August 11, 2014
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.
Eleni Sikelianos' memoir You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek) is inventively told through poems, essays, and photos.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"A wonderfully strange and inventive book by a professor and poet who combines various forms into an unclassifiable whole. . . The writing pulsates with such life force, reckless and a little giddy, as the author surveys her family’s female history, the immigration of Greeks to America. . . This is writing and reading as adventure, where every page can bring a different sort of revelation."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
There's a lot of music in this book, because it springs from burlesque nightclubs, with a few musicians wandering in along the way. My grandmother, the book's central raison d'etre, was a burlesque dancer on the nightclub circuit in the 40s and 50s, from Cleveland to Chicago to Colorado Springs to Kentucky and back, with all the cooches in between. Her father played the rembetika kanonáki, or hammered dulcimer, in Greek coffeehouses in the Midwest, and my grandmother got her start accompanying him on gigs as a child, playing the tambourine and dancing. The playlist for this book includes quite a bit of rembetika, sometimes called the Greek Blues, an urban underworld music that arose out of the Greek diaspora under Ottoman rule. These are songs about refugees, hash house denizens, immigrants, jailhouses, star-crossed lovers and lowlifes, and the music is like a crossroads of culture: Ottoman café music, Greek folk melodies, ancient notions of "roads."
Wikipedia tells me: "The earliest source of the word [rembetika] to date is to be found in a Greek-Latin dictionary published in Leyden, Holland in 1614 where the word ρέμπιτός is defined as a wanderer, blind, misguided, etc." The definition is well suited to my grandmother's life. Her time on earth was marked by a kind of misguided wandering, and part of the work in this book is to find a right path for her (among the dead), for my mother, for me, and for my female line into futurity. One of the guides for the book is Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer who shipwrecked on the pre-American coast in 1527 and wandered the New World naked and lost; another is the katabasis, or descent into the underworld to learn something. In the underworld, the dead might speak, as Odysseus's mother did, in a form called a nekyia.
"Gazeli Neva Sabah," sung by Rita Abadzi. The best rembetika songs have something called kefi, which is maybe most closely translated as energy and soul. The Greek composer Manos Hatzidakis ("Never on a Sunday") says rembetika has meraki, kefi, and kaimos: love, joy, and sorrow). I devote a page in the book to this song, sometimes called "The Hour of Death," recorded in the 30s. It opens with a hammered dulcimer, and then the singer's voice is held up by a droning note on a bouzouki. The song translates, roughly, as:
Aman, aman … [exclamation of despair] … Prepei na skeftetai … you must think
of the hour of death
when each of us will go down into the black earth and erased
is each name.
In Greek, "death" and "name" rhyme, which is Homeric in its bridge between naming and forgetting, as is "the black earth." The black earth held him fast, said Homer, and the word for black (melena: μέλαινα) was one of my grandmother's stage names. It is also one of Demeter's epithets: Black Demeter ("the mare who destroys mercifully"), and we all know about Demeter's trip underground. This song, sung by one of Asia Minor's refugees, makes my hair stand on end every time. Listen to it at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6i07rrnJyY
"Dress" by P.J. Harvey, from Dry (her first album). "It's hard to walk in a dress it's not easy," she sings, since she's "a fallen woman in a dancing costume." Almost any song from Dry could clothe this book — these songs are pissed off, singular, and sexy all at once. In "Happy & Bleeding," P.J. says she'll "fruit flower myself inside out for you" and in "Sheela Na Gig," she advises "put money in your idle hole." Rebel feminism (reb-fem) and poet-worthy lyrics go for a breakneck race down an open highway.
"Defixiones" by Diamanda Galás. Galás scares the crap out of me, in the best way. So did my grandmother (not always in the best way). Both are/were total badasses. These "defixiones" songs are about keeping the Turks (or anyone) from moving Greek graves. They are curses, spoken for the dead. They allow my grandmother to curse her father.
This book, like rembetika and flamenco and fado music, traffics in the dead. These curses open the path to several nekyia, where the ghost is allowed to speak directly; this song is the kind of thing that gets you there.
Epopée de Gilgamesh by Abed Azrié. Gorgeous music by this Franco-Syrian composer and singer to accompany our first epic poem, and the first literary katabasis. Part of the wanderings of this book are through the dark, to see what's found there in the "tall/short space of the dead." My grandmother didn't figure out her way back up, so that's part of the book's work — to drag the family history back out into the light. My friend Omar Berrada told me about Azrié, who we went to see at the Institut du monde Arabe in Paris. I'm not sure this is available on CD, but his Aromates (also beautiful) is. You can find a bit of his Gilgamesh on YouTube — you won't believe this slight man is related to the underworldly voice welling out of him.
