December 15, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Tom Piazza's novel A Free State is remarkably evocative of the racial tensions in the pre-Civil war north.
BookPage wrote of the book:
"Tom Piazza's new novel is a crisply told tale of race relations in Philadelphia a few years before the Civil War, one that brings into sharp relief the tensions that beset Northern society even as it was about to go to war to rid the nation of slavery."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I was struck, writing A Free State, by the fact that blackface minstrelsy, with its vicious racist stereotypes of African-Americans and sentimental depictions of life on the plantations where they were enslaved, should be a national sensation – every bit the rock-and-roll of pre-Civil War America – mainly in the North, at exactly the time that the debate over slavery was coming to a boil. None of the characters – the fugitive slave and brilliant musician Henry Sims, the professional white minstrel James Douglass, who befriends him out of mixed motives, the troupe's seamstress Rose, the members of the troupe, and the slave hunter Tull – seemed to care what I had in mind for them when I started the novel. They just went and did what they wanted, and needed, to do. But throughout, music is the way people find their way through intolerable circumstances, for a while at least….
This list contains songs that are played in the book, or that are somehow exemplary.
Bruce Springsteen – "Old Dan Tucker"
This is the song Henry is singing the first time James sees him on the street. It was one of the earliest minstrel-derived "hits," and the combination of non-sequiturs and nonsense lyrics is typical of one vein of minstrel song.
Carolina Chocolate Drops – "Briggs' Corn Shucking Jig / Camptown Hornpipe"
This tune, played here by Rhiannon Giddens on minstrel banjo and Dom Flemons on the bones, gives an accurate picture of what Henry and James might have sounded like in their practice sessions together. The banjo, in its earliest form, was brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans, and it became the iconic instrument of minstrelsy. The early tunes were collected in banjo instruction books in the 1850s and 60s, as minstrel music became a sensation, and this medley is a faithful rendering. A Free State's John Mulligan makes a specialty of the "Cornshucking Jig," and performs it during one of the troupe's shows.
Mike Seeger – "Jim Crack Corn"
Many of the most familiar folk songs we know have their roots in minstrel performance. Mike Seeger here performs one of the best known of these, with its talking birds and its refrain about "Master" going away. It has a beautiful, weightless quality in the way Seeger plays and sings it, here. Mike and I were friends, and after his death I ended up with one of his banjos, which is what started me thinking about all the themes that ended up becoming A Free State.
Bob Carlin – "Boatman Dance"
One of the best contemporary banjo players performing one of the most durable minstrel standards on a more contemporary version of the banjo than the one played by Rhiannon Giddens, above. In A Free State the Virginia Harmonists play (and sing) this during the performance at which Henry makes his debut in disguise.
Clarke Buehling – "Clare de Kitchen"
Another Minstrel-show standard. This performance, by contemporary minstrel expert Clarke Buehling, probably captures the very stagey, performative style in which many of the minstrel songs were presented. You can also get a feel for the way these songs used a plantation setting, in this case "old Virginny." Also notice the lines about the "bullfrog dressed in soldier clothes," out hunting crows who smell the gunpowder and fly away – probably a veiled metaphor for slaves eluding a slave catcher. The Virginia Harmonists roll this out as an encore after Henry brings the house down at his debut performance.
Joseph Spence – "Don't Let Nobody Burn Down Burma Road"
The Caribbean was a major destination for enslaved Africans, and there is a lot of fascinating overlap between music of Haiti and the Bahamas and the music of Africans in the United States. Here the Bahamian singer and guitarist Joseph Spence sings a cryptic song in which the "bullfrog dressed in soldier's clothes" makes another appearance. His astonishing guitar playing also has clear rhythmic elements in common with the minstrel style played by Rhiannon Giddens in the "Cornshucking Jig."
Bob Dylan – "Hard Times"
Minstrel music was a fusion of African-American elements with Irish music, Anglo-American ballads, and other European styles, and in that respect was the beginning of truly American popular music. It certainly characterizes the music of Bob Dylan, whose career started a little over a hundred years after the events of A Free State. One of the songwriters who came out of minstrelsy was Stephen Foster, the first superstar American songwriter. "Hard Times (Come Again No More)" is one of his best and most adaptable songs.
Papa Charlie Jackson – "Long Gone Lost John"
A broad vein of African-American song concerns itself with wily, elusive characters who practice assorted forms of trickery and escape. New Orleans songster Papa Charlie Jackson sings this tribute to one of those characters, to his own six-string banjo accompaniment. At one point in A Free State, Henry Sims, his mind on escape, tells the reader he'll make a pair of shoes "like Lost John – Heels in the front, and heels behind/Now nobody knows where Lost John gwine."
John Hartford – "Lorena"
Sentimental love songs of separation and loss were also a staple of minstrel-era performance, and that vein of songs hasn't run out to this day. Henry sings a fragment of one of these songs, "Juanita," the second time that James Douglass finds him performing on the street. Here the great singer/songwriter/banjo player John Hartford sings a beautiful one, "Lorena," that he once told me was the most popular song during the Civil War among troops on both sides of the fighting. He takes his banjo accopmaniment to a transcendent place, too.
Elizabeth Cotten – "Oh Babe, It Ain't No Lie"
Elizabeth Cotten, composer of "Freight Train," sings a simple, whimsical song here, of the type that folks might sing for their own enjoyment on a porch. Her guitar accompaniment owes something to the kinds of syncopations one can hear in early banjo playing. "This life I'm living is very high," she sings, and the irony is intentional.
Bessie Tucker – "Penitentiary"
This track, recorded in 1928 by the darkly powerful Dallas singer Bessie Tucker, is very close in style to field recordings one can hear of field hollers and work songs, and is a pretty stark reminder of where you could end up if your efforts at escape were not successful. Captured slaves were not usually sent to the penitentiary, though; they could be whipped to within an inch of their lives, killed outright, or sold into a worse bondage than the one from which they had escaped. Although recorded much later than the events of A Free State, "Penitentiary" captures the sense of foreboding and danger that often lurked, and lurks, behind even the best of times for enslaved African-Americans – and free African-Americans – then and now.
Banjo legend Dan Gellert closes out this playlist with a video demonstration of just how funky and syncopated the banjo can get, in the right hands. He serves up "Black-Eyed Suzie" on a fretless banjo, and gives a sense of how much rhythmic push, and sheer music, can be pulled out of this instrument. Henry Sims would have been proud.
Tom Piazza and A Free State links:
The Advocate profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for City of Refuge
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Devil Sent the Rain
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for My Cold War
Los Angeles Review of Books 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)