May 1, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Sebastian Barry once again proves himself one of our most talented living writers with his novel The Temporary Gentleman, a dark and lyrical masterpiece.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Barry’s prose has a dreamlike quality....The raw elegance of his storytelling has its own beauty."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
1) "Dido's Lament," from Purcell's opera 'Dido and Aeneas'.
In the novel this is the favourite song of one of the main characters, Mai McNulty. Mai has great difficulties in her own life and I suppose her love of this aria is prophetic enough of her fate. 'Remember me, forget my fate…' is an epigraph to the book. Many mezzo sopranos have sung and recorded this music, but to my mind the most tremendous, both in singing capacity and acting ability, is Janet Baker, whose performance handily enough is available on Youtube.
2) "An Slipear Airgid," or in English "The Silver Slipper", is a famous jig tune in the traditional Irish repertoire, and was certainly a favourite of my great grandfather, Patrick O'Hara, whom I knew when I was a little boy. He was a well-known bandleader in Sligo in the Edwardian era, but was also an inveterate devotee of Irish jigs and reels. He lived till he was 96, only succumbing to the usual end of life by falling off his bicycle on a steep Sligo hill. He left me one of his wooden flutes, which stupidly I sold in America when I was 17.
3) "Roses of Picardy," a song of the First World War of course, which in company with the song Tipperary, still seems to evoke those terrible battles and call back to the mind all those vanished men and boys that fought. Count John McCormack's version is still the most brilliant. McCormack toured everywhere, even as far as Butte, Montana, and in his era was the most famous performer on earth – the Elvis of his day. He was made an honorary chieftain of a Native American tribe because he performed in the first opera that had a Native American theme, called "Natoma", even though it had failed miserably at the Met in New York.
4) "The Leitrim Lass," quite a lovely ballad in its own right, but obviously if you are from Sligo, Leitrim or Roscommon, and are far from home, it might have a special resonance. It was the most requested song during the subsequent reign of my great uncle, also called Patrick O'Hara, over the dance band, though for a while he and his father jostled for the leadership. Also called "The Leitrim Queen," in a fine version by a band called "Boys of the Lough".
5) "Let's Keep the Party Clean," is a rather strange talking song, English, in a style so far out of fashion it is unlikely to be making a comeback, but Ronald Frankau, the original singer, was an interesting man, a comedian. During the First World War he organised concerts in Africa, and this song was a great favourite. It was the party piece of my grandfather, who in the novel I call Jack McNulty, Not only a party piece, but a regularly used admonishment, when I was a child.
6) Any of the "Lindy-hop" music of the nineteen thirties and forties – the music the Black GIs dance to in the novel, when they are stationed in Ireland in Ballycastle during the Second World War – to the amazement, wonder, and envy of the less airborn Irish natives.
7) "'Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag" and "Do your ears hang low?" – two great favourites among the soldiers of both world wars. My grandfather sung the first while he was shaving in the morning, with appropriate pauses when he cut himself, or had to manoeuvre around his chin.
8) "(What did I do to be so) Black and White." Possibly a rarely sung song, but in the version by Louis Armstrong, very powerful. For some reason the American government dropped Satchmo onto The Gold Coast, by airplane, and he played a concert in Osu, Accra, like a God descended from the heavens, to the delight of everyone, both the colonials and the local people. He sang it just as The Goldcoast was about to become independent and be renamed Ghana:
I'm white inside, but that don't help my case
Because I can't hide what is in my face.
9) Lastly, Highlife, the popular dance music of the nascent Ghana in the fifties and sixties. The great father of Highlife was E. T. Mensah, who wrote "Ghana Freedom Highlife," which became almost the anthem of the new country. Another tremendous proponent was E. K. Nyame, who wrote Nsuo beta an, mframa di kan, in the African language Twi, which has the lovely refrain:
Before it starts raining
The wind will blow
I warned you but you did not listen
These performers apparently made little money, and their royalties rarely came to them, but they were giants among their own people. A music, muscular and delicate in the same breath, well worth looking into. There is a deeply poignant clip on Youtube, an interview with E.T. Mensah and his wife, after he had suffered a stroke in his later years. But it is wonderful how music twines itself like a vine around the great tree of history, and maybe even outlives the tree. Then it is our hearts that hold it up.
Sebastian Barry and The Temporary Gentleman links:
Financial Times review
Full Stop review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New Statesman review
Washington Post review
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)
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)