July 22, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Kings of the Earth fictionalizes the story of the Ward brothers of Munnsville, New York, a story I was already familiar with through the excellent 1992 documentary Brother's Keeper. Clinch doesn't simply tell their story, he immerses the reader into their rural New York farm lives from alternating perspectives. Clinch's gift for storytelling makes Kings of the Earth almost impossible to put down and easily one of the year's best novels.
In the Dallas Morning News, Alex Lemon wrote of the book:
"Clinch's poetic attention to the rural landscape and the broken fortitude and spot-on dialogue of his characters still resembles Cormac McCarthy, but Clinch's second novel accomplishes more than simply mastering the sinister. His brilliant assemblage in Kings of the Earth showcases true grit and an oversize heart."
Music has always been terribly important to me. I love some of it so much that I can't listen to it while I write, since it wrecks my concentration entirely. All the same, if I could have listened to music while working on Kings of the Earth—and I'll confess that I did sneak in a little bit from time to time—this would have been my playlist.
"Erie Canal" by Bruce Springsteen
Where I come from, "Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal" is pretty much the national anthem. The town where I was born, the town where Kings of the Earth take place, is right along the canal and right smack in the center of the state. To me, the canal itself speaks of a powerful combination: hard labor on one hand, and dreamy idealism on the other. If that isn't the best of the American spirit, I don't know what is. Springsteen's commitment to bringing this one back alive never fails to give me a thrill.
Hamilton Ironworks by John Hartford
"This is an album of memories," says the great fiddler and American musicologist at the opening of this, his very last recording. The session, made just before his death in 2001, includes twenty-two antique fiddle tunes in the complex and homely styles of the people he learned them from—along with spoken reminiscences, impromptu songs, and tall tales galore. It's his farewell, his last testament, and his final love letter. There's something of Hamilton Ironworks in Kings of the Earth—that urge to celebrate the formative past—and you could play just about any track on the disc behind any scene in the book.
"Murder in the Red Barn" by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan
Waits and Brennan let me use a line from this one, "There's always some killin' you got to do around the farm," as the epigraph to Kings. A dream come true.
"Dublin Blues" by Guy Clark
If you don't know Guy Clark, the dean of the Texas songwriters, you should. There are wide rivers and vast distances in his work, and there are real human souls too. The thing about his writing is that you can always count on him to be sensitive without being sentimental. That's extremely difficult. And it's always a goal of mine, whether I manage it or otherwise.
"Ashokan Farewell" by Jay Unger and Molly Mason
Ken Burns used this as the main theme for his series on the Civil War. Say no more. I'll bet you're hearing it in your mind right now. It's a stately and yearning piece of music, so perfectly restrained and so deeply felt that you think it must be as old as the hills. That it must have endured. In my book, that makes "Ashokan Farewell" just about the very highest art.
"Death Letter" by David Johansen and the Harry Smiths
One central episode in Kings of the Earth is the death of Ruth Proctor, the mother of the three main characters. As one narrator says, "I think if they'd been left to their own devices those boys'd put her in the burn barrel with everything else and meant no disrespect by it. It'd been like something out of Homer. God knows they revered that woman." Johansen's ragged reading of this traditional song—about a lover, not a mother—is just about perfect.
"You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" by Darrell Scott
Mining is to Kentucky's Harlan County what dairy farming is to New York's Madison County, and I believe that this song probably represents the same impulse for Scott that Kings represents for me. A chance to go back to the places of your youth, to revisit the people and the way of life that formed you, to reanimate the past not merely to examine it but to honor it completely. When Scott sings about spending your life "digging coal from the bottom of your grave" he's not just talking about the mining business.
"American Tune" by Paul Simon
The first thing I love about this song is that Simon lifted much of the melody from Bach. Who lifted it himself from a traditional song that had been making the rounds long before he was born. Those acts of appropriation and claiming and reworking are part of the creative process, and acknowledging them acknowledges our debt not just to one another but to all those who have gone before. The second thing I love about this song is the deceptive simplicity of it. Simon has reached back into the past and filigreed it into something new.
"Highway Patrolman" by Bruce Springsteen
I know, it's another Springsteen number. But he wrote this one, and he didn't write "Erie Canal," so it's all right. Like Kings, "Highway Patrolman" is a meditation on brothers, and loyalty, and the shifting definition of honor. It's also about the incompleteness and uncertainty with which we human beings can ever entirely understand one another. The ending, it just now occurs to me, isn't all that much different from the ending of Kings. Springsteen's Joe Roberts could be my Del Graham. Or maybe his brother.
Jon Clinch and Kings of the Earth links:
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Dallas Morning News review
Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star review
Library Journal review
Los Angeles Times review
O Magazine review
Publishers Weekly review
Read, Write, Laugh, Rewrite with Eileen Granfors review
Seattle Times review
Washington Post review
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)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
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