October 5, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Terese Svoboda's new book Pirate Talk or Mermalade is a novel in dialogue. This tale of two pirate brothers and their misadventures is adventurous, experimental, at times mysterious, and always humorous. Svoboda yet again proves herself a literary magician with this clever book.
"This book is something entirely new: a novella that’s also a sort of poetry, a poetry that’s also almost a stageplay. Pirate Talk is a strange and nastily beautiful book."
"I soon got used to this singing, for the sailors never touched a rope without it"
Herman Melville, Redburn
I didn't listen to pirate songs until I was working on the book trailer for Pirate Talk or Mermalade then I was appalled. A preliminary sweep on the net offered two kinds: the sanitized sailors, "choral groups" who sang Spongebob versions of sea chanties, and Alan Lomax's collections for the Library of Congress performed by the near dead. Bones, bones. My pirate brothers not only needed work songs to hoist the dead weight of anchor and sail but songs that reflected their inner life that I suspected the Old Seaman's Home did not hand down via the survivors, the ladies.
Pirates sang on the oldest indie label of them all, they ran the first communist party, the old all-for-one and one-for-all on every vessel they took. While sailors sang of the sea going out and of home sailing back, the pirates had no home and had to sing their bravery. Their lives were tough. They turned pirate because they had no choice, life in the navy or in commerce for someone without connections was bad bad bad. Their days were long and dull—not quite as dull as a sailor's perhaps—but time and the tide hung as close as the threat of another battle for whatever booty, be it gold or fatback. A pirate who could sing and pipe was a prize and showing talent could save his life. Talk about performance!
When I was researching African oral literature for my book of Nuer translations, Cleaned The Crocodile's Teeth, I came upon a large cache of work songs that had a fair component of the obscene in them as a way to make the work easier. The only trace of this preoccupation I found in pirate songs was in the ancestry of the Sex Pistols' "Frigging in the Rigging," (the Muppets performance). A version of this song was first recorded in 1952, a time period not renowned for its licentiousness that lead me to believe that the song existed in earlier versions. Perhaps singing about sex wasn't a good idea in close quarters—they were all so buttoned-down in the 18th century!—but somehow I doubt it.
I don't know what they sing on the South China Sea these days but I know the Somali pirates are heir to one of the world's richest cache of traditional song. Traveling to Kenya a few years ago I saw the desperation of the Somalis in the refugee camps. I also saw their very keen business acumen. The two together must be what produces the pirates. Given their tradition, surely they sing even without sails to hoist.
I did write a few songs in Pirate Talk or Mermalade but all the songs do is help the brothers climb the shrouds, not climb the charts. For the trailer I slowed down a melancholy Grieg piano lyric. I needed an instrumental because, of course, the pirates were talking.
Big thanks to Scot-Gresham-Lancaster, a member of the HUB, a weird electronic piratical musical crew if there ever was one, for his link to "The 10 Manliest Sea Shanties."
Terese Svoboda and Pirate Talk or Mermalade links:
Almost Dorothy interview with the author
Fictionaut interview with the author
HTMLGIANT interview with the author
Largehearted Boy interview with the author
Robert Lopez guest post by the author
The Short Review 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)
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