October 31, 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.
Molly Gloss's novel Falling from Horses is an richly drawn coming of age story of an Oregonian cowboy turned Hollywood stuntman in the late 1930s.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"The novel is sturdy in its simplicity, a send-up of the cowboy myth that replaces it with something more valuable—a cowboy with heart."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I grew up in a house where the radio was always playing, but Bud Frazer, in my novel Falling from Horses, had a very different childhood, living on a ranch in southern Oregon at a time when most rural homes were without electricity. I imagine he would have heard plenty of live music, his friends and neighbors on banjo, guitar, autoharp or fiddle, playing at dances, at weddings and holiday celebrations, but he wouldn't have been exposed to much recorded music until 1938 and the events in the novel—the year he spent in Hollywood working as a wrangler and stunt rider in the cowboy movies.
I am not one of those writers who listens to music while I'm writing. I am of the School of Silence and I've always been baffled by, and a little envious of, those who can write with a soundtrack blaring. But the idea of a playlist—a soundtrack for the novel itself— intrigues me. At the heart of it, this is a novel about truth and lies, realness and fakery: the truths of ranching life in the West—the genuine dangers and violence and tragic accident that are a natural part of that life—set against the lies told in western films, loaded as they are with phony danger and concocted violence, and made with so much unnecessary behind-the-scenes cruelty. And this is also a novel about the meaning of "home," which is not a place, after all, but the people we love. So here we go, a soundtrack that underscores those themes.
Kate Smith "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain"
This is one of only two songs Bud makes mention of in the novel. It's playing on a console radio at a party out in the Valley, where Bud has fallen in with a young crowd of movie people—junior writers, assistant directors, bit players and extras. "The Kate Smith Hour" was a hugely popular radio variety show that ran from about 1937 to 1945, and "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain" was Kate's theme song. The lyrics, it seems to me, evoke Bud's memories and dreams of his little sister Mary Claudine: "Each day is grey and dreary, but the night is bright and cheery; when the moon comes over the mountain, I'm alone with my memories of you."
Willie Nelson "Ridin' Down the Canyon"
Speaking of Bud's dreams of Mary Claudine, there is a crucial scene late in the novel in which Bud—badly injured and feverish—is seemingly visited by his dead sister. She begins to sing to him softly a song that Gene Autry and Smiley Burnette had sung in the 1935 movie "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." The song has been recorded many times since, but I'm particularly fond of Willie Nelson's cover. The lyrics, it seems to me, have a melancholy, elegiac feel—"watching the sun go down, a picture that no artist e'er could paint"—and Willie, with his nasal, off-key delivery, gives them the slightly sorrowful sound I think they call for. Nelson has written quite a few songs that might have made it onto this playlist: "American Dream," "Going Home," "Looking For a Place to Fall," "Crying in the Heart." And of course, "On the Road Again."
The Eagles' "Desperado"
If I had to choose one song to represent the whole of our American western mythology, it would be this one. All the great, true adventures of our Western history are stories of community, of people working together in concert—think of the men in Lewis and Clark's party, or John Wesley Powell's expedition down the Colorado River; the covered wagon crossings and the Texas trail drives. But our cowboy hero, conjured up by the films of the 1930s and 40s, is a solitary wanderer, a man with no childhood history, no family, never a wife or children; a man who chooses freedom and independence (along with its sidekicks, loneliness and isolation) over the responsibilities (comfort and support) of family and community. It is this lone hero that The Eagles are singing to in "Desperado." In fact, the whole album, Desperado, might almost serve as a soundtrack for every Western film ever made. "And freedom, oh freedom, well, that's just some people talkin' / your prison is walking through this world all alone."
Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys"
Do you see a theme here?
"Cause they'll never stay home and they're always alone, even with someone they love."
Johnny Cash "Hurt"
This is a song recorded originally by Nine Inch Nails, a bleak, deeply sorrowful lament of grief and guilt and hopelessness. In the soundtrack of the novel, this song would come just as Bud leaves his home and his parents and heads to Hollywood—looking to escape memories of his sister, and his own guilt over her death. The Johnny Cash cover, made near the end of his life when his voice had become a hoarse rasp, feels like a blow to the heart. If I want to wallow in my sorrows, this is the song I listen to.
Miranda Lambert "Greyhound Bound for Nowhere"
It's on the Greyhound bus ride from southern Oregon to Los Angeles that Bud meets Lily Shaw, a young woman with her own Hollywood dreams. Their friendship, cemented on that long bus ride, will see them through a momentous year in California, and will endure throughout their lives. It's on the bus ride, too, that we begin to glimpse the grief and guilt Bud grapples with. Gazing out the bus window, he sees birds rising up in a flock, veering across the evening sky, and "I couldn't have said why, not in so many words, but…I got to thinking about our family before everything fell apart." The lyrics of Lambert's song—"rain on the window makes me lonely, time keeps on passing so slowly"—seems to me to particularly evoke that moment.
America "Horse With No Name"
The Arizona desert near Sedona is a strange and beautiful landscape of copper- and sand-colored monoliths and buttes, landscape that has been appearing in cowboy films since the 1920s. When I first saw that country, I had the strange feeling that the land itself was unreal, a phony canvas backdrop for a movie, so I gave Bud that same feeling when he first arrives at a location shoot in Arizona. "Horse With No Name" has been criticized for the strangeness of its lyrics—"under the city lies a heart made of ground, but the humans will give no love"—but it is that very strangeness that resonates for me. The song has been criticized, too, for its odd syntax—"cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain"—but in my own writing I will use an offbeat syntax for the sake of rhythm or dialect, so I'm inclined to give this song a pass! It seems to me that the energy and rhythm of "Horse With No Name" would perfectly underscore the big cavalry battle Bud films in Arizona. He rides a chestnut horse that day—a horse with no name.
Cowboy Junkies "Miles From Our Home"
"Home" is an important concept to Bud, and I can imagine the refrain of this song—"I am miles from my home, miles from my home"—running like a thread through the whole novel. Near the end, when Bud is finally headed north again—toward home—he and his father drive through the night, talking rarely, passing few other cars, traveling under a sky so big "it seemed as if we were driving right up into it, lifting slowly into the stars like a dirigible." I can hear the first verse of "Miles From Our Home" swelling in the soundtrack, eerily echoing that moment in the novel: "No one in sight for fifty miles, sleeping fields sigh as I glide across their spines. If I could just reach the crest of that hill this whole day will tumble, and out the night will spill." Cowboy Junkies is another of those artists with several songs that might have made it onto this list. "If You Were the Woman and I was the Man" might have seemed an odd choice, but I wrote this entire novel in the voice of a man— a man who then tells Lily Shaw's story, second-hand. So maybe not so odd.
Molly Gloss and Falling from Horses links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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)
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