April 3, 2017
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Winner of the AWP Award for the Novel, Carol Zoref's Barren Island is a thought-provoking coming of age debut.
Paul Harding wrote of the book:
"Barren Island is a wonderful synthesis of character and history. From the moment Marta Eisenstein Lane begins to tell us about her remarkable family’s lives on the rank, forsaken sand bar of Barren Shoal, rendering animal carcasses into glue, the author immerses us in a world most readers would never otherwise have known existed. As squalid and hardscrabble as these lives may be, they are also suffused with strange beauty and love by Marta’s solicitude and honesty. Barren Island is big-hearted, generous, and fascinating."
Music is everywhere and nowhere in Barren Island. The novel, which mostly takes place between the autumn of 1929 and Labor Day weekend in 1939, tells the story of people who live on an island in New York City that is isolated from the daily life of the city. The island is Barren Shoal, a spit of land adjacent to the historical Barren Island. Most of the residents, though not all, are recent immigrants. They struggle with poverty, bigotry, and dangerous work. The central characters challenge this isolation in order to wrestle with the cultural and political dramas of The Great Depression, including poverty, unions, fascism, refugees, and sexuality.
Radios provide the only real-time connection to the rest of the city. Because of radio, the characters can hear daily news reports, listen to ball games, and follow radio dramas. They also listen to live weekly broadcasts from The Metropolitan Opera House and to the popular music that, later in the 20th century, came to be known as The Great American Songbook. They had occasion, as well, to hear the protest and labor songs of the time that are still sung today. Though few songs are mentioned in the book by name, I imagine that these selections would have been among what they'd have heard. Some of this music wasn't recorded until long after it was written. I've chosen from among a spectrum of terrific performances.
"Brother Can You Spare A Dime" performed by Mandy Patinkin
Gut wrenching. Epitomizes the struggles of the decade. Written by E.Y. "Yip" Harburg and Jay Gorney. Yip Harburg also penned the lyrics for 1939's The Wizard of Oz. He was a beautifully subversive and often humorous lyricist who wrote about income inequality, racism, and hope.
"Strange Fruit" performed by Billie Holiday
Bigotry in the U.S. in the 1930s was as lethal as it was in Europe. This 1936 song by Abel Meerapol simultaneously frightens and seduces. The melody and lyrics are cooly inviting until it becomes clear that the strange fruits are the bodies of Black Americans who have been lynched. Then it becomes an angry lament about the unwillingness of the white world to put a stop to it. One would think that knowing these themes would make it impossible to hear the song multiple times. But its artistry achieves what art does best: makes it impossible to turn away.
"This Land Is Your Land" performed by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen
Best. American. Folk song. A song of hope that also challenges the status quo of land ownership. Woody Guthrie wrote it in the 1930s, though he didn't record it until the 1940s. A great stanza is often omitted by censors:
There was a big high wall there, that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said 'Private Property.'
But on the backside, it didn't say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.
Seeger and Springsteen sang the entire song in the celebration performance for the first inauguration of Barack Obama inauguration in 2009.
"Which Side Are You On" performed by Florence Reese
The labor struggles that are a narrative thread through Barren Island were not unique. Workers had little defense against corporate interests in the face of wage reductions, layoffs, and neglected safety concerns. Florence Reese of Harlan County, Kentucky wrote new lyrics to a church hymn in 1931 after the local sheriff hired thugs to illegally search her home. They were searching for her husband, a coal miner and activist union organizer. Harlan County became synonymous with union busting violence and strikes. An accident at the Barren Shoal rendering plant surely raised this same question. Everything that ever happens raises this question.
"Solidarity Forever" performed by Tom Morello: The Nighwatchman
By the 1930s, this had become the anthem of the American labor movement. Morello's rendition is strong and true. Probably sung at the Union Square labor protest that takes place in Chapter 14 of BARREN ISLAND.
"Crossroads" performed by Robert Johnson
The African American men on Barren Shoal held the most dangerous jobs on the island, shoveling coal into the furnaces at the glue rendering plant. If they stepped down from a stoking job due to age or illness, they might have been given another job, like gate watcher, unlike the spot was taken away and given to a white worker. Like everyone on Barren Shoal, the Black workers had covert ways of giving voice to their frustrations, their yearnings, and the sacrifices they made in order to earn a day's pay. They had traditional spirituals as well as the newer music of Johnson, W.C. Handy, Ma Rainey, and the many other Black performers who created The Blues.
"You're the Top" performed by Ella Fitzgerald
Cole Porter penned it for the 1930s Broadway musical Anything Goes. It's an easy song to parody, which some of the characters in Barren Island do at a high school graduation. The lyrics to the eponymous "Anything Goes" could be the anthem for two other characters – a gay man and a lesbian from Manhattan who are married -- who introduce some of the characters to a more urbane life in Greenwich Village.
"Rhapsody In Blue" performed by Leonard Bernstein
George Gershwin married Jewish klezmer music to Black American blues in 1924 and gave us this. Bernstein echoed the amazing clarinet opening years later in the opening notes to West Side Story.
"Tumbalalaika" performed by Pete Seeger and Ruth Rubin
Each of the ethnic groups living on Barren Shoal brought with them traditional music as well as liturgical music. Marta Eisenstein, the novel's protagonist, no doubt knew Tumbalalaika, a traditional Yiddish folk tune. It is a riddle song and a love song, with a chorus that makes it a welcoming sing-along song. Like Marta, it poses serious questions about a life of meaningfulness and love.
What can grow without rain?
What can burn and never stop burning?
What can weep and never shed a tear?
"The Glory of Love" performed by Bette Midler
By Billy Hill. Because I love it. Because it's bitter sweet. And because there is lots of love on Barren Island, unrequited and otherwise.
"Vissi de artes" from Act II of Tosca performed by Maria Callas
Every Saturday, even now, the Metropolitan Opera is broadcast live via the radio. It is a constant throughout Marta's life as is Tosca, by Giuseppe Verde. Tosca is about love and art and betrayal. It is also a political opera. A perfect combination of Marta's interests.
Carol Zoref and Barren Island 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
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Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
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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)
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weekly music release lists