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November 15, 2016

Book Notes - Sam Allingham "The Great American Songbook"

The Great American Songbook

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

Though varied in subject and style, the stories in Sam Allingham's The Great American Songbook are all poignant and insightful.

KIrkus wrote of the book:

"Allingham writes in a lilting prose which makes even the more cheeky stories earnest. Alternately roguish and melancholy, always mellifluous."


In his own words, here is Sam Allingham's Book Notes music playlist for his story collection The Great American Songbook:



The stories that became The Great American Songbook were all influenced by songs – in some cases, they were attempts to “cover” particular songs: to take the music and lyrics and try to render them in language as best I could. This wasn't easy (or even always successful), but the experience was fascinating. As someone who is both a musician and a writer, it sometimes felt as if I were running wires across different sides of my brain; sometimes the wires sputtered, and sometimes productive connections were made. Many of the stores in the collection were written back when I was a music teacher, in the five foot by five foot room where I gave guitar lessons; I would sit in that room, playing a particular song over and over and typing as fast as I could, until the next student interrupted me. Such is life!

Each of the songs in this essay, then, corresponds to a story in the collection – and the essays are about how the idea travelled from one side of my brain to the other.


"Love → Building on Fire" by Talking Heads
The first time I heard this song I was amazed at the weird directness of the poetic image at the heart of the chorus. I had a friend who used to play the song at parties, always around midnight, and all of us would sing along: “It's not love / which is my face / which is a building / which is on fire.” When working on turning the song into a story, I spent a lot of time trying to unpack the movement inside the central image; of course we imagine particular faces when we think of love, but what happens if we begin to map those faces onto buildings, instead: not just buildings we've lived in, but shops and gyms and churches? What does David Byrne mean, ending the chorus with a sudden flash of fire: is it passion, or something else? These are the same questions that confront my story's heartbroken narrator, writing to the woman who's left him. What happens when you start seeing your lover's face everywhere: when every building you see reminds you of what you've lost?

"Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" by Modest Mouse
I've been obsessed with this song for years. I love the way that it conjures up a sort of American nightmare-scape: “We're going down the road to tiny cities made of ashes.” I knew I wanted to write a story that established a similar feel, turning small-town America into a place that the narrator is haunted by. I also loved the way the song looped incessantly around a single bassline, growing steadily more unhinged and desperate as it went on. The story that came out of this song is also built on repetition; as the narrator, Eddie, and his childhood friend Trevor grow up their relationship is measured by the model of their town that the two of them build together. For Trevor, the model becomes a kind of justification for life: a way to gain control over the world around him – but for Eddie it becomes a terrifying trap. Listening to “Tiny Cities,” I feel an enormous amount of tension and energy, confined in a tight structure. The story is a bit more austere, a bit slower and creepier – but I think it tries to answer the question that comes up in the song's chorus: “Does anybody know a way that a body could get away?”

"Stockholm Syndrome" by Yo La Tengo
Sometimes a song sneaks up on you. I must have listened to I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One for years without this particular tune sticking, but in the end it was one line that did me in: “Hands need warming / early in the morning.” Is there a better evocation of the visceral (and slightly lonely) needs that bind people together than that? The more I listened to this particular song, the more it seemed to me to be about all the small excuses that keep people in a relationship beyond the natural expiration date – and when I looked at the title, these excuses began to seem darker than before. How many bad relationships are the result of Stockholm Syndrome (the psychological condition wherein a kidnapped person begins to identify with their captor)? In my own story, I tried to sketch the portrait of a woman, Betty, who can see traces of the disorder in her own abusive relationships – and I tried to replicate the way in which the song seems sweet, at first, only to reveal darker layers the longer you listen.

"My Funny Valentine" by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
The songs of Rodgers and Hart stick out from the Great American Songbook because of their melodic and lyrical sophistication; I love the way that the chords of of “My Funny Valentine” move chromatically downward, while the melody stays relatively static, as if it doesn't realize that the floor is shifting beneath its feet. I also love the ambiguity of the relationship the song describes: “Your looks are laughable / unphotographable / yet you're my favorite work of art.” When writing my story “Rodgers and Hart,” I tried to think about the relationship between the composer and the lyricist as its own kind of twisted love story; I gave the melancholy of Hart's lyrics to the character of Hart himself (overwhelmed by the mess of loneliness) and the character of Hart the same chilly precision as his melodies. I wanted the same emotional complexity of“My Funny Valentine”: droll, snappy, but with overtones of inevitable tragedy.

"New Paint" by Loudon Wainwright III
The first good story I ever wrote - “Bar Joke, Arizona,” included in the collection -was written while I was listening to this song. Loudon Wainwright III is famous for taking the old cliches of songwriting (rhymes like “old / bold / cold,” the vagaries of romantic disappointment) and juggling them with just the right amount of wounded, ironic distance. I also love the confused instructional nature of this song, as if a hapless guy is trying to instruct another hapless guy in the ways of romance. “If she's a woman there's a chance / that she maybe likes to dance.” The world of “Bar Joke, Arizona” is full of men like this: cast-offs from old jokes, exiled to a strange bar at the end of the world: priests, rabbis, ministers, ducks, men with tiny men contained in their hats. I imagine Loudon Wainwright as the disheveled bard of their limited existence.

