August 23, 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.
The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1 once again proves Scott McClanahan one of the master storytellers of our time.
Donald Ray Pollock wrote of the book:
"Scott McClanahan is a powerful, exceptional writer, and the overall effect of reading his deceptively simple stories is like getting hit in the head by a champion cage fighter cranked up on meth that was cooked in a trailer without running water in some Kentucky backwoods where people sing murder ballads to their children to put them to sleep."
I grew up in the Church of Christ in Springdale, West Virginia. Our church typically consisted of fifty people in the summer and some twenty five or thirty in the winter. The Church of Christ didn't believe in instruments. This was because the New Testament didn't mention instrumentation in the verses (sadly, there are instruments all over the Old Testament. King David was essentially our first rock star).
So we didn't have a guitar. W e didn't have a piano. We didn't have a choir. No one knew how to read music. This wasn't even the sophisticated Sacred Harp singing of the southern mountains. We simply sang these melodies from memory (if someone wanted to sing a new song—they were just fucked). These melodies were something more than songs. They were the sounds of weddings and sex and funerals and rot and children and sin and skeletons and us.
Each Sunday morning we opened up the cracked and broken and falling apart Stamps Baxter hymnals and we sang together as a congregation. Half of the songs were nothing more than Jesus-shit-propaganda, but the other half were little pieces of art. We did have a song leader though. He was my father. He had once dreamed of being a famous country singer like Porter Wagoner or Mel Street, but now he was different. He was one of us now. He was just a man.
Often times, people ask me who my favorite singers and musicians are. Instead of saying Nina Simone or Edith Piaf or Nico or Scott Walker or Beach House or whatever hip/cool bullshit happens to be popular at the time, I always say this. I tell them about the voices I knew as a child. I say Viven Bragg, Joyce Hanshew, Harold Sifers, and Helena Deitz. People look at me confused. Helena Deitz had one of the worst voices you can think of. It was the equivalent of a vocal enema. She meant it though. She meant her words.
These were all ordinary, sometimes ugly voices by themselves. But they were amazing singers. They didn't have great voices, but they were amazing singers. And there is a difference in this world. These voices were different than the last century of popular music. They didn't say, "I am the musician. You are the listener." These were voices that did this. They said, "How are you? Come join us. Let's sing. Let's see what our voices sound like together. We can make the pain of the world go away for a moment…the nervous voices in our heads."
So these are the songs that are inside of me as I write. I never listen to them anymore. I am always listening to the other artists you typically see in music lists, but I realize this. I realize I could amputate the arm of a child with a pocketknife before I could remove these songs from my blood. There is a part of me that truly hates them, but they are there. They are inside of my skull. They are family.
These are the songs.
"There's a Fountain Free/ There is a Fountain": These are songs that we typically call invitation songs. They are sung at the end of a service to give someone the chance to accept Christ and be baptized. I could name their composers for you and the date of their composition, but you wouldn't know or care. We do have a few major artists in this tradition like Albert E. Brumley and Thomas Dorsey, but for the most part these songs are written by forgotten pastors and forgotten housewives. They should be forgotten. We should all be forgotten.
"Beyond the Sunset": There were a few popular songs like "Beyond the Sunset" that would appear in our songbook. We sang it slightly different than the popular Johnny Mathis version. My mother always said she wanted this song played at her funeral right after Louis Armstrong's version of "Stardust." My father would pick this song and sing it at least once a month to keep my mother happy. My mother would close her eyes and listen. I always flopped down on my back in the pew and crossed my arms over my chest like a corpse. When I hear it now, I hear my mother saying, "That's not funny Scott. You shouldn't joke about my funeral."
"When All of God's Singers Get Home": This is the song they sang when I saw my father baptized during a revival. He was probably forty or so and I was ten. I remember there was a girl sitting in front of us and I thought she was beautiful. She had braces and one of those giant mouth guards but I thought she was beautiful. I remember staring at the back of her head. My father was being baptized and people were coming up to him and congratulating him. There were tears in eyes and his voice kept breaking. I didn't say anything. I was embarrassed.
"Where the Soul of Man Never Dies/ I Come to the Garden Alone": We didn't get an indoor toilet in our church until I was four years old. One of my earliest memories is my mother taking me outside to use the bathroom. It would be summer and there would be butterflies and flies and the windows of the church would be open. They would be singing songs and we would hear them. They were different than voices singing. They were more like ghosts telling us about our future.
Even now, I am haunted by those voices and I am holding my mother's hand.
So sometimes I open up my father's old songbook. I hear the tune and I sing the words. I sing, "Precious Memories" and Viven Bragg rises from the grave. I've always thought resurrection would be an awful thing—imagine all of those rotten faces coming to gather. I sing "Beyond the Sunset" and imagine my mother's funeral. I sing "Where the Soul of Man Never Dies" and I hear Helena Deitz singing ugly once more and it is beautiful. I sing these songs with my voice and the voices inside my voice. They rise up like some strange Dorothy who has returned from far away and she is saying, "It was all there. You were there and you were there. There were demons and angels and death and life." Then she says, "And it was all here and we never knew it. We were all too blind to see."
So now I SEE.
And I am terrified.
Scott McClanahan and The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1 links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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