November 15, 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.
Snowden Wright draws an impressive portrait of Robert Johnson in his novel Play Pretty Blues, cleverly capturing the essence of the blues legend's life as told by his six wives.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote of the book:
"Wright authenticates his own Delta roots by sprinkling the setting liberally with hell hounds, shotgun houses, skip row cotton, bottle trees and buckshot mud — all woven together with a lyrical prose that evokes the blues performed by Robert Johnson himself. Wright begins with a ghost and gives us a flesh-and-blood man, a genius and a rascal, one destined to steal the reader’s heart."
When I first heard Robert Johnson I had already heard of him. I'd been introduced to him not through his music but through his legend. You know the story. In the Mississippi Delta about eighty years ago, Johnson, while standing at a crossroads with his guitar in hand, was offered a bargain by the devil. For the price of his soul he'd be granted the ability to play the blues better than anyone else.
A list of songs related to my novel Play Pretty Blues could easily be made up only of ones by its subject, Robert Johnson, but doing so would disregard the most important aspects of the novel. On first conceiving the book my goal was for it to be more than an episode of "Behind the Music." I wanted the music to be secondary. The primary focus of the novel I wanted to be the personality, the contradictions and uniformities, the good will and bad behavior, the regrets, the hopes, the longings, in essence the personhood of a man who happened to create brilliant music.
Below are some of the songs that inspired or influenced me while writing Play Pretty Blues.
"Preaching Blues" by Robert Johnson
About a quarter of the way into Superman (1978), Christopher Reeves, who we have not yet seen fly, emerges from the Fortress of Solitude. He stands motionless for a beat, arms by his side, cape gently flapping behind him. Then his feet leave the ground.
I had that moment in mind while writing the scene in which Robert Johnson first plays "Preaching Blues." Sort a superhero of the blues, what with the reputation and mythology he has engendered, Johnson in his early years was, according to stories, absolutely terrible on the guitar. People were astonished when, seemingly of a sudden, he could play like a professional. That was part of why the rumor about the crossroads spread so fast.
The real explanation for his newfound skills on the guitar hark back to an old joke about how one gets to Carnegie Hall. He practiced. With this song I imagined Robert Johnson's talent first taking flight.
"Black Velvet" by Alannah Myles
"Mississippi in the middle of a dry spell / Jimmy Rogers on the Victrola up high / Mama's dancing with baby on her shoulder / The sun is setting like molasses in the sky."
This song romanticizes my home state the same way my memory does.
"Strange Fruit" by Nina Simone
During my work on Play Pretty Blues I used what I thought of as the Johnny Depp Method. It's rooted in an interview the actor gave. Although I can't remember the specifics of what he said, the main thing I took away from the interview was that, for every role, Depp chose characters, actual people or fictional ones, to influence his performance. Keith Richards was a model for Jack Sparrow. Mr. Rogers was a model for Willy Wonka.
I wanted my novel to come across sort of like an album. All the chapters would cohere as a whole, but each one would have a distinct feel. To achieve that I came up with the Johnny Depp Method. Before writing a chapter, I would choose three things, be they a person, an object, a word, even just an idea, that I would use for inspiration, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.
For each chapter I chose items disparate not just from each other—they include Brer Rabbit, the subtle green of Coke bottles from years ago, Casablanca, and the word "bizarro," to name a few—but also from any clearly discernible analog within their respective chapter. "Strange Fruit" is the exception. Anyone who has read the end of the third chapter in Play Pretty Blues can see the influence of that song about the horrors of lynching.
"Roads" by Portishead
Inside my chest there is a crane, sturdy and metal and solid, my heart dangling from it like a wrecking ball. This song breaks the crane.
"Ode to Billie Joe" by Bobbie Gentry
The first time I saw a picture of Bobbie Gentry, back when I was young, I entertained the thought that my mom, before I was born, had pseudonymously been a famous country singer, they looked so alike to my eight-year-old eyes. I still have a maternal affection for Gentry.
This song provided a lot of inspiration for my novel, from its lovely descriptions of Mississippi, to its vibe of melancholy buffed smooth by time, to its narrator's love for a boy who died mysteriously. Play Pretty Blues could have just as well been called Ode to Robert Johnson.
"I Still Believe" by Tim Capello
An amusement park on the coast of southern California. Drunk teenagers in cut-offs. Fires burning in tin drums. Glistening sweat. Greasy hair. A concert. A stage. A saxophone. These things coalesce in a scene that epitomizes uninhibited fandom perhaps better than any ever put on film.
In The Lost Boys, Capello, the so-called "Greasy Sax Man" who would later be an unacknowledged influence on a digital short with Jon Hamm on Saturday Night Live, personifies awesome ‘80s excess. People in the crowd damn near lose it over the guy. I had this scene in the back of my mind when writing some of the concert scenes in Play Pretty Blues. A man of the blues was to the '30s, one could argue, what a man of the sax was to the '80s.
"Is That All There Is?" by Peggy Lee
This song was featured in After Hours. Clearly I have a thing for movie soundtracks. In a recent interview Junot Diaz said that, while writing his first book, Drown, he listened to the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack on a loop. I found that so heartening to hear. Maybe he uses sense memories similar to how I do, setting them up like dominoes, the visual knocking over the aural, which leads to taste, to smell, to touch, thereby building a wholly immersive world to explore.
"Step by Step" by Jesse Winchester
I seriously considered making the following quote from this song an epigraph to the novel:
"If I'm late, don't wait / Go on without me / I may tarry a while / Because I mean to know / Before I go / How come the Devil smiles."
"The Weight" (from The Last Waltz) by The Band
Behold the great Mavis Staples. In The Last Waltz, arguably the best concert documentary ever made, she and her sisters accompany The Band on the rendition of its most famous song, "The Weight." It's only one of two songs filmed in a studio in a movie otherwise made up of live performances. That is to say, had there been a "house" present for the song, Staples would have brought it down. Her voice brings such power, perhaps no more so than in the one moment when, at the end of the song, she isn't even singing. Once everything has gone quiet, she whispers into the microphone, "Beautiful."
In the same way Mavis Staples, technically a backup singer on the track, is the real star of it, I consider the real protagonist of Play Pretty Blues to be the first-person-plural narrator, Robert Johnson's six wives. They are all extraordinary women in their own way. However paradoxical it may sound, the wives, though my invention, are six times smarter, wittier, and more eloquent than I am. To write the novel I did not think about what Robert Johnson, the ostensible protagonist, would do next, but rather how his wives, the actual protagonists, would feel about what he would do next.
"Sympathy for the Devil" by The Rolling Stones
A well-known, perhaps apocryphal story involving The Rolling Stones testifies to Robert Johnson's virtuosic, unprecedented skills on the guitar. In the 1960s, somebody pulled Keith Richards aside, said there was something he needed to hear, and played him a track by the then-unknown Johnson. "Yeah, that's pretty good," Richards said, "but who's the other guy playing?"
That Robert Johnson played so well Keith Richards thought it had to be two guys playing goes to show just how good Robert Johnson was.
Listen to "Preaching Blues." Doesn't that incredibly beautiful song sound like it's being played by two guitarists in perfect step to each other? Maybe we should feel a bit of sympathy for the devil. He seems to have gotten the raw end of that bargain at the crossroads.
Snowden Wright and Play Pretty Blues links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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