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June 29, 2010

Book Notes - David A. Taylor ("Soul of a People")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Soul of a People tells the story of the Works Progress Administration's Writer's Project, which hired authors to write travel guides during the Great Depression. David A. Taylor goes beyond merely sketching the social and economic climate of the era, he gives us valuable insight into the writers' lives (including Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and others) in this troubled time in American history.

The Soul of a People documentary is released today on DVD, and contains interviews with some of the WPA writers (including one of Studs Terkel's last interviews) as well as historians and modern writers.

Kenneth D. Ackerman wrote of the book:

"This intimate portrait of the Writers' Project, a gem of FDR's New Deal, is a nostalgic journey through America in the Depression Era. Familiar faces dot every corner, young writers from Studs Terkel to Richard Wright, John Cheever to Ralph Ellison. It's a journey well worth taking, a key formative moment in our literary common culture, well written and nicely researched."

In his own words, here is David A. Taylor's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America:

In Soul of a People, I write about the private lives of people caught up in the public disaster of the Great Depression, an experience we can all identify with more directly now than when I started. I first got intrigued by these WPA writers through the WPA guides to the states, books made in the Orwellian scenario of unemployed people writing travel guides to the Dust Bowl and other scenes of economic disaster. On a cross-country trip a friend lent me her copy of the WPA Guide to New Orleans and I found a lot more life in there than in any other guidebook.

As I delved into it and explored these characters' personal letters, diaries and journals, I found the full range of emotions that they experienced: shame, isolation, despair, thrill, fear, hope, renewal. I felt encouraged, traveling through their places and lives and seeing how a strange mix of people -- some talented, some ornery -- got through hard times.

Music played a big role for me while writing the book and also the script for the documentary film of the same title, which was directed by Andrea Kalin and came out last year on the Smithsonian Channel (now on DVD). I've always found music from the 1930s evocative -– from swing and folk to experimental music. But I also found surprising resonance in other places.

"Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones

Plowing through one whole draft of the documentary script, I listened only to Gimme Shelter. Despite the anachronism (the Stones hadn't been born in the ‘30s – okay, except Bill Wyman), it evoked the knife edge of chaos that Americans experienced in the Depression. The intro with its spooky guitar voicings whispered Dust Bowl and desperation. I also heard in it the threats and suspicions from Congress and the first House Un-American Activities Committee, which investigated WPA writers like Studs Terkel based on petitions they signed and magazines they contributed to.

"Blow Wind Blow" by Tom Waits

Yeah, again, wrong timeframe but nobody conjures up a Depression vibe with more panache than Tom Waits. The sound of plucked banjo with triangle gives me the chills, suitable for noir writer Jim Thompson's accounts of hobo murderers and shattered oil men who inhabited the Oklahoma where he grew up and worked in the 1930s. “Put on your overcoat, take me away,” moans Waits. “Blow me away.” And you know a Thompson character would.

"St. James Infirmary" by Spider John Koerner

As many times as I've heard this song, when I listened to it played on the levee by one of the New Orleans brass bands, I finally felt its full weight. You can also give it a light touch, of course. Either way there's something supernatural about it. I love the version by Louis Armstong, but this version by Spider John gives a barrelhouse spin on the tale of death and (almost) posthumous storytelling. And one of the few versions where you can make out the lyrics.

"Uncle Bud" by Zora Neale Hurston

The author of Their Eyes Were Watching God gets raunchy in this classic juke-joint song, recorded during a WPA field tour in Florida. (You can find it on the Library of Congress website, free: I listened to a lot from that tour while working on the chapter about Hurston in Florida. “A sort of social song,” she calls it, sung all over the South. The interviewer presses her: Is it sung in mixed company? Hurston shoots back, Not at all. Then she really lays it out a capella, her reedy voice notwithstanding. When she sings, “Uncle Bud's got corn that sure need shucking, Uncle Bud's got gals that sure need Hm-mm,” you can hear her smile. It was a government recording session, after all. This captures one insurgent view of America.

