March 24, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
To say that Kris Saknussem won me over with his novels Zanesville and Private Midnight would be an understatement. His new novel Enigmatic Pilot: A Tall Tale Too True is even more impressive and expansive.
Enigmatic Pilot is an ambitious work of speculative fiction, a startlingly original literary work.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Outrageous and baffling, this puzzle-packed yarn seems to fall in the same (non)category as Saknussem's Zanesville (2005), combining the fusty diction of Charles Portis and the deadpan weirdness of Thomas Pynchon."
Enigmatic Pilot is apparently set in the 1840s, a crucial decade in United States history that's often overshadowed by the Civil War years. The book is a prequel to my first novel Zanesville and is part of a larger story cycle I call The Lodemania Testament.
The saga presents the notion of a war throughout time waged by two clandestine tribal orders with opposing views on the destiny of humanity but voracious agreement on the strategic importance of America. At the center of their secret machinations is what seems to be a young boy, a super prodigy named Lloyd Sitturd, who we believe was born in Ohio, so let's start there.
Ohio may be the definitive Midwestern state. Yet in the southern portions, it takes on some of the aura of the South, while in many people's minds its eastern edge marks the beginning of the American Northeast. It's a Great Lakes State, a limbo state, and perhaps the quintessentially American theme park, having produced more Presidents than any other state—and some superlatively mediocre ones at that. It remains a decisive political battleground, tense with conflicting views. Neil Young's "Ohio" captures some of the spirit of protest and upheaval that was rife there in the 1960s. The state has a long history of such dissent and tribulation. It continues to this day.
A crucial part of Enigmatic Pilot takes place in St. Louis, which because of its location, may have been at that moment in history the most important city in the world, certainly in the country. It was the last port of call in Old America on the pioneer route north and west to the Missouri River and the Oregon Trail, or south and west to the Santa Fe Trail. It was also where abolitionism and slavery came most sharply head to head.
I sought out quite a bit of popular, folk and religious music from the 1840s, but there are few modern interpretations that really catch the flavor of the era. So, I came back to something nearer in time, but I think in some ways closer in mood.
St. Louis Blues is one of the most famous tunes in the entire blues idiom and certainly one which has had the greatest crossover pop success. It was written by W.C. Handy in 1914 and features a standard 12-bar blues format, but with an unconventional 16-bar bridge that Handy associated with the tango (which was becoming popular at the time), but is technically more a rhythm related to Cuban music, called the habanera. The song also has some strong links to ragtime. Over the years it's been recorded by a vast range of artists: Rudy Vallee, Cab Calloway, the Mills Brothers, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, Chuck Berry—you name it. Like the city in its title, it's a crossroads song. But by far and away, the best known and most admired version is by Bessie Smith with Louis Armstrong on cornet.
Contrary to the legend surrounding Smith (which was helped along by Edward Albee's play about her), she didn't bleed to death in an ambulance following a car accident because she was refused entry to a white hospital. As one of the key themes Enigmatic Pilot goes on to investigate, sensational mythologies often disguise more sinister albeit simpler truths. The fact is she died in an underfunded, understaffed and unprepared "colored" hospital, a result that shouldn't have surprised anyone given the scale of her injuries. Albee saw what he thought was an inciting thematic incident on which to build a play about racism. What he missed in his moral outrage was the deeper, uglier mundaneity of racism—how it actually worked then, and still does.
Trix Aren't for Kids
African-American music, from its earliest beginnings, has been known for sexual innuendo, captivating rhythms, shouts, stomps, hollers and grinds—as well as mysterious and highly inventive codes and whispers. From both a musicology and folklore perspective, the root origins of black music in the New World display a curious split between the physically explicit and the carefully and subtly encrypted. Many pattern phrases that appear frequently in the tradition have in fact very specific covert meanings. "Can I get a witness?"… "Help me somebody"…the list of these freighted lines goes on, and I encourage you to seek out their meaning for yourself. But there were also in-your-face and work-the-hips tunes that everyone could understand very clearly. So, from Bessie Smith to Trixie Smith and Sidney Bechet's "My Man Rocks Me With One Steady Roll." This tune (penned by J. Berni Barbour in 1922) isn't only blatantly about sex, it's possibly the first reference to "rock'n'roll." It owes a great deal musically and atmospherically to the knuckle boats and knife house barges that worked the river below St. Louis and over to the Illinois side way back in 1845, providing all manner of sexual entertainment, music, liquor and death by midnight misadventure to many.
