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May 23, 2014

Book Notes - Eric Charles May "Bedrock Faith"

Bedrock Faith

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.

Eric Charles May's Bedrock Faith is an expansive and perceptive novel about a community on Chicago's south side, one that makes you feel less a reader and more a resident.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"In this vivid, suspenseful, funny, and compassionate novel of epiphanies, tragedies, and transformations, May drills down to our bedrock assumptions about ourselves, our values, and our communities."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Eric Charles May's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Bedrock Faith:

My novel Bedrock Faith is set in a middle-class, African-American community located on Chicago's far South Side. Chicago is birthplace of Black gospel music, which mixes traditional spirituals with blues and jazz. Its originator was Thomas A. Dorsey who moved to Chicago in 1918.

Since Bedrock Faith deals with a guy who's terrorizing his neighbors with the Word of God, it seems only appropriate to start my list of songs with the most famous song Dorsey wrote. (1.) "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" has been recorded by everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Elvis Presley, to Aretha Franklin. In January 2000, NPR's All Things Considered did a program on Dorsey. For that, click below.

In Bedrock Faith, the guy doing the terrorizing, a self-proclaimed reformed ex-con named Stew Pot, rails against the sort of gospel Dorsey championed, on the grounds that it sounds too much like "honky-tonk music." Stewpot also denounces opera, jazz, rock n' roll, and Broadway show tunes. Those familiar with the musical South Pacific will recall that one of the minor characters is named Stew Pot. In the film version of SP, released in 1958, actor Ken Clark, who portrays Stew Pot, sings bass in the song, (2.) "There Ain't Nothin' Like A Dame". But Clark's "singing" was actually a dubbed performance Thurl Ravencroft, a recorded voice legend who was the original voice of Tony the Tiger. There Ain't Nothing Like A Dame on YouTube for Clark's acting and Ravenscroft's singing.

A song list for a novel set in Chicago has to include the band of the same name. The group Chicago was originally called Chicago Transit Authority, which is the government entity that operates the city's buses and el trains. The band simplified its name after the release of their self-titled first album because the CTA threatened to sue them. Chicago Transit Authority was a two-disc LP that included a number of hits like "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" and "Questions 67 and 68". My favorite is (3.) "Someday (August 29, 1968)", with an intro said to be a recording of demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. It's a timeless protest song with the band's horn section sounding as solid as a brick.

Although the blues did not begin in Chicago, no city is as identified with that art form as the city of Chicago. In my novel, the blues is the music Stew Pot remembers his father listening to when he (Stew Pot) was a boy.

I came relatively late to the blues, not getting into it till my early twenties. One of the first songs I fell in love with was (4.) "Born Under A Bad Sign" by Albert King, who played a right-handed strung guitar left-handed and upside down. Although King recorded "Born Under A Bad Sign" for Stax Records in Memphis, he lived in Chicago from the early 1950s to the mid 1960s, so I'm going to stretch things and include him. Besides, it's one of the best blues titles ever and it sums up the situation of my character Stew Pot in a nutshell.

One artist who was definitely a native son was Lou Rawls. His album, LIVE!, released in 1966, was a favorite of my parents. Rawls incorporated monologues in his live performances and there are two on LIVE!, my favorite being a funny monologue titled "Street Corner Hustler's Blues" that sets up the song, (5.) "Living Double In A World of Trouble", a two-timer's lament that my character Mr. Davenport could relate to when an infidelity of his is revealed. The song was written by another Chicago native, Oscar Brown Jr. A notable talent in his own right, Brown's highly acclaimed debut album Sin & Soul (1960) broke all kinds of ground for its direct dealing with issues of racism and slavery. If you want to compare Brown's live version of "Living Double In A World Of Trouble" to the one recorded by Rawls in 1965, check out Mr. Oscar Brown Jr. Goes To Washington.

In Book IV of my novel, there's a sweet sixteen party held in a neighborhood backyard, where a DJ gets the dancing started when he plays "…the opening chords of that summer's most popular song." Since the novel is set in 1993, and the party occurs in June, the top song on the pop charts then was (6.) "That's the Way it Goes" by Janet Jackson.

