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July 19, 2017

Book Notes - James Kelman "Dirt Road"

Dirt Road

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.

James Kelman's latest novel Dirt Road is a masterfully told and poignant coming-of-age tale.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"A powerful meditation on loss, life, death, and the bond between father and son. . . . Kelman has created a fully-realized, relatable voice that reveals a young man’s urgent need for connection in a time of grief."

In his own words, here is James Kelman's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Dirt Road:

In Dirt Road a number of songs are incorporated into the text. I wrote the story originally as a screenplay. This made the novel-writing process trickier than expected. But whether screenplay or novel I listened to music: roots music, Americana.

Following the death of his mother sixteen-year-old Murdo, a musician from Scotland, visits an elderly aunt and uncle in Alabama. He is there with his father. They fly into Memphis Airport and take a bus from there. After certain blunders they wind up in Mississippi and book into a motel for the night. Next morning Murdo wanders off to buy food at the nearest convenience store. As he approaches he hears someone playing an accordion music he hasn't heard before. This is zydeco and the song I had in mind is "Last Dance Waltz" by Boozoo Chavis. He was not the first zydeco musician I heard; I just liked him more. The first I heard him was on a beautiful vinyl album I bought back in 1972, a straight blues anthology, where he was said to play "zodico."

My character Murdo plays accordion mainly. His musical background is Celtic, and the Scottish end of that. Songs played here include "Fella from Fortune" by Harry Hibbs, from his Very Best of . . . Vol. 1. Harry Hibbs was from the east coast of Newfoundland and draws more from the Irish tradition. Fortune is a port in the Burin Peninsula where the ferry connects to the French island of St. Pierre which was central to the alcohol bootlegging industry back in the "prohibition era." Some of my wife's people are from this area. Other songs played here are by Minnie White from the west coast of Newfoundland. West coast musicians have a distinctive Scottish and French influence, not French in general but from the French-Acadian tradition associated with the Canadian Maritimes.

Acadian music—better known as "cajun"—is crucial to the story. Minnie White was a tradition-bearer. In the album I have, recorded when she was around eighty years old, we hear jigs, square-dances, waltzes and polka, not only French and Scottish but Irish, Mi'kmaq and Viking.

There have been Scots and French people going back three centuries here. Basque, Bretagne, Viking and Celtic fishermen have been around there for much longer. According to rumour there are French-speaking people in isolated dwellings without electricity to this day, who don't know telephones have been invented, nor that Napoleon's France sold off Louisiana to the USA.

The Acadian people were dispossessed, following the British defeats of the French a couple of hundred years ago. They had to move and many traveled south, settling in west Louisiana. This is the origin of the Cajun people in this part of the world. Their culture brought that old Bretagne-French style, mixed with some of that Scottish and Irish tradition. They laced it with country, bluegrass and swing—western and New Orleans–style—and produced the definitive cajun sound. During the annual international festival in Lafayette bands arrive from all over the world, many of which are accordion-based. Many years ago I visited the festival with my wife and there was an all-girl band of accordionists from Fogo Island, Newfoundland.

Zydeco and cajun music have much in common yet are rooted in a different French tradition. Zydeco derives from the Creole tradition, always updated, always contemporary; the rhythms, musical heritage and culture influences of Africa, as well as France. The slave trade didn't sit well with French ideals of liberté, égalité and fraternité, and Creole people of African origin could find a route to freedom. Traditional cajun has learned from zydeco to move with the times, to be a music that young people can enjoy and to which they might contribute the verve and strengths of their own generation. This contemporary approach is symbolised in the story by Murdo's early acquisition of two CD albums; one a compilation of zydeco musicians and the other by the late Beau Jocque & The Zydeco Hi-Rollers, playing a zydeco influenced by jazz, swing and blues, by rock, conjunto and funk. Musicians such as Beau Jocque are criticised by some traditionalists for moving too far, but music is alive, music is a living thing.

American roots music saturates the story. On one car journey Murdo's uncle plays a bluegrass track by Bill Monroe. Monroe is as central to American music as Doc Watson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hazel Dickens; Victoria Spivey, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Huddie Ledbetter, Lydia Mendoza, James Brown, Dewey Balfa or the Jiminez family from San Antonio. Monroe was another tradition-brearer; his ancestors hailed from the island of Lewis, like my own father's mother, not to mention the mother of Donald Trump.

At one point Dirt Road leads northeast of Huntsville, en route to Chattanooga. Murdo hears medleys of jigs, reels, waltzes, strathspeys, what some might describe as Scotch Muzak; a music made for dancing. This is mountain territory, Cherokee territory where two hundred years ago an important chief of the Cherokee Nation was John Ross, son of a Scottish father and a Cherokee mother. Here is encountered a mix of genres, exemplified by Doc Watson's folk, blues, swing and bluegrass, which I first heard on the original 1964 Newport Festival album, Vol. 3 (which I won in a card game in 1967). Dewey Balfa plays on the same album as a member of "The Cajun Band."