“I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” by Duke Ellington (Ella Fitzgerald version)
The final story in the collection is narrated by Artie Shaw, the famous clarinetist and bandleader. Shaw was a famous perfectionist, disdainful of commercial music (in which he included his own) and worshipful of people he saw as intellectuals. (He famously attempted to write a book on Schopenhauer.) In other words, he and music had a strained relationship. What I love about “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” is the way the lyrics personify that strained relationship. “Since you and I have drifted apart / life doesn't mean a thing to me / please come back sweet music, I know I was wrong.” The idea that a song, once played, would leave you forever, and refuse to come back, is something that I think most musicians would see as a dangerous concept – and for someone like Artie Shaw, who didn't much like the popularity that came from letting his music out into the world, I can see how it would be especially frightening. In my story “The Great American Songbook,” which closes the collection, I tried to show the ways in which a talented musician might come to distrust (and even despise) their own talent, because the music they want is always a little bit out of reach.

"My Blue Heaven" by Fats Domino
When writing my story about Artie Shaw, I needed a song that epitomized the kind of song he might have hated: the soft, gentle, commercial nostalgia that might please his audience. Personally, I've always had a soft spot for this kind of music, the cheesier the better: and it doesn't get much cheesier than “My Blue Heaven.” “You'll see a smilin' face / a fireplace / a cozy room / a little nest that nestles / where the roses bloom.” A great portion of the Great American Songbook is this sort of commercial cheese product, and with the benefit of distance we can see how much this sort of rosy glow has seeped into the image of America. I worked this song into my portrait of Artie Shaw's (fictional) agent – with whom I imagine he must have had a strained relationship.

"The Housatonic at Stockbridge" by Charles Ives (2002 San Francisco Symphony version)
Charles Ives is a bit of a hero of mine, famous for taking sunny orchestral themes and ramming them up against walls of dissonance – but the third movement of his Three Places in New England, “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” is gentle compared to most of his orchestral work; it started as a simple art song, with voice and piano. The symphonic version was originally completely instrumental, but in 2002 Michael Tilson Thomas added a full choir to sing the original lyrics from Ives' song version. When I was writing the piece “One Hundred Characters,” I was listening to this piece all the time, listening to the way the choir rose up out of the complex, dissonant bed of orchestra sound. With Ives, you always feel like there's too much music in his head to be contained in a single piece, as if two or even three orchestras are playing at one. I wanted a similar maximal feel with “One Hundred Characters” - but I also wanted it to end on a note of sombre reflection, just like “Housatonic.”

“String Quartet No. 8 (Opus 110)” / “Cello Concerto No. 1” Dmitri Shostakovich
Partially as a response to William Volman's fabulous novel Europe Central, I went through an intense Shostakovich period while writing two stories in this collection: “Assassins” and “One Hundred Characters,” both of which feature work by Shostakovich. In “Assassins,” Shostakovich's music serves as a passion for one of the four mysterious assassins who patrol a city both like and unlike my hometown of Philadelphia; Assassin C enjoys sitting on is rooftop and practicing the Cello Concerto to unwind – which, if you've ever listened to the piece, tells you a great deal about what Assassin C considers “relaxing.” In “One Hundred Characters,” “Opus 110” appears as one of the hundred characters: a personification of the extreme paranoia Shostakovic felt while writing it, hounded by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. In both cases, Shostakovic represents a kind of intense dramatic pressure, leavened with a tinge of playfulness; for all his darkness, Shostakovich was a top-notch ironist, and one never knows when his patriotic or doom-laden melodies are really filled with sarcastic energy.

"The Banks of the Ohio" by Johnny Cash
The murder ballad is an interesting form, especially – as here – when it's written in the first person, and delivered softly and sweetly. There's a seductive quality to the softness of Cash's version that I find uniquely disturbing. I taught this song a lot when I was a guitar teacher, as an intro to fingerpicking, and after a while its content began to freak me out a little. How many times had men played this song, which opens so innocently: “I asked my love to take a walk / to take a walk, just a little walk.” I gave an interest in murder ballads to Thomas, the villain of my story “Stockholm Syndrome.” I wanted him to have the same kind of twisted charisma that Cash gives this song, committing horrible acts with unfailing gentleness.

"Buffalo Girls” by John Hodges
I worked for several years as a children's musician, playing in preschools – sometimes to children young enough that I would just stand over their cribs and strum. One day I tried out this soft, lullaby-ish tune, and discovered it was popular among the kids and teachers alike – although, as with many tradition songs that have turned into children's songs, it was originally meant as a kind of seduction – and that combination of innocence and seduction gives it a weird aura. So I figured I would be perfect to put in the mouth of Thomas, the villain from “Stockholm Syndrome,” in the final scene of the story, as he leans over his son's crib.


Sam Allingham and The Great American Songbook links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review


also at Largehearted Boy:

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