October 17, 2013
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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Michael Demson's Masks Of Anarchy is a powerful combination of text and illustration that tells the stories of both Percy Shelley's poem "The Masque of Anarchy" and a woman who found inspiration in that work, Pauline Newman, one of America's first female labor organizers.
The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:
"It’s a fascinating book for all sorts of reasons, not least its portrayal of America’s ongoing antipathy toward immigrants, which, of course, remains very much in the news."
Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes.
Once it's circulating among readers, lyrical poetry takes on a life of its own. Initially, a poem may have been an expression of its author's reflections or experience, but it soon moves beyond that initial connection, renewing itself through new and diverse relations. With this in mind, I have tried to write the history of a poem rather than a history of its author. That is not to say that my book isn't biographical, because it is. It weaves together two biographies, that of Percy Shelley, the radical English Romantic poet, and Pauline Newman, a Jewish immigrant who became a fierce labor activist in early twentieth-century New York. Nevertheless, my hope is that my book demonstrates how people of strikingly different character and backgrounds, from different countries and different times, can be brought together by song. The magnetic power of "The Mask of Anarchy," one of the most powerful political lyrics in the English language, united Shelley and Newman in a spirit of political defiance and activism, though they lived a continent and century apart.
In thinking about a playlist for my book, then, I have limited myself to covers and, more specifically, to covers that transpose an original song into a starkly different historical moment, culture, genre, or political context. When possible, I have tried to find transatlantic covers as well. Pauline Newman sampled "Masks of Anarchy" in her speeches, letters, and autobiographical writings, finding the relevance of British Romantic poetry for workers and tenement inhabitants of the Lower East Side. One could say that her "Masks of Anarchy" was an ingenious cover of Shelley's original, in that she heard the voice not of an "ineffectual angel" lost in metaphysical abstractions, as her contemporaries in American universities described Shelley, but of a passionate activist, prescient about the disastrous consequences of laissez-faire capitalism on the landless poor.
Chapter 1: The Clash, "I Fought the Law," 1979
The Clash's punk rock cover of the 1959 classic by Texas songwriter Sonny Curtis is as exuberant as it is defiant. While the original conveys the lawlessness celebrated in the popular culture of the American South, the Clash's cover reinterprets the song's radicalism in broader terms of class angst. I picked this track for the first chapter because many of Shelley's early political lyrics, expressing outrage and celebrating disobedience, anticipate the lyrics of the working-class youth culture of post-World War II Britain.
Chapter 2: Toots & the Maytals, "Take Me Home, Country Roads," 1974
Toots's iconoclastic reggae cover both celebrates and parodies John Denver's signature song of 1971: "Country roads, take me home/ To the place I belong/ West Jamaica…" It plays with the ancient association between nationalism and song, but Toots's boisterous mood does more. By transposing the location from "West Virginia" to "West Jamaica," the song makes light of the proprietary fantasy of Denver's longing (in this case, saying that you belong to the land is tantamount to saying it belongs to you). In other words, Toots's cover reminds us of the racial undercurrents that are always implicit in assertions of landownership in the Western World, in the postbellum South or post-colonial Jamaica. Pauline Newman's wry reflections on immigrating share a similar wry self-awareness with Toots's cover.
Chapter 3: Roberta Flack, "Killing Me Softly with His Song," 1973
Flack's heart-felt cover of Fox, Gimbel, and Leiberman's 1972 lament (there is some dispute regarding the genesis of the original) is now the best-known version of the song. The song is about a young woman's embarrassment, and it perfectly captures Harriett Shelley's story of abandonment: a young woman fatally attracted to a brilliant artist whose work overshadows her life and leaves her feeling powerless and bereft.
Chapter 4: Bruce Springsteen, "This Land is Your Land," 1985
Chapter Four is about Newman's political awakening and the start of her activism. Her patriotism, far more probing and profound than simple flag-toting, is well captured by Springsteen's live cover of Woody Guthrie's folksong at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. Springsteen's cover carries the critical irony and indignation of the original ballad into post-industrial America. Calling it the "greatest song about America," Springsteen has no time for the bastardizations of the song that have sought to downplay its politics by cutting verses that address the disenfranchisement, dispossession, and the degradation of farmers and workers. Instead, Springsteen calls attention to social and economic inequalities and re-addresses the song to "unemployed steelworkers" and all those Americans who have come to doubt the promise of America but who might reinvigorate it through political engagement. Newman, Guthrie, and Springsteen remind us that true patriotism does not permit the status quo to go unquestioned or exploitation to proceed unchecked.
Chapter 5: Sinéad O'Connor, "Nothing Compares 2U," 1990
The painful longing of O'Connor's haunting cover (of Prince's 1985 song for The Funk) seems particularly suitable to Mary Shelley's account of her husband, who abandoned amorous commitments with an obliviousness bordering on callousness. O'Connor's radical views on organized religion, war, and both women's and children's rights have given her an ethos of melancholy that comes through in her voice, transforming the song from a bubble gum love song to an arresting ballad. The international success of O'Connor's cover (hitting number one positions in charts in more than a dozen countries) also seems fitting as Percy and Mary Shelley each won international notoriety.
Chapter 6: Natalie Merchant, "Which Side Are You On?" 2003
Florence Reece, the wife of Sam Reece, a United Mine Workers (UMA) organizer in Harlan County during the famous labor conflict, wrote this song in 1931, and it has been a strike anthem ever since. While the UMA may be better remembered today than the International Ladies' Garments Workers' Union (ILGWU), the two were both part of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) of the 1930s and fought the same battle. The historical perspective evoked by Merchant's cover pushes the chorus lyrics further, asking not only where your sympathies fall in labor conflicts, but also whose history do you read, that of "workers" or "bosses"?
Chapter 7: Public Enemy, "He Got Game," 1998
The well-known phrase of Stephen Still's classic 1960s anti-war protest song, "What's It Worth," itself would be perfect as a track for my book, but better still is Public Enemy's adaptation of the song for Spike Lee's eponymous film, with Chuck D's inspired, class-conscious, bluesy rap. I think the author of the satirical broadside, "The Devil's Walk," would have enjoyed, "While the devil takes care/ Of makin' all the rules/ Folks don't even own themselves/ Payin' mental rent/ To corporate presidents."
Chapter 8: Nina Simone, "I Shall Be Released," 1968
Simone's evocative cover of Bob Dylan's 1967 song draws out the Gospel influence inherent in the original, but without the power Simone brings to the song. She balances the pain of the song brought on by incarceration, isolation, and regret, with the balm of confession, hope, and "release," be it literally from a prison or more metaphorically from oppression. There is no pessimism, nor is there naïve optimism, which makes it a powerful track for my chapter on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
Chapter 9: Umphrey's McGee, "Eminence Front," 2013
Because the main metaphor of the song is a mask worn to conceal moral bankruptcy, The Who's 1982 song maps up well with Shelley's "The Mask of Anarchy." The Who's version, however, is uncharacteristically polished in its production, and while this is appropriate for Shelley's version of "The Mask of Anarchy," Umphrey's McGee's grungier, more polyphonic, live version, with its improvised digressions, better suits Newman's version of "The Mask of Anarchy."
Epilogue: Mary J. Blige, "One Love," 2005
Admittedly, this track is not a cover, but a revision of the song as a duet, with Bono singing backup to Blige's powerhouse lead. It brings together two voices from different nations, two different musical traditions, and two different artistic visions, and it does so with brilliant success in a song about commonalities and compassion. It is perfect for the epilogue.
Michael Demson and Masks Of Anarchy links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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