October 8, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Bonnie Jo Campbell's remarkable new short story collection Mothers, Tell Your Daughters is filled with sharp observances of Midwestern life and the hardships women face.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote of the book:
"It's a hard-luck, hardscrabble life in the world of Bonnie Jo Campbell's stories, a landscape that's as fertile as it is unforgiving, where families crop up and wither with the weather but manage some piquant humor and moments of worthy reckoning along the way. We may be in the Midwest most of the time, but the territory's much more like Annie Proulx's rough West than Jane Smiley’s farmland."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Most days I listen to too much public radio news. Though I want to be an informed citizen, I just can't write from that distressing place. Turning the radio off and listening to the right kind of music opens up a lot more creative channels, and the best songs, for my money, are all about interesting characters and their relationships, same as the best stories. My new book, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, is a collection of stories about women in all kinds of trouble—many of them have been violated in some way, but have resisted being victims. I've experimented with style and structure, so while many of the stories feel traditional, some are told as frustrated rants or fever dreams.
Generally I can't listen to music while I write because the lyrics catch me up, but when I'm driving or doing dishes—and I do a lot of dishes—I listen to Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams and their ilk on Pandora Radio. My preference for folk music probably came about because my mother played a whole lot of Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell when I was little. My mom also sang Irish and English folk songs when I was in the womb, so it's not surprising that I like to cocoon myself in voices that sounded like hers. There are a couple dozen artists I love beyond measure, but just as important to me are the songs themselves in all their various versions. In Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, I give voice to sixteen women, so I'll try to limit my list to sixteen selections, and I'll include a few men.
"The House of the Rising Sun" is one of the songs musicologist Alan Lomax discovered in his search for traditional music in America, and it dates back at least to the eighteen hundreds. The Animals had a hit with it in 1964, then everybody from Woody Guthrie to Tracy Chapman recorded great versions. In Dolly Parton's version, she amended the lyrics to suggest the protagonist worked as a prostitute in New Orleans and wants other girls not to follow in her footsteps—that's the most resonant story, for my money. This song is the source of the title of my book, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.
“Caleb Meyer," written and sung by Gillian Welch, is a neo-Appalachian story song about a woman killing her rapist, a local moon shiner. It's just a couple of guitars (David Rawlings does the fancy picking) and Gillian's voice. During the violation, the girl, Nellie King, speaks for all women asking to be saved from their rapists, when she calls out, "My God, I am your child, send your angels down." The language is evocative and surprising:"He threw me on the needle bed, and on my dress he lay," and instead of just saying she cut his throat, she says,"I pulled that glass across his neck as fine as any blade, and I felt his blood pour fast and hot around me where I lay." In the chorus she doesn't express regret, but instead demands the ghost of Caleb Meyer not haunt her. Another Gillian Welch song is"Wayside/Back in Time" a love song with a beat like a heartbeat. I have to stop what I'm doing when I hear this and stand up and try to sing along. "Peaches in the summertime, apples in the fall. If I can't have you all the time, I won't have none at all." There have been times during the writing of this book when Gillian Welch was all I wanted to listen to, and I've let myself be mesmerized by her on long drives across the Midwest.
“Sweet Lorraine" is written and sung by Patty Griffin. This short story of a song seems like something I might write. It's about an unloved girl,"Who came from a long line of drinkers and dreamers, who knew that sunshine don't hold up to dark, whose businesses fail, who sleep in the park." She says,"Her father would tear out like a page of the Bible, then he'd burn down the house to announce his arrival." This father curses her the night before her wedding, but then gives her away at the altar. Her mother is disinterested and neglectful. Mostly I see that Lorraine is a survivor, but I also (maybe perversely) think of her as redeeming her parents. Okay, and I also have to mention "Trapeze," by Patty Griffin, a song about a circus performer. She had her heart broken and then asked a gypsy woman to put a spell on her so she'd never fall in love again. There's a great live version sung by Patty Griffin & Emmylou Harris. "One of these nights, the old girl's going down, the old girl's going down," they sing, suggesting the spell will be broken and she will fall in love again. This song also inspired me to write a poem called"Fall Fall Fall," that appeared in The Southern Review.
"Black Betty" as sung by Sheryl Crow. Like most folks who listened to the radio in the seventies, I first heard this as a Ram Jam song, with its breathless, hard driving beat, and I still find myself singing it loudly sometimes when I'm driving fast or even when I speed downhill my bicycle. The Lead Belly version is slower and reveals the song's origin as an African-American work song. Tom Jones recorded a weird Vegas version of it that is worth listening to just for giggles. Some suggest Black Betty in the original was a gun or a bottle of whiskey, but however it starts out, the Betty in question absolutely morphs into a powerful woman.
“Long Black Veil." This song tells the tale of a man who was sleeping with his best friend's wife, and who was accused of a murder. He chose to hang for a murder he didn't commit because he didn't want to name his paramour as a witness, nor tell the judge he was sleeping with his best friend's wife. It sounds like an ancient tale, but this song was written in 1959 by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin. The first version I ever heard was on my mother's Joan Baez record, and then I heard the powerful Johnny Cash version—he really owns the song. Lately I've been listening to and loving the Carolyn Herring recording, but let me give a shout out here to the Pioneering Bluegrass version by Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard.
