November 3, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Joe Wilkins' debut poetry collection is a powerful and personal exploration of rural landscapes.
Luis Alberto Urrea wrote of the book:
"Joe Wilkins has a big, true, highway-running American voice. He remains one of my favorite young poets working today. When you see a new book of his, you should celebrate. Like this one. Just buy it, put down the window, and let the music blow back your hair. It's nothing but alive."
Though I'm no musician (they made me play the cymbal in junior-high band because I couldn't read music), it seems to me that poems and songs, or at least the ones that I most admire, often work the same way: they amplify the moment; they jump and cut through narrative; they twist the edges of things, pull strange details into focus.
My first full-length collection, Killing the Murnion Dogs, deals primarily with the landscapes, memories, and stories of my Montana boyhood and of my time teaching pre-algebra to ninth graders in the public schools of the Mississippi Delta. And the book takes a few sojourns along the highways and byways that carried me back to and away from these mythic geographies as well.
So, for this Killing the Murnion Dogs playlist here at Book Notes, I've chosen ten songs that influenced how I witnessed, experienced, and understood these places—and so deeply influenced the poems that came from them.
1. Bruce Springsteen - "Atlantic City"
Even in the Garth-Brooks-or-nothing small Montana town I called home, Springsteen was a god. And like everyone else, I sang along when "Born in the USA" and "Glory Days" came on the radio. Yet it wasn't until my freshman year of high school, when I picked up Springsteen's Greatest Hits and first heard "Atlantic City," that The Boss won me over. Though the action of the song was a bit obscure (what, exactly, was a chicken man?), and I'd never even been within a thousand miles of New Jersey, that sound—raw and rushed, desperately poetic—mirrored the lives I saw all around me. It knocked me out, that a work of art could speak from and about our broken, ordinary world.
2. Johnny Cash - "Rusty Cage"
It doesn't matter what the song is, Cash's version is always better. True here, too. Chris Cornell's "Rusty Cage" was one of my favorite flannel-shirted, sixteen-year-old anthems, but when I heard Cash's unadorned, dangerous version on Unchained, the second of his stunning American Recordings, I thought, "Wait. That's how it's supposed to be!"
3. Wilco - "Misunderstood"
The summer before I left home for college, some CD club mistakenly sent me Wilco's Being There album. I had no idea who Wilco was, but liked the cover and kept it. The opening track—those discordant electronic sounds finally giving way to a simple piano melody—kind of pissed me off at first, like the song was trying to have it both ways, and the lyrics trafficked in the same contradictions: "There's something there that you can't find / You look honest when you're telling a lie / You hurt her but you don't know why." Despite the confusions, I couldn't stop listening and, slowly, that celebratory, nostalgic anger started making a little bit of sense.
4. Uncle Tupelo - "Looking for a Way Out"
I didn't discover Uncle Tupelo until long after I left Montana, but with that very first listen they cracked my personal top five. I might even say top three. Uncle Tupelo's mix of country chops and punk sensibility is so thrilling and true. And no one has written and sung the contemporary American interior better. "Looking for a Way Out," a standout track from Uncle Tupelo's Still Feel Gone album, chronicles a young man's confused, furious attempts to rationalize leaving home for the wider world: "Torn between the unknown and the place that you call home / And the life you want but have never known / There was a time you could put it out of your mind / There was a time / That time is gone."
5. Nina Simone - "Mississippi Goddamn"
Whew. That first year in Mississippi was hard. I was trying so hard to be a good teacher, but kept slamming up against my own missteps in the classroom, as well as a hundred and fifty years of institutionalized inequality. "Alabama's gotten me so upset," Nina Simone sings, her voice escalating nearly into a scream: "Tennessee made me lose my rest / And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddamn!" Goddamn is right. Some Fridays after school, obscenity seemed the only way to deal with the heartache of the week.
6. Junior Kimbrough - "Most Things Haven't Worked Out"
I feel a bit sacrilegious here—not picking Son House or Sonny Boy Williamson or another Delta blues legend—but when you're trying to lose yourself along some Mississippi backroad, there's nothing like the bass-heavy, hypnotic rhythms of the latter-day blues saint, Junior Kimbrough. Turn it up, turn down the first dirt road you come across, and don't look back.
7. The Band with the Staple Singers - "The Weight"
My second year in the Delta, things were going good. First and foremost, I was a much better teacher, and my students were learning a hell of a lot of pre-algebra. But too, I was coming to love Mississippi. And nothing symbolized my new fascination with the South better than The Band's studio session with The Staple Singers, Delta natives who made it big with a blend of gospel, soul, and civil rights music on Memphis's Stax label. I often claim that this version of "The Weight" might be greatest rock-n-roll record ever, and I think I might be right. There's just nothing like Levon Helm harmonzing with Pops and Mavis Staples: "Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free; / take a load off Fanny, and you can put the load right on me."
8. Bob Dylan - "Mississippi"
Ah, Bob. I've been hooked ever since I picked up a $5.99 copy of Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits in a K-Mart bargain bin when I was about thirteen. Lately, though, I'm digging the most recent bluesman-troubadour reincarnation of Bob Dylan. Such fun, strange, affecting music. I remember listening to Love and Theft as we packed up to leave our little house in Sunflower, Mississippi. Such a vivid, bittersweet time.
9. Lucinda Williams - "Jackson"
I want to end with two traveling songs. First, Lucinda Williams's "Jackson," which just might be the saddest song ever written. As she drives south through the cities and towns of Mississippi and Louisiana, Williams sings of trying to forget a lost loved: "All the way to Jackson / I don't think I'll miss you much." We know, of course, by the very act of the song, that she'll never forget. No matter how far she travels, the pain will always be with her. Like it will for us. Still, three hours into a day of driving, after the initial excitement of the journey has worn off, there's nothing like a truly sad song to bring you around again.
10. Son Volt - "Windfall"
And then, once you've cried your way through "Jackson," pop in Son Volt's Trace album. No matter where you're going, there is simply no better driving album. And the first track, "Windfall," is pure highway, cigarette, and setting sun: "May the wind take your troubles away / May the wind take your troubles away / Both feet on the floor two hands on the wheel / May the wind take your troubles away."
Joe Wilkins and Killing the Murnion Dogs links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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