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.