I used a slew of song titles for chapter titles in Bedrock Faith: "A Whiter Shade of Pale", "Be True To Your School", "Sixteen Candles", "Tea for Two", to name a few. I also used song lyrics for titles, one of which was (7.) "Walk This Way". I love all three versions. That's right--three. There's the original on Aerosmith's Toys In the Attic album, released in April 1975 (a couple of weeks after my 22nd birthday), the 1986 version by Run-DMC with Aerosmith's Steve Tyler and Joe Perry on vocals and guitar respectively (the song's video one of the most influential in American music history), and the big band version played at Columbia College Chicago's commencement ceremonies. I've taught at Triple C for 31 years. The Columbia Jazz Ensemble first performed "Walk This Way" in 2003 when the college gave an honorary degree to Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records. The jazz ensemble version was so popular, that ever since it's been the music that accompanies the processions of robed faculty and students when they enter the commencement hall. The arrangement is by Scott Hall, Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Columbia College. For a taste of what a rocking Columbia commencement looks and sounds like, click here.

It took me ten years to finish Bedrock Faith, from 1999 to 2009. During that time I listened to a lot of music while composing the novel. I can't listen to music with English lyrics while I'm writing--too distracting--so my music-to-write-by choices are opera (usually in Italian), instrumental jazz, and classical music.

I came to opera and classical like I came to jazz, through my father. He was a tenor who gave neighborhood performances, from La Boheme and Handel's Messiah.

My classical and opera tastes include the usual suspects--Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Puccini, and so on; however, picking from that crowd would not only be too easy, but not nearly as personally resonant.

During the time I was writing Bedrock Faith, while in a Downtown record store, I came across a compilation CD of symphonic music by African Fela Sowande, African-Englishman--William Coleridge-Taylor, and African-American--William Grant Still.

The music was played by the Chicago Sinfoneta, a multiracial, gender balanced orchestra, founded and conducted by Paul Freeman, an African-American composure and Virginia native who's a past music director of the Victoria, British Columbia Symphony Orchestra and the Czech Symphony Orchestra.

William Grant Still I knew of, but the works of Sowande and Coleridge-Taylor (the latter who some called "the Black Mahler") was as powerful a revelation to me as Freeman says it was for him when he first encountered their works in 1967. For more on Freeman, click here.

The album, (8&9.) African Heritage Symphonic Series Vol. I, is one of my most prized CD's. I can't tell you how many times I listened to it during the last four years of writing Bedrock Faith. My only regret is that my dad never heard it. It would have thrilled him. There's no way I can choose from among the three composers, which is why I highlighted the whole damn album for selections 8&9. So sue me.

What to choose for a finale? In the early 1970's I was a DJ on Columbia College's radio station. My sign-off song was Aretha Franklin's version of (10.) "I Say a Little Prayer". Every time I hear it the song takes me back to those days when all I had to worry about was schoolwork and trying to endear myself to young women. The song is a cover; Dionne Warwick originally recorded it in 1967. Franklin's exquisite, slower phrasing manages to be warm and robust at one and the same time, with the gospel-toned background singing of the Sweet Inspirations casting a bittersweet feeling, like the last crisp days of autumn which are all more precious because you know such weather is fleeting. Something bittersweet is a perfect musical match for Bedrock Faith, what with its mix of the merry and the melancholy, of the funny and the not-funny-at-all, the novel ending in a sort of prayer. If you read it, play Franklin's version when you reach the last 2½ pages to see what I mean.

Eric Charles May and Bedrock Faith links:

excerpt from the book (at Hypertext)
excerpt from the book (at The Nervous Breakdown)

Bookforum review
Booklist review
CCLaP review
KGB Bar Lit Magazine review
Kirkus review
Library Journal review
Newcity Lit review
Publishers Weekly review

Afternoon Shift interview with the author
Chicago Pride interview with the author
Chicago Tribune profile of the author
Hypertext interview with the author
Patricia Ann McNair interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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