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February 16, 2015

Book Notes - John Benditt "The Boatmaker"

The Boatmaker

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, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

John Benditt's The Boatmaker is a stunning debut, a timeless and original parable.

Foreword Reviews wrote of the book:

"With a political slant and an understanding of religion’s effect on communities, The Boatmaker will appeal to fans of literary novels of self-discovery."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is John Benditt's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The Boatmaker:


My novel, The Boatmaker, isn't set in a recognizable time or place. And there are only two pieces of music played in the novel: a folk song sung by the protagonist and the national anthem of his country, the Mainland, performed by a military band before a horse race. Not very promising material for the kind of playlist we've come to expect from 21st century novels. Still, I think there is music that resonates with the story and its characters. Some of it is music that influenced me in finding the right tone for The Boatmaker. Some of it is music I think the characters might appreciate.


"Cripple Creek Ferry"—When people ask what influences formed The Boatmaker, I don't usually think of novels. I'm more likely to think of music or movies. In particular, Neil Young's album, "After the Gold Rush," had a huge impact on me when it was released in 1970, and I think some of its tone wound up in The Boatmaker many years later. This song takes one minute, thirty-four seconds but lasts forever. Only two characters: The Captain and The Gambler. Are they icons? Stock characters from a Western? They have depth, a depth conferred on them by the music.

(From: After the Gold Rush, Neil Young)


"Speak Low"—Love is pure gold and time a thief. What a collaboration! Music by a Jew. Lyrics by Ogden Nash, surely not Jewish, slightly misappropriating Shakespeare. The definitive version sung by a woman born a Catholic who fled Germany as an artist, not because of any religious affiliation. (And married the Jewish composer not once but twice!) Staged for the first time in New York, which, as always, welcomed those in flight. Yet the yearning seems purely Jewish, a prayer from the depths of exile just as much as when we sat down by the waters of Babylon and wept when we remembered Zion.

(From: Lotte Lenya, American Theater Songs)


"Sisters of Mercy"—One of the influences on the tone of The Boatmaker was the film McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman. The movie is set in a cold, elemental place where people are right up against the forest. Where everyone bathes once a month, whether they need it or not. Small Island, where the boatmaker was born, is a place like that. It doesn't seem accidental that Altman used Leonard Cohen to provide the soundtrack for the movie. There's a mysterious sweetness and longing in Cohen's songs that plays against the desolation and brutality on the screen.

(From: Songs of Leonard Cohen)


Brahms Sextet Number Two—It is said that Brahms worked into the first movement a reference to the name of the woman he was in love with when he wrote it. The woman the boatmaker falls in love with is a sophisticated person, educated at a university in Paris, a creature from another world. Yet despite the enormous social difference between them, there is something in each of them that makes clear from the beginning that they belong to each other. I imagine this as the kind of music Rachel Lippsted would have heard and liked: deeply romantic and intellectually demanding.

(From: The Brahms String Sextets, The Raphael Ensemble)


"Down in the Flood"—Middle-period Dylan. Showing how great the man could be when he was relaxed and not overly worried about being a poet. Just reaching into the grab-bag of blues phrases he'd accumulated in his wanderings. Channeling Charley Patton and Rabbit Brown. Just Dylan and Happy Traum in the studio, 1971. Of course, this is more Old Testament than New, and the spirit that hovers over The Boatmaker is definitely the spirit of Resurrection. Still, you can train on down to Williams Point. You can bust your feet, you can rock this joint.

(From: Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Volume II)


"Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott"—The most famous hymn of Martin Luther, written around 1528, working freely from Psalm 46, which refers to the God of Jacob. About fifteen years later, Luther published On the Jews and Their Lies, in which he refers to the Jews as "poisonous, envenomed worms," whose homes should be razed, their schools and synagogues set on fire. Sadly, the boatmaker's country, the Mainland, is not entirely free of such sentiments. Indeed, it even seems that bits of this hymn, sometimes called "The Battle Hymn of the Reformation," have crept into the Mainland's national anthem.


"Otto Wood"—The story of a bandit who run, but just a little too slow. They caught up with him down in Jericho. The boatmaker is not a musical man. In fact, he seems to know only one song, though he does sing that song well in the book—once when he's asleep and once when he's awake. It seems to be a fiddle tune. Unfortunately, we don't have any recordings of that song. But the ballad of Otto Wood seems like the kind of song the boatmaker would relate to. In the hands of Arthel Watson it has the rhythmic steadiness of the railroad and the ringing notes of the church choir.

(From: The Best of Doc Watson, 1964-68)


The Saint Matthew Passion—The entire problem encapsulated in three glorious hours. The most sublime spiritual transcendence, the deepest compassion, the most powerful need for forgiveness and redemption mixed in with the most revolting hatred and desire to punish. Who? The Jews, of course. And all taken directly from the Gospel of Matthew, which displays much the same combination, with the added benefit of some of the most beautiful lines in the English language. His blood be upon us and upon our children. How convenient is that, I ask you? Well, sure, we're responsible, but not that responsible.


"John the Revelator"—Where the soul of man never dies. Who's that writing? John the Revelator. Not the one who wrote the Gospel, mind you. Another John, who wrote the Book of Revelation, the one about the seven seals. One of the key questions in The Boatmaker is whether a particular seal has been set and whether revelation is therefore at hand. Blind Willie Johnson and Willie B. Harris, who may or may not have been his wife, had the same question put before them in Atlanta in April, 1930. It's not easy to tell precisely what their answer was. But it's worth pondering. The great Harry Smith agreed.

(From: Anthology of American Folk Music)


"Vulpe"—In The Boatmaker, much that is frightening seems to come from down to the south and east, in Europe. The hatred that poisons the Mainland seems to have its origin there. On the other hand, much that is beautiful and strange also comes from there, including purple soups with sour cream, unusual grain dishes and strong, clear drink. One thing that may come from the same place are the songs the boatmaker has in his veins, in his bones. I imagine that this music, by a French group whose origins are as mixed as the boatmaker's, has some of the spirit of the music the boatmaker hears at the back of his mind.

(From: Balamouk, Les Yeux Noirs)


"When Can I Change My Clothes?"—At certain moments in the boatmaker's journey the question of clothes comes front and center. How do I clothe the person I am now? How do I clothe the person I am becoming? What are the right clothes for the person I wish to be? The boatmaker is not a man of theories, but somehow he does manage to find the right clothes for the occasion, even if he has to steal them from a farmhouse clothesline. Booker T. Washington White apparently also had some of these same concerns: changing clothes means changing lives.

(From: Bukka White, The Vintage Recordings, 1930-40)


John Benditt and The Boatmaker links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Publishers Weekly review

Tin House interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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