April 19, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Timothy Schaffert's new novel The Coffins of Little Hope is a riveting literary mystery set in small town Nebraska. The book's ensemble cast of characters is all incredibly well drawn and delightfully idiosyncratic, especially the 83-year-old obituary writer at the center of the plot.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"There’s a lot of plot to "The Coffins of Little Hope." But Mr. Schaffert's style is so gossamer-light that the story elements don't become cumbersome. His book can accommodate a large cast of characters who bump into one another with an almost screwball regularity."
I suspect even in the womb I feared being buried alive. Either despite this childhood fear or because of it, I was often drawn to charming coffin artifacts. From the Ben Franklin store, I could purchase candy that was sold in a little plastic coffin (Mr. Bones, it was called, and you could piece the sugar skeleton together if you were partial to playing with your food); we had a "Dark Shadows" board game, in which disconnected plastic bones were plucked from a coffin according to the spin of a wheel.
As a culture, we're torn between celebrating death and condemning it. Some celebrate its condemnation. And then there are the different levels of ironic appreciation of mortality—from witless mockery and sarcasm (birthday cakes decorated with roses of black frosting) to the kind of delightful, morbid whimsy of the Brothers Grimm, Vincent Price, Edward Gorey, and Tim Burton. I like to think my novel, The Coffins of Little Hope, is a serious reflection on this whimsy, the story told by an 83-year-old obituary writer uncommonly close to death in all its certainty. The only area of growth in her little Nebraska town is her particular area of work—what she calls the "death industry" (undertakers, florists, cemetery caretakers). I can imagine her keeping a collection—with a sense of both morbid fascination and professional pride—of tunes with coffins in their titles, or in their lyrics, like those I list here.
"Drivin' Nails in My Coffin" by various artists
The narrator's sweetheart has up and left him, and he's turned to booze (each bottle drunk just another nail in his coffin). But the lyrics of lament and regret don't stand a chance against the honkytonk swing of the melody, which makes the inevitable coffin seem not such an un-heavenly destination at all. The song got two original recordings in 1946—one by Floyd Tillman, and the other by the legend who would perform it again and again over the decades, Ernest Tubb. While Tillman's and Tubb's versions sound markedly similar, Tillman's seems a slight nod backward toward antiquity and the barn dance (where he got his start playing mandolin), while Tubb's effortlessly leans forward, ushering in the modern country sound. Some noteworthy contemporary renditions include a recording by The Texas Sapphires, in which front woman Rebecca Cannon belts out the tune with the darkly peppy, whisky-washed twang and warble of Maria McKee, and one by the Wilders, who speed it up to breakneck, then slow it way down to a dirge, proving the tune blessed with a devilish flexibility.
"My Daddy's Coffin Blues" by St Louis Bessie
St Louis Bessie performed under many names during her blues career, and some suggest that she not only called herself "St Louis Bessie" to encourage confusion with the more famous Bessie Smith, but that she also actually took to St Louis stages claiming to be Bessie Smith. In this enigmatic 1928 tune, the narrator describes a bad dream, one that "turned things upside down" and has left her deeply preoccupied. (In the beginning it's somewhat unclear whether these are the blues of a daughter or a lover, contributing to the "upside down" discombobulation: her daddy could be her daddy, or he could be her daddy.) In the dream, she goes to her daddy's bed in the morning to find him gone; dream-logic then sends her directly to the undertaker where she pleads to see "my man." In an odd twist, the undertaker suggests that daddy's not yet dead, but rather, "going to die"; the undertaker then assumes the role of moral scold, instructing her to think about how much she'd made him cry. In her grief, she concludes with: "and I said, 'Tell me, Death, how could you treat me so mean." What seems superficially a simple blues number, is complex in its psychology, and in its mash-up of dream and reality, depicting a death-tinged nightmare that informs the narrator's days.
"Povo Que Lavas no Rio" by Amalia Rodrigues
The diva Rodrigues popularized fado, music of Portugal characterized by a mournful balladeering, and she sang with a voice, scratched, that suggested both strength and ruination. The title translates as "You people who wash in the river" and Rodrigues seems to be singing from a sophisticated vantage point, gazing upon the rural people of the title with respect and just a touch of elegant pity. In this hymn to the people, she recognizes that the hatchets of these simple folk will cut the boards of her coffin, a fact she seems to regard with both pride and guilt.
"My Boy Builds Coffins" by Florence + the Machine
With a folksy melody gussied up with some goth posturing (ghostly moans and a pop thump), and with lyrics that verge on limerick, the song features a love-struck narrator paying tribute to a master craftsman who, like the coffin-builders Rodrigues memorializes in her fado, serves both the rich and the poor. The narrator seems off-put by her boy's indifference to his beautiful objects—"it just isn't fair," she wails, in regards to each artful coffins' abandonment to the ground. The boy is so obsessed with his work, I suspect that the narrator longs for the attention he'll someday pay her corpse. (The Destroyers provide a similar mix of tongue-in-cheeky melodrama, folk ballad, and circus pageantry with its song "The Glass Coffin Burial of Professor Zurinak.")
