September 1, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Amy Stewart's debut novel Girl Waits with Gun is a compelling historical mystery filled with unforgettable characters.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"Stewart has spun a fine, historically astute novel... The sisters' personalities flower under Stewart’s pen, contributing happy notes of comedy to a terrifying situation... And then there is Constance: Sequestered for years in the country and cowed by life, she develops believably into a woman who comes into herself, discovering powers long smothered under shame and resignation. I, for one, would like to see her return to wield them again in further installments."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I'm lucky that the Kopp sisters' story began in 1914, a year that I can at least recognize from here. (I don't know how Hilary Mantel manages to write authentically about 1500, but I would love to hear her playlist.) To get Constance's voice right, I felt the need to immerse myself in pop culture of the 1910s, which meant reading that era's trashy fiction, women's magazines, and newspapers. I read play scripts to get an idea of what people were seeing--and laughing at-- on stage. And, of course, I listened to music from the era.
The youngest Kopp, Fleurette, was sixteen when the book began, and already in love with music and dance. She was always singing around the house, or putting on records to dance to. This is just one of many details taken from their real lives: Fleurette actually was a soprano, and would go on to enter signing competitions around Paterson and Hackensack.
So this is actually Fleurette's playlist. They're sweet and silly songs that a girl of her age would have been drawn to. And they're all quite fun to sing, which is important when you remember how popular songs circulated in those days. Fleurette would have gone into a music shop to look at new sheet music releases, and a store employee would have been sitting at the piano, belting out the latest songs in the hopes of selling a few. In those days, songs were meant to be sung, preferably at a party, with plenty of audience participation.
"When Father Papered the Parlor" was a big hit in 1910. Fleurette would have been about thirteen when it came out, and it probably struck her as hilarious. Silly Dad, making such a mess with the wallpaper paste that the whole family gets stuck!
Mother was stuck to the ceiling
And the kids were stuck to the floor
You never saw such a bloomin' family
So stuck up before
Billy Williams went all over the country performing this song. I just love his big, jolly, fake laugh. And although songs from that era have not a trace of irony, you do find some awfully dark and weird lyrics, such as:
And when he trimmed the edging
Off the paper with the shears
The cat got underneath it
And Dad cut off both its ears
"You Made Me Love You" came out in 1913 and was first made popular by Al Jolson, but I've always loved Bing Crosby's 1940 version. I can sing it by myself for hours in the car. I like to think of Fleurette singing it, too, although she wouldn't have benefited from Bing's bouncy version. (She also missed Cookie Monster's rendition, which is a real shame.)
Girl Waits with Gun begins with a car accident, and really, that's an appropriate way to begin any book set in 1914. The automobile was on the rise, but it hadn't totally taken over yet. Roads were bad, people still relied on horses and buggies in many parts of the country, and cars were notoriously unreliable. As evidence I submit the 1913 "He'd Have to Get Under – Get Out and Get Under (to Fix Up His Automobile)," recorded by Al Jolson and also by Billy Murray. It's all about a poor fellow who can barely manage to woo his girl, he's having to spend so much time hopping out to work on that new-fangled machine of his.
A dozen times they'd start to hug and kiss
And then the darned old engine, it would miss
And then he'd have to get under—get out and get under—and fix up his automobile.
As long as we're doing car songs, Irving Berlin wrote one in 1912 that's even more appropriate: "Keep Away From The Fellow Who Owns An Automobile."
The man I mean owns a machine, the kind you have to crank;
His great delight is to invite a girlie for a whirl
In his machine, and I just mean to kind o' warn each girl!
Yes. Men in cars were not to be trusted.
Finally, I must include at least one union song, even if Fleurette would have only heard it on the street in passing. My novel is set against the backdrop of the 1913 Paterson Silk Strikes, one of the most famous moments in the history of the American labor movement. It was organized by the Wobblies--the Industrial Workers of the World--with the idea that there should only be one union, worldwide, so that if workers anywhere were mistreated, all other workers would go out on strike in solidarity. In Paterson, most of the workers spoke very little English, so the strike organizers had to come up with simple songs and chants that everyone could understand.
I admire Joe Hill's lyrics for "The Rebel Girl" (written for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who organized the Paterson Silk Strikes and even gets name-checked in the novel):
We’ve had girls before, but we need some more
In the Industrial Workers of the World.
For it’s great to fight for freedom
With a Rebel Girl
But a much catchier tune is "There Is Power In a Union," which includes this memorable line:
Would you have mansions of gold in the sky,
And live in a shack, way in the back?
Sound familiar? Yeah. Like I said, I can recognize 1914 from here.
Amy Stewart and Girl Waits with Gun links:
Bergen Record profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Wicked Bugs
Los Angeles Times profile of the author
Morning Edition interview with the author
Publishers Weekly profile of 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)
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)