October 12, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book. Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, and many others.
Stephen Wetta's If Jack's in Love is a heart-wrenching coming of age tale. This surprising novel is skillfully written from the perspective of a bright 12 year-old boy whose family is at the bottom of the social ladder in a small town. Equally dark, suspenseful, and hopeful, this is one of the year's most auspicious literary debuts.
BookPage wrote of the book:
"If Jack’s in Love is a moving portrait of a specific time, family and town, but also a universal story of growing up and coming to terms with the people—and places—that raise us, told with all the humor, truth and urgency of its teenage hero. It may have taken the first half of his life to write, but Wetta’s touching novel was well worth the wait."
My novel, If Jack's in Love, concerns the fortunes of the Witcher family in 1967 Virginia. The Witchers are Pop, Mom, Stan and Jack. I will cover their individual musical tastes in order.
"Kinfolk in Carolina," Merle Travis
First there is Pop. Pop is from Hendersonville, N.C. He grew up, as people from that wonderful state did and do, with a love for country music, and has raised his two sons so that they will appreciate their Carolina musical heritage. One of little Jack Witcher's favorite songs is by the great Merle Travis. It's called "Kinfolk in Carolina," and it calls forth happy memories of a simpler, folksier time in the life of his father. Unfortunately, those memories are bogus, and Pop has developed in the course of his adult years a deeper understanding of the blues.
"Tip On In, Pt. 1," Slim Harpo
Pop plays blues harp, and he likes to jam in the front yard with his guitar playing friend, Snead. Although it's not mentioned in the book, Pop's favorite blues song is "Tip On In" by Slim Harpo. Actually, I was going to call my novel High at the Bottom in reference to the song. One of the lines praises the mini-dress, cut "low at the top and high at the bottom"—a new fashion when Slim Harpo wrote the song. No doubt you have noticed that my novel is not called High at the Bottom. That's a story I'll tell at another time.
"Nine Below Zero," Sonny Boy Williamson
Sonny Boy is both Pop and Snead's favorite singer. Now, I differ with those who believe Sonny Boy the greatest bluesman of all time. In a world that includes John Lee Hooker, Slim Harpo, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Skip James and Little Walter, among myriad others, who can say? Nevertheless, many do say, and many who say are professional musicians while I am not. "Nine Below Zero" is one of Sonny Boy Williamson's best-known songs.
"Black, Brown and White," Big Bill Broonzy
One of the great protest songs in American music. No doubt the neighbors were outraged when they heard it being played by Pop and Snead in the Witchers' front yard. The song was written in the forties (I think), and it was still quite relevant in 1967 when Pop and Snead played it. Dr. Joseph Lowery paraphrased lines from "Black, Brown and White" when he delivered the benediction at President Obama's inauguration in 2008. (How far, in a way, we have come.) I'd like to dedicate it to Snead, a minor character in the book who doesn't get his own playlist. He's not such a bad guy … and he played a significant role in Pop's musical education.
"Cold Sweat," James Brown
Stan likes this funky James Brown music, and so do I. But Jack doesn't, and Jack is the hero of the book, and Stan is not a very nice boy. It would be good to get this unpleasant business of Stan's musical taste over and done with. Still, who can resist James Brown's great hit of 1967? That "Baby baby baby" bit is pure genius. I remember when I first heard it. I said to myself, "You can't do that in a song." That's what made James Brown great, he did those things.
"Manic Depression," Jimi Hendrix
Stan doesn't play around. No Flower Power for this cat. He likes the hard stuff, and in 1968 he'd have been Blue Cheer's most ardent fan. (Unfortunately, he was in prison in 1968.) Typically he was high on pot whenever he listened to Hendrix, which may not seem unusual now, but at the time, in that place, it was. Stan was kind of forward-looking, way ahead of everyone else with the hair and the drugs and the music. Which is precisely what landed him in prison.
"The End," The Doors
Anya, Stan's girlfriend, claimed that this is what she and Stan were listening to in her bedroom at the very moment Gaylord Joyner was murdered. You may know the song from Apocalypse Now if you didn't hear it at the time. The trouble with the music I grew up with is that it doesn't really evoke nostalgia, not when it's about killing your father and sleeping with your mother. Perhaps the fact that Stan got high and listened to the Doors explains everything about him—except he wasn't listening to the Doors the night Gaylord was murdered. Anya was lying.
PS I myself haven't listened to "The End" since 1967.
"Up, Up and Away," The 5th Dimension
Finally — we've gotten away from Stan and Pop, those rednecks, and landed safely with Jack, a truly sweet kid. The only trouble is Jack's taste in music. I never minded the 5th Dimension. I remember watching them on TV. The guys wore Nehru jackets and their medallions swung when they danced. The girls' skirts were high at the bottom—you know what I mean. Everything was groovy back then, even the lousy music. But James Brown was better.
"I Say a Little Prayer," Aretha Franklin
This is cheating. Jack preferred Dionne Warwick's version and probably didn't even know Aretha's. Now, Ms. Warwick was a fine singer and a nice looking lady, and she did Bacharach and David proud. I admit, once those wo-wo-wo-wo-wo's on "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" get in your mind they can never be dislodged. But Aretha's version takes the prize. I think it's one of the best things she ever recorded.
"The Rain, the Park & Other Things," The Cowsills
The song is not specifically mentioned in the novel. Jack considers music like this anti-Stan. That's all he wants, to get away from Stan, from Pop, and from the neighborhood. His way of rebelling against the country's coolest musical decade is to embrace the squarest music he can find. Of course, the Cowsills were actually quite talented, and later became cool in a different kind of way. You can't run, Jack. Might as well listen to Slim Harpo.
Mom likes tunes from Showboat … and I've decided not to give her a playlist.
Stephen Wetta and If Jack's in Love links:
Devourer of Books review
Fresh Fiction review
Jenn's Bookshelves review
Kirkus Reviews review
The Literate Housewife review
The Literary Gothamite review
The Magic Lasso review
Publishers Weekly review
Southern Literary Review 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