"Coffin Factory" by The Mumlers
The saga of the coffin-builder continues, with a Mumlers song (from 2009) that seems equal parts hard-luck groan and beach-party swing. Lead singer Will Sprott sounds like he's singing into his beer mug, perhaps in the spirit of claustrophobia. The song's narrator is bored with the coffin factory's monotony and poor pay, and he ponders the profitability of taking one step away from the grave and into the hospital to sell flowers. Unlike the boy of the Florence + the Machine song, this narrator abhors the notion of working himself to death building coffins; he might've been the type to lead a battle toward unionization, if the job hadn't already killed his spirit.
"Pardon This Coffin" by Roger Miller
I think there may have been a point in my childhood when I thought my father actually was Roger Miller. My dad, a truck driver, had the same sense of humor and rock-a-billy style: cowboy boots, his hair slicked back, a pack of Old Golds in his front shirt pocket. And though "King of the Road," Miller's classic, was about a hobo riding the rails, the song had been somewhat adopted as a trucker's anthem. As with "King of the Road," "Pardon This Coffin" is a tune of the downtrodden sung with a cocky smirk; Miller could make the worst kind of destitution sound super-cool and glamorous. While his lyrics may indicate regret and great misfortune, his sublimely lethargic delivery render all despair not only easy-going, but somewhat preferable to a conventional life. In "Pardon This Coffin," the narrator describes his brother's poorly attended funeral, attributing the death to a "downfall of spirit and mind" that led to heavy-drinking and devil-making. The pardon he requests is a passive-aggressive nicety; what he really wants to do is knock anyone down who sneers with condescension. (A version of "Pardon This Coffin" by Jon Rauhouse and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts appears on the compilation album The Executioner's Last Songs, vol. 3, a collection of death and hangman songs benefiting Artists Against the Death Penalty for the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project.)
"You're Carrying a Coffin" by Johnny Dowd & "Coffin Hollow" by Red Clay River
While any number of death-metal bands have shrieked of their indifference to life by evoking the curse of their own coffins, few of their songs ever begin to reach the level of baroque horror of "You're Carrying a Coffin" and "Coffin Hollow." Both songs seem influenced by folk, alt-country, and Wisconsin Death Trip. Johnny Dowd's album, Pictures from Life's Other Side, which includes "You're Carrying a Coffin," is full of ne'er-do-wells knee-deep in hillbilly circumstances. "You're Carrying a Coffin" is the most sentimental of the album's highly unsentimental and grim portraiture, a reworking of his tune "Whisper in a Nag's Ear"—on the older version, Dowd takes a novelty approach, his story about a dead pregnant woman sounding like something sung on a local late-night creature-feature. On "You're Carrying a Coffin," Dowd sounds more like he's chronicling the day's deaths on a preacher's AM station, drawling into a faultily wired microphone. "Coffin Hollow," meanwhile, seems sung by a similarly minded preacher-man, arthritic and conscious-ridden, surrounded by God-forsaken territory. The song's too harsh to be musical, the band abandoning instruments and melody for the most part, instead incorporating what sounds like the racket of pots and pans in the bed of a broken-wheeled wagon. The narrator communes with abusive ghosts, clearly only at home when playing his music in a graveyard. The entire album, Too Poor to Die, could've been recorded at a minor revival led by world-weary evangelists.
"Lavender Coffin" by Lionel Hampton
In the song, which is among Hampton's most swinging, the singer (vocalist Joe James) declares that all he wants is a lavender coffin, white gardenias, a swing band, and sweet maidens "zinging around." One wonders if, when Hampton—a pioneering, superstar, jazz vibraphone player—first performed the song in the 1940s, he knew that his own funeral would be far more lavish than his jazz fantasy, lacking only in the particular hue of the casket. When Hampton died in 2002, Wynton Marsalis and other contemporary greats performed in a New Orleans-style funeral parade, which kicked-off at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Former presidents were in attendance, along with throngs of onlookers. Though some of his classic jukebox tunes were performed during the ceremony, "Lavender Coffin" wasn't among them.
Timothy Schaffert and The Coffins of Little Hope links:
Bookworm Baby review
Capricious Reader review
Daily Nebraskan review
Frogen Yozurt review
Leo Adam Biga's Blog review
Lit and Life review
The Millions review
New York Times review
One Book Shy of a Full Shelf review
Publishers Weekly review
Sarah Reads Too Much review
Stargazerpuj's Book Blog review
WV Stitcher 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