"Pig Meat on the Line" by Memphis Minnie. How can you not include a song that starts, "Has anybody seen my pig meat on the line, oh ho"? At one point in the book, the body is imagined as an archive of meat, hanging like a pig in a smoke house. Minnie's songs, true to her Blues genre, are full of great double entendres: "everybody wants to buy my kitty/I wouldn't sell that cat to save your soul." Langston Hughes described her guitar playing as "a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill." "There's blues in my wheelbarrow, and there's blues up on my chair/And there's blues in my bed cause I'm sleeping by myself" ("Blues Everywhere"). This is the lady (also known as Lizzie "Kid" Douglas) who wrote the visionary "When the Levee Breaks." Born in Louisiana, she ran in the same cities as my grandmother's burlesque circuit (Detroit, Chicago, etc.) in the same era — I like to think of them crossing each other on the street after a gig.
"Not Be Alright," by Mary Margaret O'Hara. You should listen to all of Miss America (1988) by this under-known Canadian. O'Hara sings from the throes of innocence, trouble and discovery — the songs feel like they're being made as she sings them ("my tale is tall and innocent to a fault"). Got to hear her at the celebration of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music release at St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn— incredible.
"Mairzy Doats," written by Drake, Hoffman, Livingston. "Mairzy doats and goesy doats, and liddle lambsy divey." My grandmother used to sing this, and my mother still does. It's got the kind of disorienting word play they both loved, which is linked in my mind to my grandmother's proximity to vaudeville. The song plays a kind of childhood innocence/terror edge — as if everything you understand could crumble at any moment.
"Hoochie Coochie Man" by Muddy Waters (written by Willie Dixon). Hoochie coochie was one of the things people called the first belly dance in the U.S., and cooch sheds were one of the places burlesque dance started. There's a lot of conjecture about the origin of the word, including "gootchie" as a pseudonym for "vagina." In Muddy Waters' song, it means someone slick with the ladies, but also a little threatening ("I got a black cat bone/I got a mojo too/I got a john the conqueroo/I'm gonna mess with you"). John the Conqueroo: John the Conqueror — the African Prince who prevailed, and the root (from Ipomoea, or bindweed) used in rootwork for sexual spells.
"Harlem Nocturne," "Misirlou," and "Caravan," with unknown settings. Shockingly, I never asked my mother what songs my grandmother performed to until I was asked to do this playlist. I imagined her dancing to some kind of hurdy-gurdy bump and grind. When I knew my grandmother, she'd retired to a trailer in the Mojave desert and spent her days rockhounding for her rock shop, not bumping and grinding on stage. My mother just sent me a list of songs she remembers from the nightclubs: "Harlem Nocturne," "Misirlou," and "Caravan." These would have been arranged for her dance and played by the house band. Just play Johnny Otis's sexy version of "Harlem Nocturne," and you'll see my grandmother in her leopard suit shimmying across the stage — and you'll hear the tyger's heart beat in it, too. The Viscounts' 1960 version is super sexy, but would have been too late for her, and Ellington's is bouncier than a smoking leopard dance.
"Misirlou" has a fascinating history: it's an old rembetes song (first recorded as a slow, belly-dance version in 1927 by Tetos Demetriades, then in a slightly quicker version 1930 by Mixalis Patrinos), is titled with the Turkish word for "Egyptian girl," sung in Greek, picked up by Yiddish, Lebanese, and Armenian musicians, which is how Dick Dale got it, which is how Quentin Tarantino got it…
"All the things you Are in C Sharp," by Mingus, because my grandmother's first husband (my grandfather) was a jazz bassist. And because in this book I am trying to see sharp into a murky family history.
"The Cat Can't Dance," sung and danced by Mable Lee. From a Soundie (the precursor to the music video, made in the early to mid 40s) by this tap dancer who got her break at the Apollo:
Now there's a guy down in New Orleans/ Calls me the girl of his dreams
Got a great big car/ Downs that caviar/ But the cat can't dance.
Now there's a guy in Salt Lake City/ Who's got a lot on the ball
But on the dance floor it's a pity/ He ain't nowhere at all.
Now there's a character in Harlem/ Cat ain't worth a dime
And yet I know I'd die/ If he said goodbye/ How the cat can dance!
We're talking about a different cat here. My grandmother's stage names included Melena the Cat Girl, and her most known act was in a leopard costume. Here's a picture:
This cat can dance.
Eleni Sikelianos and You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek) links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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