a lot of the trees in the tract are recent growth, so I suppose it depends on what you mean by the word “virgin.” Never touched by human hands? No way. Having some trees that escaped the logging era? Looks like it.

I’d still like to know how those trees escaped the timber cutters. As far as I’m aware, the only other “virgin timber” in the state dating back to the 1700s is in cemeteries, private home lots, and other such areas where commercial lumbering was not possible.

Photo from alltrails.com

 

 

Civil War History Brought Home

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HistoryHere’s a marvelous story from the Quincy Herald-Whig about my friend Scott Giltner and how he brings home the Civil War to his students. I’ve seen both Scott and his colleague Patrick Hotle teach; they’re exceptionally gifted, and the history department at Culver-Stockton College has long been one of its jewels.

We in the history-novel game often speak despondently about the lack of interest in history among the young; in some ways, it’s a natural phenomenon, as people’s interest in history grows as they become more a part of it themselves. But a good history teacher can spark that interest, and this article shows one good way of doing it—by bringing history home, helping students discover that history is not just a distant recitation of kings and armies, but something that happened in their own home town as well.

 

Patriotic Songs – 4

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James_Cagney_in_Yankee_Doodle_Dandy_trailer

James Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy

July 4 is about the only day most of us hear “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” which is more often called “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and our hearing it comes mainly from the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which James Cagney portrays George M. Cohan, the song’s author. It’s not high art, this song, but it’s worth reviewing if for no other reason than the mythology it incorporates. And besides, it’s irresistibly catchy!

The song comes from a 1904 Broadway musical written by Cohan, Little Johnny Jones. Very loosely based on the exploits of Tod Sloan, one of the most famous jockeys of the day, the musical tells the story of an American jockey who rises to fame and then travels to England, where he rides a horse named Yankee Doodle to victory in the English Derby. Thus the line in which “Yankee Doodle came to London just to ride the ponies” makes sense within the musical although most of us scratch our heads over it nowadays. (In real life, sadly, Sloan’s venture in the Derby ended in tragedy, when his horse inexplicably pulled up, broke its leg, and had to be put down.)

Today we only hear the chorus, which is oddly repetitious, repeating “Yankee Doodle” six times. Here are the lyrics of the verses, taken from Wikipedia:

Verse 1

I’m the kid that’s all the candy, 
I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,
I’m glad I am,
So’s Uncle Sam.
I’m a real live Yankee Doodle,
Made my name and fame and boodle,
Just like Mister Doodle did, by riding on a pony.
I love to listen to the Dixie strain,
I long to see the girl I left behind me;
That ain’t a josh,
She’s a Yankee, by gosh.
Oh, say can you see,
Anything about a Yankee that’s a phony?

Verse 2

Father’s name was Hezikiah,
Mother’s name was Ann Maria, 
Yanks through and through.
Red, White and Blue
Father was so Yankee-hearted,
When the Spanish war was started,
He slipped on a uniform and hopped upon a pony.
My mother’s mother was a Yankee true,
My father’s father was a Yankee too:
That’s going some,
For the Yankees, by gum.
Oh, say can you see
Anything about my pedigree that’s phony?

In the first verse, Little Johnny Jones combines North and South; although he identifies as Southern by loving the strains of “Dixie,” his girl is a Yankee, i.e., a Northerner. In the second verse, he combines Jew and Gentile; his father’s name is distinctly Old Testament, while his mother’s “Ann Maria” is about as Catholic as they come. Thus Johnny Jones is a thoroughly mixed-blooded American, who travels to Old England to both charm and vanquish the stodgy Old-Worlders.

The somewhat naive braggadocio of Johnny Jones, who proclaims himself “all the candy” (that is, he’s hot stuff) lines up with American folk heroes from Paul Bunyan to Mike Fink to Muhammad Ali. But in identifying himself as the amalgam of geographies and cultures, he also reminds us of the American ideal of inclusiveness and incorporation. And the bouncy tune is as hummable as they come, like Cohan’s other great songs, such as “Harrigan,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and “Over There.”

Here are links to my earlier appreciations of patriotic songs: “God Bless America,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and, less appreciatively, “God Bless the U.S.A.”

Favorite Ozarks People – 14

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Menne office

The former office of Dr. Marvin Menne in Ironton. Looks like it’s a Goodwill store now, or at least it was when this Google Street View image was taken.

Marvin Menne was my family doctor from the time I was about ten (I tried to find a photo of the good doctor himself, but was unsuccessful–who knew that someone could be that far off the grid these days?) I was a tolerably healthy kid, but had the usual number of youthful ailments and necessary check-ups, so I suppose my medical involvement was pretty typical.

Dr. Menne’s office, as you can tell from this photo, was modest. A small waiting room in front, a receptionist/appointment setter behind the counter, a couple of examining rooms, and then an office and a room for more involved procedures, which I rarely saw the inside of, thank goodness. It was the office of a small-town GP, not far removed from the Norman Rockwell illustrations.

Dr. Menne had a vaguely mournful expression much of the time, the expression of someone who’s seen too many broken limbs and lives. But I recall that even as a child, he would square himself up to me, sit, and listen, until I had told him everything I had to say. Only then would he prompt me with further questions or continue with his examination.

In today’s overheated discussions of health care, we romanticize the small-town doctor, who made house calls, accepted chickens as payment, or what have you. Let’s remember that the modern health care system has resulted in a high level of care, far beyond what my small-town doctor was capable of, and overall health has been improving. Instead of a chicken, today’s poor rural patient brings a Medicaid card. But the necessity of caring remains, and I have a feeling that doctors like Marvin Menne can be found all over rural areas just as in my childhood. With the election of a doctor from Mountain Grove to the presidency of the American Medical Association, this is a year to think seriously about the state of health care in rural America. Here’s a hint: It’s not good.

 

Queen Anne’s Lace

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David Stonner

Photo courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation

The roadside has sent me to my copy of Missouri Wildflowers quite a bit lately. Summer flowers tend to be more nondescript than spring ones–the delicate pinks and purples are replaced by rangy, white or yellow flowers whose names, unfortunately, I forget from one year to the next: feverfews and teasels, the sort of plant that often has “weed” in its name.

Torilis_arvensis_FieldHedgeParsley

Hedge parsley – Photo from Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, KS

These roadside plants rarely make anyone’s list of favorite wildflowers; we see them from our car windows as a blur. But as these close-up photos show, they have a delicacy of construction that rewards examination. Umbels within umbels, twining and wiry stems, curiously wrought flowers that often nest among brambles.

White snakeroot

White snakeroot in extreme closeup.

What to say about these plants besides the obvious? That there is beauty in the common, beauty that repays attention, and that you have to get out of your car and stomp into the weeds in order to find it. On my wall hangs a watercolor with the marvelous verse from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Inversnaid”:

What would the world be, once bereft

Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,

O let them be left, wildness and wet;

Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.