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August 30, 2017

Book Notes - Robert Ferguson "Scandinavians"


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.

Robert Ferguson's Scandinavians offers fascinating insight into the history and culture of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, along with insightful personal anecdotes

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Delightfully free-roaming. . . an engaging, layered look into a culture complex enough both to produce stylish rain gear and to embrace the foul weather that necessitates it"

In his own words, here is Robert Ferguson's Book Notes music playlist for his book Scandinavians:

The idea to make music a feature of Scandinavians came to me about three years, when I suddenly grew tired of all my favourite writers and decided to read a crime novel. Literally at random the one I picked out was a Michael Connelly Harry Bosch novel. Bosch is a jazz fan, and the idea must have seeped into me through him, because when it came time to get down to work on Scandinavians it seemed the most natural thing in the world to bring singers and composers and performers into the mix. Many of them are Scandinavian, as many are not but are simply in the book because it felt right at the time for them to be there. Albert Ayler, Mario Lanza, and the English sixties rock group Family fall into this category - they all crop up in the book's Prelude, which is about a rather miserable sojourn as a failed hippie in Copenhagen back in the 1960s. Almost at random, these are a few of the other songs and musicians mentioned:

Martin Simpson - "The Keel Row"

This is a Geordie folk song from the north-east of England, where I lived for two years in my childhood. In a note on the Scandinavian languages that prefaces the book I mention the song because it includes the line 'As I came in by Sandgate, by Sandgate, by Sandgate', as demonstrating the enduring influence of the Viking occupation of the region and the creation of the Viking kingdom of York in the ninth and tenth centuries - 'Gate' is the Norwegian/Danish word for street, and today you can still find many streets called ' – gate' in Newcastle on Tyne and York. This is an instrumental version by the great acoustic guitarist Martin Simpson.

Roger Miller - "England Swings"

Roger Miller was an American country singer from the 1960s with a strangely varied output. He's probably best remembered for 'King of the Road' , but this novelty number, coming at a time when the England of Carnaby Street was the centre of the fashion world , was also a big hit for him.

Franck Pourcel - "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg"

The arrival of large numbers of beggars, bottle-collectors and magazines from Romania has greatly altered the street scene in even quite small Norwegian towns over the last five or six years. Many bring accordions with them, and a few are very gifted musicians. Most, like the woman mentioned in Chapter 3 of the book, can manage only a phrase in single notes from Michel Legrand's poignant melody, and they sit in the parks and on street corners playing it over and over again, for hours on end, until an almost hypnotic effect is achieved. Franck Pourcel's version captures the strange sadness of the tune.

Miles Davis - "Flamenco Sketches"

Like the narrator of Scandinavians, I play this Miles Davis track to myself whenever the report of an atrocity on the BBC or CNN seems to me particularly unbearable. Its soothing powers are quite remarkable, as indeed the whole Kind of Blue album is.

Fleetwood Mac - "Oh Well"

This track by the original Fleetwood Mac (Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac) has to opposite effect to 'Flamenco Sketches', it wakes you up with a reminder of how wonderful life can be. I love the powerful guitar riff, and the enigmatic insolence of Peter Green's vocal.

Radka Toneff - "The Moon's a harsh mistress"

Radka Toneff was a Norwegian jazz singer who took her own life at the age of thirty. Whether we like it or not, a singer's personal history can strongly colour the way we listen to a sing, especially where an early death is involved. You can hear her singing this song at YouTube.

Jimmy Giuffre and Jim Hall - "The Green Country"

Looking through Scandinavians afterwards I was surprised at how much of the music in it is jazz. I know this particular track crept in there because I had just bought a box of the complete recordings of Jimmy Giuffre and Jim Hall, and was playing it – and this track in particular - all the time while writing Chapter 9, a particularly jazz-and-alcohol drenched chapter set in in Herr Nilsen's jazz pub, in Oslo. The title is perfect for the tune, and I only wish the narrator of much of this chapter, my friend Erling, could have found some of the restfulness and peace it evokes during his too short life.

Shostakovich/Bach Preludes and Fugues Vol 2

I included this track as a tribute to Erling, who found great solace in Bach’s music, and was delighted when this recording by the Finnish pianist Ollie Mustonen appeared. It juxtaposes them very successfully with Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues Opus 87. Shostakovich’s stately and sad Prelude No. 13 in F Sharp Major was a particular favourite of his.

Jan Johansson - "Emigrantvisa"

During the late nineteenth century there was mass emigration to the United States from both Norway and Sweden. The movement left a rich artistic legacy in the cultures of both countries, notably in the form of folk songs that document the power of the emotions aroused by such a huge social disruption. Among the most memorable is a fragile Swedish classic called Vi sålde våra hemman ('We sold our home') or Emigrantvisa ('The Emigrant Song'), first documented in 1854. The Swedish pianist Jan Johansson recorded it on his Jazz på svenska ('Jazz in Swedish') in 1964, an album that consisted entirely of jazz arrangements of Swedish folk songs. Johansson died in a car crash aged just 37, but his Jazz på svenska album, recorded four years before his death, remains the best-selling jazz record ever produced in Sweden. It introduced a new and uniquely Scandinavian form of jazz, a beautiful fusion of ancient Scandinavian traditional music and American jazz that musicians continue to exploit:

Bonus Track: Bill Morrissey - "Long Gone"

This isn't actually mentioned in the book, but it's the track I played on the day I sent the manuscript to the publisher, in a mood of extreme but well-controlled exaltation which this exuberant song with its Irish fiddle playing, wild and strangely incongruous, reflected perfectly. It's probably my favourite get-up-and-dance tune.

Robert Ferguson and Scandinavians links:

the author's website

Irish Times review
Kirkus review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Wall Street Journal review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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