September 27, 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.
Josh Garrett-Davis's essay collection Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains melds memoir, history, and personal observations into a thoughtful contemplation on life in the American Plains.
In my book, Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains, I name-drop a lot of musicians and songs that were important to me growing up as a small-town punk in South Dakota. But there are also many songs by Plains musicians and visitors, songs I see as kindred efforts to understand, celebrate, or express truths about the region. I notice, as I look over the list below, that it is heavily, almost completely male—this is partly a failure in my musical knowledge, but it also reflects the fact that rock and country music have always slanted toward the boys. I hope that changes, but in the meantime, if you want women's accounts of the Plains, check out, for instance, these writers' work in prose and poetry: Mary Brave Bird, Willa Cather, Louise Erdrich, Denise Low, Mari Sandoz, May Williams Ward, and Zitkala-Sa.
"Evolution Revolution" by Indigenous
It seems sensible to start with a Native band, perhaps the most widely successful musicians to hail from my home state. They're a straight-ahead blues rock outfit, and were for their first several albums a family band: three siblings and a cousin from the Yankton Nakota Sioux Nation. Their music centers around the Stevie Ray Vaughn–like solos of Mato Nanji, with little reference to their Indian-ness outside their band name. But this itself is a strong political statement, which says, "Yes, Indians can be modern, and can shred a fretboard to prove it." The father of three of the band's founding members was an American Indian Movement activist in the 1970s, and offered the same message in his own rock band, with the deliciously ironic moniker the Vanishing Americans.
"Tillman County" by Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer
I gave short shrift to Oklahoma in my book, but the Oklahoma and Texas parts of the Plains have produced riches of music. Dave Carter was a songwriter from Oklahoma who inspired me tremendously with his writing, even though I was a punk and he was a clean and melodic folkie. He and his partner Tracy Grammer wrote and arranged lush songs they called "postmodern mythic Americana," a cheeky label I might have put on my own book. This song describes a county in southwestern Oklahoma with thick wordplay: "Mother Red River, she wind like a copperhead/ Coils and boils over Dennison Dam/ Little white houses, eggs on the rocky bed/ I am the son of the serpent, I am."
"The Farmer and the Cowman" from Oklahoma!
While we're in Oklahoma, let's do Oklahoma! This song, which I hope you already know, captures the Plains landscape's ambivalence between farming and ranching, though I should note that the musical is a particularly caricatured version of Oklahoma history—Indian Territory magically free of Indians, among other sins.
"Choctaw Bingo" by James McMurtry
This epic, by the brilliant son of the brilliant novelist Larry McMurtry, describes a more realistic Oklahoma, haphazardly interwoven with the rest of the country. This eight-minute, chorus-free song sketches a scary and hilarious family tree (Uncle Slayton "cooks that crystal meth because his 'shine don't sell"), with bits of Plains life that seldom infiltrate country-rock songs.
"Rainbow Child" by the Dan Reed Network
This was another relatively successful band from South Dakota, featuring two members from my birthplace, Aberdeen, South Dakota. This will wrench us away from Americana for awhile: this is twinkly synth rock with a strange, late '80s vision of Gaia: "She is the wind and the rain and the flowers and the pain." (Which element doesn't belong?) This makes me nostalgic for Earth Day 1990, when my fourth-grade class wrote and signed a treaty agreeing not to pollute the moon.
"Lifespan" by the Embarrassment
Kansas's earliest contribution to indie rock, this 1980s Wichita band was quite funny, a predecessor to the punk scenes I grew up in and more directly to Lawrence indie bands like the Mortal Micronotz (who once got fellow Lawrencian William S. Burroughs to write them some lyrics) and Paw. I love the chorus of this Embos song, which advises: "If you drive, don't drive/ And if you drink, don't drink."
"Coyote Song" by Bright Eyes
By some strict geographical definitions, places like Lawrence, Kansas, or Omaha are not in the Great Plains, but a) they've been politically bounded into Plains states for a century and a half; and b) we have to claim everybody we can as far as well-known musicians go. So I will claim urban Nebraskan Conor Oberst as a Plainsman, and say that this song represents the astronomical growth of the Latino population on the Plains in recent years (the faunal coyote, which gives smugglers their name—and which we South Dakotans pronounce with just two syllables, rhyming with "tryout" as Canadians pronounce it—is also a native trickster). I've never seen Bright Eyes live, but my dad once saw them rock the basement of the Days Inn in Rapid City, SD. When he told me that, it of course blew my mind.
"One's on the Way" by Loretta Lynn
You may know Shel Silverstein as a ubiquitous poet and illustrator for children, but he wrote more songs than just the account of how the unicorn was left off Noah's ark. This was one of his country songs, a clever-as-all-getout account of how the cosmopolitanism of the 1970s ("Jackie's in a discotheque doing a brand new dance") has not spread to Topeka, where the beleaguered, pregnant housewife so well voiced by Loretta Lynn juggles a bunch of kids and an unhelpful husband. The second wave of feminism had only washed up to somewhere around the 96th meridian.
"Rapid City, South Dakota" by Kinky Friedman
Another pro-feminist country song from the 1970s, this one coyly tells the story of a kid hitchhiking out of Rapid City, reassuring himself that the girlfriend he left behind there will "be alright," because "there's a doctor in Chicago…" This is up there with Ernest Hemingway's "Hills like White Elephants" as a short tale cryptically about pre-legal abortion.
"Dust Pneumonny Blues" by Woody Guthrie
This is one of many songs I could have picked from the concept album Dust Bowl Ballads, released as a group of 78s in 1940. A humorous take on a terrible fate many Plains folk suffered during the endless dust storms of the 1930s, I love Woody's vernacular medicine: "Down in Texas, my gal fainted in the rain/ I throwed a bucket of dirt in her face just to bring her back again."
"Lubbock Woman" by Terry Allen
Terry Allen is a brilliant artist and songwriter, the weird cousin of the Lubbock country scene that includes Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Lloyd Maines. He tells vivid linked short stories of the Panhandle. "Too much rouge, too much booze, too many movie magazines, too many high-tones making fun of her and the way she lives, too many low-lifes making promises they'll never give."
"Drums" by Floyd Red Crow Westerman
We'll end on a prophetic note, a song written by the folk singer Pete La Farge (son of the novelist and anthropologist Oliver La Farge) and made famous by Johnny Cash on his album of "ballads of the American Indian." The story of Indian boarding schools actually matches Floyd Red Crow Westerman's experience in South Dakota before he became a country singer, actor, and activist. (His first album, Custer Died for Your Sins, was named after Vine Deloria Jr.'s 1969 manifesto of Indian activism.) Westerman always had a Cash-esque baritone, and this recording comes from his last album, a 2006 tribute to the late J.R. The song, like the Ghost Dance, promises a return of Indian drums … "getting mighty near."
Josh Garrett-Davis and Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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