"Hoist Up John B Sail" by Theodore “Tea Roll” Rolle

Found this on the same site as the Zora song. I was amazed to hear a quasi-Dixieland version of this Bahaman folk song, which I'd only known from the Beach Boys. Louis Armstrong was a clear influence on Tea Roll's vocal phrasing. This is another field recording gem from January 1940, made on a turntable with a sapphire needle. These recordings showed me a new old Florida: from Bahaman to Cuban, to the drunk first mate, to a hot trumpet. All the popping shows this ain't no fancy recording studio but the verve comes through. “I'm here because I'm here,” shouts one player at the end.

"Pauvre Type" by Amadou and Miriam

Yes, the blind duo from Mali today fits right in with this song from their 1999 Sou ni tilé CD. Or they do when you hear the empathy that Amadou pours into this roiling paean to “the forgotten man,” in FDR's phrase. “Look at this poor guy, he's tired,” sings Amadou in French. “Look at this poor guy, he's miserable.” Surprisingly, it rocks.

"Fifty Miles of Elbow Room" by Norman Blake

This Carter Family song captured the attitude of another time: miles of space going through the pearly gates, as much room as you have high in the mountains. This seemed perfect accompaniment for Rocky Mountain curmudgeon author Vardis Fisher, whose work later was an inspiration for the film Jeremiah Johnson.

"Float On" by Modest Mouse

I listened to Good News for People Who Love Bad News at odd moments between chapters and on research trips. The blend of resignation, humor and anger is cathartic. “We both got fired on exactly the same day,” Isaac Brock sings with amazement. “Well we'll float on, good news is on the way.”

"W.P.A." by Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers

Many pop songs of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s tapped into the trouble of the day (“Pink Slip Blues,” “WPA Blues”) but few better than this meeting of the first king of pop, Pops Armstrong, and the up-and-coming Mills Brothers. The brothers' tight harmonies match up against Armstrong's growl, with lyrics that skewered relief workers, who were often as unpopular as welfare recipients: “Sleep while you work while you rest while you play/Lean on your shovel to pass the time away/The WPA.” It was rubbing salt in the wound.

"Do-Re-Mi" by Woody Guthrie

Heading into the book's California chapter, poet Kenneth Rexroth's personal account of getting brutally tossed out of a diner his first day in the Golden State brought to my mind Guthrie's classic about the hard realities faced by Okies and other migrants who expected a land of milk and honey. The Brains later remade this as “Money Changes Everything.” Sort of.

“Stetson Kennedy,” by Billy Bragg and Wilco

For the documentary it was a tremendous kick for me to go to Jacksonville and interview Stetson Kennedy, the only living subject of a Woody Guthrie song and one of the few surviving WPA writers. He's a Florida legend now, in his 90s, but back in the 1940s he launched a write-in campaign for Senate that tilted at the windmills of racism and big party politics, and he captured Woody's imagination enough for Guthrie to write this campaign song. Billy Bragg does the lyric justice.

“North Platte, Nebras-katte” by the Kronos Quartet

In the 1930s Harry Partch was already an eccentric composer, making his own instruments and tunings, but he was also toying with a writing career and part-time hobo. He paid his expenses with cash from WPA editing jobs in California and Arizona. I was happy to find this Kronos Quartet version of Partch's hobo suite, U.S. Highball, and with the wild abandon of this song he brings the story back across the plains. That wildness you can still find along the trails left by Partch and the others, and I felt that in retracing their story. I believe that comes through in the book.

David A. Taylor and Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America links:

the author's website
the author's blog
excerpt from the book
the film's page at Smithsonian Channel (including interview with Studs Terkel)
the film's trailer

The Hook review
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review

Art & Literature interview with the author
The Book Studio interview with the author
BookTV interview with the author
Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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