In my story Murdo connects with a finger-pickin' guitarist hailing from a different southern experience. This fellow revels in his between-songs comments on the complexity of the Scots-Irish heritage within the American Civil War. He knows intimately his musical heritage, is provocative in his statements, attacking the anti-Catholicism of that old Protestant tradition that can degenerate into reactionary forms. He is upfront anti-racist, anti-sectarian, who can play Merle Travis, Son House, Elmore James and Hop Wilson, and lets nobody forget the inscription on Woody Guthrie's guitar—"this machine kills fascists."

Later in a Louisiana blues club the music heard includes the piano playing of the inimitable Professor Longhair, a seminal figure of that wonderful New Orleans sound. Finally, Murdo encounters another musical genre at the heart of Americana: conjunto, Tex-Mex. Within this are strains of Czech-German and traditional Mexican forms, e.g., Mariachi and Ranchera.

In putting together the film version of the story I worked with the director Kenny Glenaan, whom I've known for many years. We were fortunate indeed to have Kentucky-musician maestro Dirk Powell in at the heart of it with us. Without their input on the film of this story, the actual novel would have gone in a different direction. I was lucky.


"Last Dance Waltz," "Jolie Catan," Boozoo Chavis, Zydeco Homebrew
"Forty One Days," Boozoo Chavis, from Nothing but the Blues (UK compilation)
"C'Est Moi," "I-10 Express," "La Bas 2 Step," Queen Ida and Her Zydeco Band, Cookin' with Queen Ida
"Blue Skirt Waltz," "Johnny Mac's Jig," Minnie White, The Hills of Home
"Fella from Fortune," Harry Hibbs, from his Very Best of Harry Hibbs Vol. 1
"I'm on My Way Back to the Old Home," Bill Monroe, Music of Bill Monroe: 1936 to 1994 (Disk 1)
"Coal Miner's Blues," Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, Pioneering Women of Bluegrass
"I'm on the Wonder," "Gonna Take You Downtown," "It's So Easy When You're Breezin'," Beau Jocque & The Zydeco Hi-Rollers, Gonna Take You Downtown
"Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand," Professor Longhair, The Primo Collection
"The Chattanooga Choochoo," by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
"(We're not) The Jet Set," Tammy Wynette and George Jones (by Bobby Braddock, lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)
"Bluebell Polka (Tribute to Jimmy Shand)," Jim MacLeod's All-Star Scottish Dance Band
"Macpherson's Farewell," Hamish Imlach, The Definitive Transatlantic Collection
"I Have Seen the Highlands," Matt McGinn, The Best of Matt McGinn
"Bonaparte's Retreat," "When I Die," "The Lone Pilgrim," Doc Watson and Family, The Doc Watson Family Album
"Doc's Guitar," Doc Watson, Doc Watson
"Be Careful with the Blues," Hop Wilson & His Buddies, Steel Guitar Flash
"Bosco Stomp," The Cajun Band, Newport Folk Festival 1964—Evening Concerts Vol. 3
"Blue Ridge Mountain Blues," Doc Watson, Newport Folk Festival 1964—Evening Concerts Vol. 3
"Marching Through Georgia," written by Henry Clay Work
"The Yellow Rose of Texas," traditional (see
"The Ballad of Glencoe," Jim McLean (© Duart Music)
"Dark Island," Iain McLachlan, An Island Heritage
"Paradise," John Prine, John Prine
"If I Could Only Fly," Blaze Foley, Live at the Austin Outhouse
"The Fate of Talmedge Osborn," Ernest Stoneman and Kahle Brewer, My Rough and Rowdy Ways, Vol. 1
"Whistling Song," "Indian Whoop," James Bryan and Carl Jones, Two Pictures
"J'ai soulé dans la salle de danse," The Creole Zydeco Farmers, Live in Louisiana
"Je me suis marillié," "Tit galop pour mamou," "Indian on a Stump," "Two step a hadley," Dewey Balfa, The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music Vol. I & II
"(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone," "Chicano," Doug Sahm & Friends, The Best of Doug Sahm's Atlantic Sessions
"Margarita Margarita," Santiago Jiménez, Jr., Corazón de Piedra
"Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio," Flaco Jiménez, Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio y Mas!
"Tus Mentiras," Texas Tornados, Hangin' On by a Thread

James Kelman and Dirt Road links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Boston Globe review
Financial Times review
Guardian review
Kirkus review
Observer review
Publishers Weekly review
Spectator review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Mo Said She Was Quirky

also at Largehearted Boy:

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