“Molly Malone" is the old Irish folksong about a fishmonger girl in Dublin, and I especially love the Sinead O'Connor interpretation, breathy and haunting with echoey instrumentation. It's a simple and tragic story, with a couple of funny lyrics and rhymes: "She was a fishmonger/And sure t'was no wonder/For so was her father/And mother before/And they all wheeled their barrows/Through the streets broad and narrow/Crying, "Cockles and mussels/Alive, alive, oh!" I sing this to my donkeys, who love melancholy songs.
"Angel from Montgomery" written by John Prine and sung by John Prine & Bonnie Raitt. Individually these artists each perform the song beautifully, but when they do it as a duet it's perfect. It was said that John Prine was inspired to write the song by a vision of an old woman standing over a kitchen sink. In the title story of my collection, I kept coming back to a vision of my protagonist standing at a sink doing dishes and looking out the window. I get shivers when I hear, "I am an old woman, named after my mother." I could quote the whole song here, but you get it.
I love the Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan duet of "Girl from the North Country." There's something about hearing these two iconic voices coming together that breaks my heart, in a good way. Why do I find it so touching that Bob Dylan seems to be deferring to Johnny Cash?
I included a couple of funny stories in this collection, one about a woman who thinks her boyfriend has returned to her as a stray dog, another about a woman who marries everything she sees. If you're feeling down, spending too much time in the graveyards, maybe, nothing will cheer you up more than the simple joy of "The Swimming Song," written by Loudon Wainwright III. Kate and Anna McGarrigle do a great version, but I think you should give a listen to the live version by my friend Haroula Rose online at the Bluegrass Situation.
“Goodnight Irene" is a traditional song performed (with variations in the lyrics) by Lead Belly, Willie Nelson and The Grateful Dead, and just about everybody. My husband and I have a favorite Chinese restaurant where they continuously played a 90-minute song loop, so we heard a weird Asian instrumental version of it on every visit, but it didn't put me off the song. And of course the line, "Sometimes I have a great notion to jump into the river and drown" inspired the title of Ken Kesey's amazing Oregon novel Sometimes a Great Notion.
"Tam Lin" is a traditional Scottish story song that I'll stop and listen to at any opportunity. I own a half-dozen versions of it, but the interpretation that sticks with me most is the one by Steeleye Span. In this story, a woman falls in love with (or gets pregnant by) a monstrous elf of some kind, and she is determined to marry him. However, she first must turn him back into a human, breaking the spell of the queen of the fairies. This ferocious young pregnant woman must hold onto the elf as he turns into a snake and other creatures, and indeed she holds on as tenaciously as my characters hold onto what they want. Finally the queen gives up, and the girl finds herself holding onto "a naked knight." Funny that I don't want to read fantasy novels, but this song sounds like a work in that genre.
"Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" is written and sung by Lucinda Williams. I just love the feeling this song evokes of rural life, how it feels to be a kid longing to go down the road, what it feels like to move along the road, to look out the window. It establishes a profound sense of place. I've only really gotten to know Lucinda Williams in the last year when my friend Sassafrass Havilar opened my eyes, but I think she'll affect all my literary work from now on. Her gritty realism might be the best match for my stories. I (thrillingly) got to meet her in Nashville last year, and here's a photo.
Many of her songs use a repeated phrase, and I love how that can work in a song, how a phrase becomes more meaningful with each repetition; in fiction we usually can't do that outside of dialog, so we have to subtly repeat images and motifs.
"Copied Keys" by Canadian songwriter Kathleen Edwards is sung from the point of view of a woman who lives with a man in his hometown and feels she isn't living her own life. I love this lament about place, suggesting that love might not work if one cannot feel at home. "This is not my town and it will never be. This is our apartment filled with your things. This is your life, I get copied keys." My pal Heidi Bell introduced me to this artist, as well as to Gillian Welch and Patty Griffin.
Leonard Cohen – This big-hearted dude can sing anything he wants for me. For this collection of stories about troubled women, I'll ask him to sing the classic "Suzanne." My mom's name is Susanna, and it seems just right to talk about her along with "the garbage and the flowers."
Okay one more folk song,"Silver Dagger," on the first album Joan Baez put out. Again, I've got a half dozen versions of this song by others, but the one from Joan Baez's first album is the best. The lyrics start out like one of my stories. "Don't sing love songs, you'll wake my mother. She's sleeping here right by my side. And in her right hand's a silver dagger. She says that I'll not be your bride." Enough said.
“White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane. Alice of Alice in Wonderland is one of the world's most compelling literary protagonists, and so it makes sense that she gets honored in a rock-and-roll song. Because it's a very short song, we might call it a piece of flash-rock, to go along with flash-fiction. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters includes four stories that are very short, just one page long, and I wonder if the frustration I feel with "White Rabbit" is something some readers feel about very short stories. (Keep singing, I want to say to Grace Slick.) And all my life I've longed for"a hookah-smoking caterpillar" to show up and give me the call.
I could go on and list songs from Alison Krauss, Dixie Chicks, Neko Case, Loreena McKennitt, Enya, Clannad, Regina Spektor, Laura Marling, Eliza Gilkyson, Sarah McLachlan, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, and others I've forgotten about. But this is a good start.
Bonnie Jo Campbell and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters links:
Between the Lines interview with the author
Chicago Tribune interview with the author
Fiction Writers Review interview with the author
The Millions interview with the author
The Nervous Breakdown self-interview by the author
One Story interview with the author
Publishers Weekly 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)
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)