February 3, 2017
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Lydia Peelle's compelling debut novel The Midnight Cool is keenly observed and beautifully written.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"A richly textured first novel…The skillfully crafted characters are rendered with acute psychological insight into the moral dilemmas that shape one's humanity and sense of right and wrong. The propulsive narrative, fueled by poetic prose, is made more powerful by the heart-wrenching, quietly heroic lives eked out in the margins of history."
"Daisy Bell" – written by Harry Dacre, 1894
Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do ....
First off: it's just a downright catchy song. In its time it spawned dozens of parodies, many of which are quite subversive and funny, and in The Midnight Cool two characters keep up a running inside joke about it that spans two lifetimes. Bu this song also has such a complex and fascinating place in our culture. In 1961, it was the first song to be sung by a computer. In 2001: a Space Odyssey, you might remember Hal singing it as he shuts down. This cyborg association, the tension and interplay of the animal/machine synthesis is as fascinating to me as a World War I era army mule with a machine gun on his back.
""Working for the Man" – recorded by Roy Orbison 1962
I am on tour in support of The Midnight Cool doing a show we call "the Midnight Cool Revue." It's got live music, recorded music, an antique cylinder player, and a kickass mule slide show. The genesis of this project was the desire to share with the audience, in the spirit of the variety show of the era, a window into the world of the novel, the world of 1916-1917. I have realized as we tour around that the show also ends up being a window into the processes of my imagination that went into writing this story.
"Working for the Man," a totally rocking number that the Big O recorded with the Nashville A team, is the theme song of my mule slide show, but I came to it in a really roundabout way. When I first sat down to make the presentation, my impulse was to set the slides – old images of people and mules working in farm fields, mines, the trenches of war – to the obvious: old timey blues or banjo tunes. But as a mule-loving friend pointed out, from the mule's point of view, a banjo soundtrack was pretty irrelevant (I think she said, what the heck do the mules care about banjos?) The problematic imposition of voice on our non-human neighbors is a preoccupation of hers, as it is for me, so after that conversation I was inspired to the slides to an arbitrary soundtrack, and had a lot of fun playing around with mules and 90's Hip Hop, mules and the Ramones, mules and DJ Cool.... but the day I set the slides to "Working for the Man," I knew I had hit on it. Of course, this song, because of its lyrics, is not at all arbitrary, but actually quite a calculated imposition. But watching the images while listening to it began to move me in profound, completely unexpected ways. And I excused the song for its somewhat misogynistic message because I actually found necessary subversions happening in my mind because of it. Listening to this song while looking at a picture of a ten-year-old boy and a mule working in a coal mine, the categorical and hierarchical thinking I am so accustomed to begins to strip away. If "the man" is the force of oppression and coercion and exploitation at work in the world, who is "the man" here? Is it the boy tugging the mule's lead? Is it the boy's boss? Is it the mining company employing that boy in child labor? Is it the capitalist system that rewards this? And when it comes to the pictures of the mules and men on the battlefield, just who is "the man" they are all working – and dying – for there?
Working down these hierarchical layers helps remind me of something startling -- that sometimes I myself am "the man!" When it comes to systems of hierarchy and oppression and exploitation, we are all complicit. I believe once we can admit that, once we can all fess up and own it, that's when the true dialog about change can open up.
"Mule Skinner Blues" – written by Jimmie Rodgers, 1930, recorded by Dolly Parton, 1970
My book's got so many mules in it, I got to have this one on here. But it's got to be Dolly Parton's version, because I think it's the best, and because she is one of my heroes. The power in her voice! Crack that whip, Dolly!
"Country Blues" – Dock Boggs, circa 1929
"Last time I seen my woman good people she had a wineglass in her hand/she was drinking down her troubles with a lowdown sorry man"
Dock's thin, quavering, totally terrifying voice sometimes is in my head for days. And his banjo playing is like a horse cart with busted springs knocking over the thank you ma'ams in a dried-out dirt road. I wish these sounds could issue forth from me. I can play the banjo the way a robin pecks worms out of the ground, but I sure can't sing like Dock.
Trompe Le Monde – the Pixies album, 1991
Writing a book set one hundred years in the past, I had to take a leap of faith on the communalities and perennial nature of the human heart. My heroine, Catherine, is an eighteen-year-old girl in a provincial southern town who wants more than it can give her – in fact, more than the world is willing to give her, as a woman of her time. She kicks against this in every small way that she can. Of all my characters, she was slowest to form, and I really struggled to know her. Then, a few years ago, I spent New Year's Eve alone in my living room listening to Trompe Le Monde very very loud and thinking about her. And once I understood that she was the sort of girl who would love the Pixies – and in particular, this album -- if the Pixies had been around in 1916 -- she just came alive.
"Darktown Strutters Ball" – first recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, 1917
"I'll be down to get you in a taxi honey/you better be ready about half past eight/Now dearie don't be late/I want to be there when the band starts playing"
Hang onto your hats – this one really swings. There is a long, long list of great who have recorded this awesome song: Al Jolson, Jimmy Dorsey, Chuck Webb, Louis Prima, my hero Pete Seeger, to name a few. Les Paul and Mary Ford rock it. As does Alberta Hunter. Hoagy Carmichael's version might be my favorite, but it's hard to choose. This song was huge in its day. All the kids were boppin' to it, and their parents were yelling down the stairs to turn it down, for goodness sake.
In every draft of The Midnight Cool, this song wove through the story, playing parts sometimes large, sometimes small. In the final version of the book, my character Billy plays a cylinder recording of it for a crazy horse he's trying to calm down, and it works. Incidentally, he does this in the fall of 1916, several months before it was actually released, so I have just discovered my own anachronism. Cool!
Johnny, get your gun.
Can't think about the first World War without this song. Did your grandparents sing it? Mine did.
"Death Letter Blues" – Son House
Oh, heartbreak. Oh, death. Haunting, haunted, crazed. My friend Critter can't listen to Son House at night because he gives him such terrible nightmares.
Looking back I see I have three blues songs on this list. I guess at its heart The Midnight Cool is a book about love in times of war, and not getting what you want. You could say it's a dirge, but I'd like to think its got enough hope between the bars to be a blues.
"Letter to Shreveport" - Kevin Gordon, 2015
In my opinion Kevin Gordon's songwriting is some of the most evocative and hauntingly moving work in Nashville today. In the last year of writing this book, I listened often to his searingly beautiful album, Long Gone Time - especially this track - for the mood, the images and rhythm: simply put, for inspiration.
"Nobody Told Me" – John Lennon 1984
It's pretty weird to write a novel, and live in another world. And it's pretty weird when that world is another century. But what was weirdest is how the other world, the "real" one, rolls on and on while you're working. Nobody told me there'd me days like these! To write this book there came a point I had to tune out current events, in order to fully immerse in my time and place. But then once in a while a friend would relate the latest news and be sure they must be joking. Pot's legal in Colorado? Gay people can finally get married? Donald Trump's running for president?
Most peculiar, mama.
Lydia Peelle and The Midnight Cool links:
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)
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