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September 15, 2011

Book Notes - Sebastian Barry ("On Canaan's Side")

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

Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side is an epic novel covering almost seven decades in the life of an Irish immigrant to the United States. Exquisitely written and lyrical, the book was longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize.

The Financial Times wrote of the book:

"In lesser hands this triple-stranded tale that plaits Lily's devastating domestic story, the bigger impersonal story of her vile 20th century and the story of "men" in the 20th century and the way modern war destroys the male psyche, might have seemed over-schematic and calculating. But it’s neither of these because Barry's control over his complex materials is so formidable, his pacing so flawless, and his storytelling so indefatigable; the narrative compels interest from first to last and you don’t notice the message until after you’ve closed the book."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, request an invitation.

In his own words, here is Sebastian Barry's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, On Canaan's Side:


"On Canaan's Side" is itself a sort of folk hymn, but I can't find a really good version of it. Would love to.


"To Ohio," by The Low Anthem. On their Charlie Darwin CD, they offer two versions of this magical song. Very simple, very purely sung, with a whalelike undertow of rhythm... The only trouble listening to it, it is inclined to hypnotize you, which is not very handy for working. Handle with care!


"Little Birdie," sung by Ralph Stanley of the Stanley Brothers. Rightly described as the Maria Callas of Bluegrass singers, surely this man's voice was granted by an angel with a full knowledge of darkness. How he holds his notes so softly, so persistently, and works in against the obvious places for his notes; how he incorporates somehow a whole sense of the American back-country, secret histories of inaccessible places, is anyone's guess. I hope he walks in America loaded down by honours and accolades.


"White House Blues," sung by Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys. A song about the assassination of President McKinley, which I played as a sort of prelude to thinking about the series of terrible murders in the Sixties, starting with the great Medgar Evers. And reflecting back on the murder in the novel, of Lilly's sweetheart Tadg Bere.


"Look at Miss Ohio," by Gillian Welch, who also does a fine version of "Make Down me a Pallet," which I knew from an old version by the wondrous Mississippi John Hurt. I love that MJH didn't play for forty years till someone dug out a record and went looking for him in the Delta. He hadn't even touched the guitar in years. Then he blossomed out again.


"Vietnam, Vietnam," by JB Lenoir. I had this man's record in the seventies, played it till the needle nearly carved itself through the vinyl and on down to Australia. Lenoir again was never a rich man, and he died quite young in Chicago. He had been working as a hospital orderly when he passed. He is to me the finest expression of urban blues, though I heard Buddy Guy a few years ago in Chicago and was enthralled. Vietnam was the war being fought when I was young, though we grew up in Ireland. This song applies to Ed in the book, Lilly's son. I might also pay homage to Country Joe and the Fish and their Vietnam song sung at Woodstock.


"I Am a Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow," sung by the Old Regular Baptists. My working title for the book was The Pilgrim Soul, which is a phrase from a poem by WB Yeats -- 'One man loved the pilgrim soul in you.' It might seem a long way from this song to Yeats, but it is poetry too, found on the wayside and in the mouths of these deeply honest traditional singers.


"Oh Death," again sung by the Stanley Brothers. A very startling song for its honesty, and very suitable for Lilly, who is 89 years old and wondering why she is still on this troubled earth, after the death of her grandson. It is not possible to imagine such a song ever being in the hit parade of any country of the world, but what a magisterial miniature it is.


"Kevin Barry," a gloomy but heroic song about the young medical student hanged in Dublin for his part in a raid on the imperial police force, was the song my great aunt Annie taught me and put me up on a chair to sing, even though she was the daughter of a high ranking officer in that imperial police force. But Kevin Barry and her father were both born in Rathvilly, which was a fact that superseded mere politics and history.


"Roses of Picardy," sung by Count John McCormack, the great song of the First World War, in which Lilly's brother Willie is killed. Very few singers could do what John McC did with the ending of this song. He makes it climb the Matterhorn and then slides down the other side. McCormack toured all over America, to Butte and Buffalo. He was made an honorary member of a Native American tribe for his singing in Natoma, an opera that failed in New York but celebrated Native American culture. McCormack was an honorary US citizen. These inter-twinings and journeys and a sense of fluid identities were important to me in the writing of the novel.


Sebastian Barry and On Canaan's Side links:

excerpt from the book

Bookreporter review
Daily Mail review
Daily Express review
Financial Times review
Guardan review
Independent review
Irish Independent review
London Evening Standard review
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
The Scotsman review
The Spectator review
Sydney Morning Herald review
Telegraph review

Booktopia Blog interview with the author
Independent profile of 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)
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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