August 9, 2012
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, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Gregory Spatz's second novel Inukshuk is a mesmerizing story of a father and a son, one where the teenager goes to great lengths to recreate the ill-fated Franklin Arctic expedition (even going so far as to his attempt to give himself scurvy).
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Taking place over the course of just a few days, this tale of familial dysfunction is carefully interwoven with the historical retelling of Sir Franklin's quest, resulting in a layered journey that is hauntingly honest and emotionally resonant."
I grew up hearing my parents sing and play as a '60s folk-rock duo. All of my earliest recollections have to do with that music —a constant soundtrack—and not just their music either, but anything I loved and happened to get my hands on: The Beatles, Frank Zappa, Boccherini, The Clancy Brothers, Mendelsohn, The Red Clay Ramblers, Fairport Convention and Vivaldi were memorable favorites. I was musically obsessed, and a musical omnivore. And at that age I was also completely sure that there was zero distinction between the music I loved and whatever stories I was reading or engrossed in.
At age five I started playing the violin and somewhere in middle school, transitioned from classical music to more "folk" styles of playing: Celtic, old-time, Cajun, French-Canadian, New England contra, bluegrass. I joined my parents' duo in high school, making it a trio or "family band," and throughout high school and college, I continued playing with them and competing in fiddle contests all over the Northeast. After college I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and later the Sacramento area, making my living exclusively as a musician and fiddle teacher, playing in any band that would pay—country, country-rock, Texas swing, jazz, bluegrass . . . whatever gig I could get. I'd write all day; play every night. I figured I'd eventually have to choose one path or other, music or writing. I walked away from a gig with a popular, heavily-booked traditional bluegrass band, High Country, in order to attend grad school for fiction writing at University of New Hampshire; I ditched a full teaching schedule and calendar full of work for a few months at MacDowell, and not long after that, 3 years at the Iowa Writers workshop, each time figuring I was done with the music life.
This was not to be the case. I found other bands, and basically never stopped gigging. During those years I was always clear about what I eventually learned I most liked to play—straight up, traditional bluegrass—and what I liked to listen to in order to inspire the feelings I associated most keenly with whatever stories I was working on, almost all of which fell outside the purist bluegrass category. Everything I wrote then had a strong, private connection to some music—a song or whole recording—which I'd listen to repeatedly at the start of each day's work in order to call up the central mood and feelings of the piece/chapter. But in the past decade or so, the distinctions between what I like to play and what I like to listen to for inspiration have eroded and blurred to the point where it all feels interconnected. I spend so much time on the road with my band (80-100 dates a year, during the writing of Inukshuk), or in the recording studio, or just playing at home, that the songs in our repertoire tend to be the ones taking up most of my attention. Music is just constantly playing in my head . . .or I'm actually playing it and at the same time thinking about what I've been writing most recently. Back and forth.
The following playlist leans heavily on material by the bands I play with, not because I'm trying to promote those bands to you (though I would, if I could!) but because that material is honestly what is most interwoven with the words in Inukshuk.
"Lady Franklin's Lament," Kevin Burke/Micheal O'Domhnhaill, Promenade
My earliest recollection of this song is as sung by my parents in various kitchens, living rooms and hootenannies. I knew there was a family connection (Franklin was my great-grandmother-Franklin's great-uncle) and I always found the melody and words haunting, but it was never a regular part of their repertoire and they never recorded it; the song didn't make a lasting impression with me until I encountered this version of it, sung by Micheal (now deceased), sometime in my late teens. At that time, anything Kevin Burke played made the hair on my arms stand up—still does, mostly—and this was no exception. And from then on, this version of "Lady Franklin"—which of course is all about the most romanticized possible version of my book's center-piece, the story of John and Jane Franklin—has remained the seminal or root version, for me, though I can't say that I listened to it more than once or twice while drafting Inukshuk.
"The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry," Aly Bain and Ale Moller, Fully Rigged
My mother tells me that this traditional Child Ballad, with the more contemporary melodic treatment used on this recording, is one of the very first songs she and my father sang together as teen-agers. My father disagrees. It's a long time ago. Either way, I distinctly remember them singing it together when I was a kid, and being more than a little afraid of the song because I thought it foretold some scenario wherein my father and I would have to be shot together. My parents never recorded it—it was too common by that time, thanks in part to Joan Baez whose career my mother inadvertently helped to launch (that's another story). To this day, I'm a little irrationally scared of "The Great Silkie"—which is why I decided to make it, and the legend of the Selkies, so central to John's part of the story in Inukshuk. Bain and Moller's version, though instrumental, very effectively captures the feeling.