What a Wonderful Day
It may seem strange to move from racism to cartoons, but racism is a kind of cartoon sentiment—childish, violent, exaggerated. I found myself watching again Walt Disney's seminal animation feature Steamboat Willie, starring Mickey Mouse of course. Anyone who has seen the landmark cartoon knows that as Steamboat Willie goofs at the wheel along the river (and neurologists and specialists in both the fields of behavioral disorders and motor-neuron dysfunctions have had much to say regarding his gestures and demeanor), the song that is subtly but relentlessly featured is the old fiddle tune "Turkey in the Straw."
Both the lyrics and title of "Turkey in the Straw" are an overlay of an older song called "Zip Coon." This song, along with "Jump Jim Crow," was an igniting force behind the blackface minstrel shows that became immensely popular across America beginning in the 1820s, and were to continue to reappear within the Disney mythology. Consider the chorus from the original 19th century lyrics of "Zip Coon"...
O Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.
Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.
Now compare them to Ray Gilbert's lyrics from the most famous song (and the winner of an Oscar) in Disney's 1946 live action and animation hybrid movie Song of the South.
My, oh my, what a wonderful day
Plenty of sunshine headin' my way
Mister Bluebird's on my shoulder
It's the truth, it's actual
Ev'rything is satisfactual
It's the truth, it's actual—the Zip Coon character and the racial stereotyping behind it was an essential element of the minstrel show, a major form of mass entertainment in its day, which served as both a powerful and seductive delivery mechanism for the nurturing of racist beliefs throughout America, and contributed significantly to the social mayhem that led to the Civil War, while also ironically evolving later into the commercial entry point for black American performers onto the "legitimate" stages of vaudeville to perform for white audiences. (Refer to American film maker Spike Lee's movie Bamboozled for the argument that the minstrel show as entertainment platform wasn't abandoned at all but merely reformatted.)
Charles Ives and Tom Waits are both unique artists—very different of course, and yet in my mind strangely related. Ives, the insurance man turned composer has that New England Yankee edge of practicality, mingled with a ferocious sense of the experimental modernist. Waits, the Californian vaudevillian looks to many other traditions and still seems more American with each frontier he explores. Both were much in my thoughts in the creation of the Lloyd Sitturd character. I particularly listened to Ives' eerie piece The Unanswered Question and to Get Behind the Mule, the nominal title track from Waits' Grammy winning album Mule Variations.
Hope and Memory
Emerson spoke of two cultural tribes, Hope and Memory…those with an almost religious optimism in the future and the concept of progress…or those with a preservationist worship of tradition. We see the conflict between these strains of thought throughout American history, and we can watch the positions switch strangely back and forth on various issues. Only a few artists (and I'd suggest they include the likes of Judy Garland, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and perhaps Bruce Springsteen) have both the stature and the image to pull off a song that encapsulates this fundamental rift in American values. Merle Haggard's "Are the Good Times Really Over for Good?" is a song that's taken on even more relevance in the last couple of years. With his boxcar riding-dustbowl-prison inmate authenticity, he seems to be calling us forward by hearkening back.
You Can't Outrun the River
And so I head back too. Although the story of Enigmatic Pilot moves beyond both the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers, the deeper metaphorical sense of the River and its importance in American cultural mythology can't be escaped so easily—just as Lloyd and his family can't elude those forces in pursuit or the destiny that calls them on to Texas, and much further afield than they can know. I close with Robbie Robertson's "Somewhere Down the Crazy River"…a haunting song that reminds us that we may get away…but perhaps not far enough.
Kris Saknussemm and Enigmatic Pilot: A Tall Tale Too True links:
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Private Midnight
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Zanesville
The Millions posts by the author
The Nervous Breakdown 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
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