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October 19, 2015

Book Notes - Richard Grant "Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta"

Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta

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, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Richard Grant's book Dispatches from Pluto is a fascinating blend of memoir and travelogue, and is a vivid and captivating portrait of the modern American South, specifically the Mississippi Delta.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"An appealing stew of fecklessness and curiosity, social psychology and social dysfunction, hope and despair."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Richard Grant's Book Notes music playlist for his book Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta:

This new book of mine, Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, is a memoir about my first year of living as an outsider, and an Englishman no less, in the remote wilds of the Mississippi Delta. I live three miles from the tiny community of Pluto, pop. 9 on a good day. The book is primarily about the complexity of race relations in the Delta, but it also gets into poverty, education, hunting and homesteading, bizarre local crimes, larger-than-life characters like Morgan Freeman, and music. Growing up in London, the first thing I knew about Mississippi was its music, and music was integral to getting me here, and keeping me here, as you will gather from this playlist.

Junior Kimbrough: "Junior's Place"

I was living in Tucson, Arizona, in the mid-1990s when I heard Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside on the radio for the first time. I had no idea this kind of raw, stomping, electrified hill country blues even existed. I went nuts for it, and persuaded a magazine to send me to Mississippi to write about the music, and the two young white guys that had somehow managed to get a million dollars in debt recording it. That was my first time I ever set foot in Mississippi. I went to Junior's Place, a juke joint in Holly Springs run by Junior Kimbrough, and now sadly burned down. It was an amazing night, and an amazing visit to a state I'd heard nothing but negative stereotypes about. I kept going back to Mississippi until I finally took the plunge and bought an old plantation house in the poorest, blackest county in America's poorest state.

Son House: "Death Letter"

They say Robert Johnson is King of the Delta Blues, but I reach more often for Son House, because I have such a visceral response to his music. His playing and singing has the same raw power as Iggy and the Stooges, without the fast tempos or electrification. I love the way he slashes and yanks at the guitar strings, and he writes such powerful lyrics, "Looked like there was 10,000 people standin' around the buryin' ground/ I didn't know I loved her ‘til they laid her down." There's no better way to listen to Son House than driving across the Mississippi Delta at night during one of its Biblical rainstorms.

O.V. Wright: "Your Good Thing Is About To End"

I was a big O.V. Wright fan as a student in London in the early 1980s, but he was an obscure figure in that time and place. It was a wonderful surprise to hear him on the radio in Mississippi, and in people's houses and cars. I even heard him in a Walgreens in Yazoo City. When it comes to a pleading, testifying, deep soul ballad, no one convey more emotion than O.V. Wright, although Solomon Burke, Bobby Womack, James Carr, Sam Cooke and Al Green are his equals. Normally, I like my deep soul on the raw side, but here the strings and piano tinkles and backing singers set off his voice beautifully. And there's that killing moment when the horn section comes in for the first time.

Howlin' Wolf: "Do The Do" (from the London sessions)

One of my best friends here is William "Monk" Neal. He has been invaluable both in explaining and untangling Delta race relations for me, and in rekindling my enthusiasm for Howlin' Wolf. Monk knows all his songs by heart, but he'd never heard the Wolf on vinyl through a big set of speakers before, and thereafter designated that room in my house as the Howlin' Wolf Appreciation Society and Social Club. In this version of Do The Do, Wolf is playing with Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton and a couple of Rolling Stones — a coming together of London and Mississippi. I have great memory of blasting this song at one of our house parties, as forty people went crazy dancing.

Jimmy "Duck" Holmes: "I'm Going To Leave You"

A juke joint is a scuffy informal music venue that usually serves beer and lets you bring in your own liquor. They used to be all over the Delta. I know of only three that are still in operation, and the Blue Front Café in Bentonia is the closest one to my house. Jimmy "Duck" Holmes is the owner, and one of my favorite living bluesmen. He plays in a minor tuning used only in the small town of Bentonia, and it gives the music an eerie hypnotic feel. I spent my bachelor night at the Blue Front Café, listening to Duck play with a musician friend of mine from New York, and a tractor driver from the neighboring plantation, as we sold Duck's beer for him and the freight trains rattled past in the moonlight.

Bobbie Gentry: "Ode to Billie Joe"

The title cut is an enduring classic, and who can hear it without wondering what Billy Joe McCallister threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? Part of the song's genius is that she never tells us, but keeps us guessing. Bobbie Gentry is from the Mississippi Delta, and her music is steeped in its sights and smells and folkways. Hearing this album on its home ground, and driving across the Tallahatchie Bridge on a regular basis, gives it an extra frisson. In the long hot summers, when the Delta swarms with insect life — mosquitoes, horse flies, yellowjackets, red wasps, dirt daubers — we often find ourself scratching welts and listening ruefully to her song Bugs.

Tony Joe White: "Roosevelt and Ira Lee"

Back in London, I was charmed by this song about hunting bullfrogs in the swamps at night, and never imagined that I would one day be doing it myself — drifting around in a boat full of iced beer and dead frogs, with a young Delta squire deep in his cups at the helm, and an Amazonian young woman who kept leaping out into the snake-infested waters to grab bullfrogs by hand. The most alarming thing was not the snakes in the water, but the snakes in the trees. As we approached, they would dive out of the trees and drop into the water all around the boat. "What happens if one lands in the boat?" I asked the helmsman. "Ahmoan cry like a bitch," he said. The snakes were venomous water moccasins, or "water mossacins," in Tony Joe White's pronunciation.

Rev. John Wilkins: "You Got To Move"

The blues is a dying artform in the Mississippi Delta, heading for the museum, but gospel music is vibrant and strong and popular with all ages. The mighty Rev. John Wilkins raises the rafters every Sunday at his church in Como, and incorporates strong elements of the blues into his sacred music. My friend Amos Harvey, who also makes first-rate ales at the Yalobusha brewing company, recorded this fine studio album a few years ago. Wisely, he left the bark on the music, and didn't polish it up too clean.

The Necks: "Sex"

When the time came to sit down and write Dispatches From Pluto, my listening habits underwent a change. I used to be able to write to almost any music, but these days, I do better in silence, or with long spare minimalist pieces of music like this, a 56-minute one-chord jazz improvisation by the great Australian trio The Necks. I have all their albums, and they nearly all work well when I'm sitting at the keyboard building sentences and paragraphs. Another writing staple is Miles Davis' In A Silent Way.

Tony Allen: "Jealousy," "Progress"

Recently, I made the happy discovery that I can also write to Afrobeat. This album is my current Afrobeat favorite, but I've also had success with Geraldo Pino, Pax Nicholas, and Fela Kuti's long instrumentals. If I'm lucky, I can lose my self-critical brain in the pulsing rhythm. If I'm very lucky, my fingertips will start clattering away to the same rhythm. But that is very rare, and it feels like a little gift from the universe when it happens.

Richard Grant and Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Garden & Gun review
Kirkus review

Biographile essay by the author
Hicksburg Post profile of the author
Jackson Clarion-Ledger interview with the author
Jackson Free Press profile of the author
Telegraph essay by 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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