About the same time that I began working on Inukshuk, my wife Caridwen and I worked up our own version of "Lady Franklin." It began as a way for me to meditate on the text, to envision its shape, and later as a way to think about the characters without looking at them directly on the page, while playing. For a while, we'd play it almost every night. Like a prayer almost. I recorded it once with Caridwen on my solo CD, Fiddler's Dream, and later again with Mighty Squirrel for our first CD. For the book release we updated, improved and remixed the Mighty Squirrel version to reflect a band personnel change.
"Lancaster Sound," John Reischman and the Jaybirds, Vintage and Unique
I wrote this instrumental one night in the midst of working on Inukshuk, thinking specifically of the faces of the frozen sailors buried on Beechey Island – the first casualties of the Franklin expedition (died during the first winter of the expedition). They were exhumed several years ago for lead testing and photographing. In the images, the bodies are remarkably, vividly, well preserved, having been frozen solid and untouched for over a century; they hardly even look mummified—an all-too-graphic model for the sailors within my character Thomas's daydreams, dreams and story notebooks. I named it for the bay, Lancaster Sound, where Franklin and crew encountered a whaling ship on its way home; their last contact with other Europeans, ever.
"Bitterroot Waltz," John Reischman and the Jaybirds, Vintage and Unique
It's been one of the great pleasures of my life to work with John Reischman. In my opinion, no one writes more beautiful, evocative, smart and playable melodies. This is one of them. We were in final stages of mixing Vintage and Unique, sending tracks back and forth on the internet for final comments, edits and adjustments, listening under the microscope, at the same time that I was in the homestretch with Inukshuk. I'd take a break from writing, listen to the tracks, make my notes, and the songs would continue playing in my mind for hours after. This one, in particular, was a welcome companion at that point of the process.
"Cypress Hills," John Reischman and the Jaybirds, Vintage and Unique
This one as well, with the melody by John, and words by our good friend Susan Crowe, accompanied me pretty constantly through the final stages of writing Inukshuk. In this case the very direct and poignant lyrics of the chorus—I was once my father's son, my mother's boy, her darling one, but they have met eternity—also helped to evoke the melancholy mood of the work and of the characters' estrangement from one another.
"I Don't Want to Be Your Ghost," Meatdraw, Meatdraw
Thomas is obsessed with zombie movies. I'm not. However, I did enjoy watching Night of the Living Dead (research) so I could understand how he'd fixate on the images there, and maybe to pilfer a few good lines and details. That led me to this song by Meatdraw (who borrowed heavily from the movie in filming their video for the song), which worked its way into the background of the bar scene with John and Moira. I feel about the song more or less the way John does, though my kids assure me it's better than I think, so listening to it also helped me access some of the generational divide experienced by my characters.
"Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still," John Reischman and the Jaybirds, Stellar Jays
Recorded in the midst of work on Inukshuk. Though the song isn't quite old enough to fit (written in 1864) it feels contemporary enough, so I stole a line for one of my characters to sing in one of the historical passages: Sailed a falling sky … chartered hazard's path—I have seen the storm arise, like a giant in his wrath…. Later, I learned that a "falling sky" is a specific meteorological occurrence which can only be seen far out at sea when a storm approaches and engulfs a ship and then moves on so fast that, seen from a distance as it vanishes over the horizon, it looks as if the sky is literally falling.
"Bob Dylan's Dream," Bob Dylan, The Freewheeling
Around the same time that I discovered the Burke/O'Domhnaill recording of "Lady Franklin's Lament" I came across this Dylan song, which uses the same melody and is essentially a revision or reworking of the original, but with Dylan cast as the song's main character. In some way, this totally personalized, playful reformulation of the song's central concept made me feel encouraged and at liberty to take the Franklin story (and the song) and make it my own. It also enforces my sense of the song (and the story's) ripeness to be re-set, re-cast or narratively repurposed time and again, as well as its power to capture the imagination.
"Gartan Mother's Lament," Mighty Squirrel, Sqworld Record
We recorded this while I was working on the first part of Inukshuk, so it was playing fairly constantly in my head those days. I joke with my wife, Caridwen, that if I'm ever caught in a plane that's going down, this is the song I'll put on the iPod because of how soothingly and intimately she sings it—it'd be a good way to go out and feel as if she's still near. Not really a funny joke, and kind of a weird compliment, I guess … let's hope I never have to put the promise to the test.
Gregory Spatz and Inukshuk links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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