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March 28, 2018

Andrea Barnet's Playlist for Her Book "Visionary Women"

Visionary Women

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

Andrea Barnet's Visionary Women is a timely book that profiles four women (Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall, and Alice Waters) whose radical vision in the 1960s transformed both how we view the natural world an dour daily lives.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"With both resonant detail and purposeful distillation, Barnet tells their dramatic stories within the context of the counterculture of 50 years ago, charts the ongoing vitality and influence of their compassionate visions, and asks if we will yet accomplish what these four 'accidental revolutionaries' call on us to do."

In her own words, here is Andrea Barnet's Book Notes music playlist for her book Visionary Women:

I don't play music when I write. I wish I could. But often, at the end of my workday, when I'm out on a walk across the fields near my house in the Hudson Valley in New York, there are songs that stream through my head. It's as if my subconscious is channeling something even more essential than the words I've been summoning all day. I do very much write with my ear, I should add. Which is to say, I want the rhythms and tones of the words to convey feelings in the same way music does, to touch you viscerally. I don't want you to have to work.

In Visionary Women, I wove together the stories of four passionate outsiders who worked alone and didn't know each other, but who had the hiding-in-not-so-plain-sight similarity of collectively humanizing our public life. I've given each of them-- Rachel Carson, (who published Silent Spring in 1962, giving birth to the Environmental Movement); urban advocate Jane Jacobs, (in her forties in 1961 when she saved Greenwich Village from the wrecking ball and published The Death and Life of Great American Cities); Jane Goodall, (who in 1960 at age twenty-six discovered chimps using tools, narrowing the distance between animals and us almost overnight), and food activist Alice Waters, (who had her epiphanies about food in France as a student in 1965, and opened fresh, local-food-serving Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, six years later)— four or five songs each. Because their lives and circumstances were so different, encompassing the wilds of Africa (Goodall), the tatty, boho atmosphere of early 1960s Greenwich Village (Jacobs), the melancholy of a dirt- poor childhood in rural Pennsylvania (Carson), and the hopeful, turbulent, war-protesting, sex, drugs and rock n' roll vibe of counterculture Berkeley, the playlist I've assembled contains a lot of moods. But in the end, it's the 1960s that most embodies these women's collective moment and visions, which turn out to be surprisingly intertwined. So my playlist skews heavily to that decade. This is perhaps just as it should be, since in many ways the 60s would turn out to be my fifth character.

Rachel Carson

"The Mystic's Dream" by Lorena McKennitt

I love all the songs on this album, (The Mask and the Mirror) but especially the first, "The Mystic's Dream." I listened to it a lot as I was thinking about Carson's early life: her lonely and pinched childhood, her extreme poverty, her need to drop out of school to support her family, the refuge she took in nature. For me, McKennitt's beautiful and haunting voice with its Irish lilt and air of yearning telegraphed all of this: Carson's lonely and hardscrabble beginnings, but also her fierce spirit and the elemental connection she felt to the earth, even at a very young age.

"In the Mood" by Glenn Miller

In 1951, after writing one book that bombed, and working for years in obscurity as a full- time editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson wrote a second book, The Sea Around Us, which became an instant best seller, going on to win the National Book Award. Almost overnight, her stature in the world changed. To me, Glenn Miller's swinging big-band cosmopolitan sound seemed the very embodiment of this urbane new world that Carson suddenly found herself at the center of. On the night of the awards ceremony in New York City, dressed in a silk dress and a fashionable feathered toque, a nervous Carson shared the head table with the poet Marianne Moore. I found myself imagining this song as the background music to that moment.

"A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall" by Bob Dylan

Dylan wrote this song during the summer of 1962, the same summer that Silent Spring was published, which was perhaps no coincidence. For both Carson's book and the apocalyptic tone of Dylan's lyrics express the dark terrors of that moment. Nuclear Armageddon was on everyone's mind, and Silent Spring in particular spoke directly to those anxieties. For what Carson made clear to ordinary readers were the exact and inescapable parallels between nuclear fallout and pesticides. Dylan's song is filled with allusions to deadly pollution, fallout rain and the world in the aftermath of nuclear war.

"I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves around it,
I saw a highway with diamonds and nobody on it."
And later in the song: "where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters."

I played this song over and over to summon the tensions and ambient terrors of that fraught moment, but also the flood of resistance and protest that both Silent Spring and Dylan's song came to stand for.

"Carmina Burana" by Carl Orff

I've always loved this choral work, which is filled with a kind of daemonic intensity, the shifting furies that dance around all of us sooner or later. I listened most to the first two sections, "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi and Primo Vere (Spring), which I played a lot as I thought about Carson's later life: her brave stand against her advancing cancer, diagnosed just after she began Silent Spring; her insistence that the cancer remain a secret, so that the chemical companies couldn't use it against her, claiming her judgment was biased by her own grim diagnosis; her late-in-life-love for her friend Dorothy; her stoicism in the face of the smear campaign mounted by the chemical industry against both Silent Spring and Carson personally. The music is filled with intimations of darkness and mortality, but also with a sense of the eternal cycles, which for Carson was something positive and hopeful, even as she herself was dying.

Jane Jacobs

"The ‘In' Crowd" by Ramsey Lewis (original version)

This upbeat instrumental by jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis is all "funk and grace and forward motion." as someone once put it. For me it telegraphs boho Greenwich Village in the 50s and 60s: low-key, run-down, diverse, hip, urbane, messy, tolerant, multi-racial. This was the vibe that first drew Jane Jacobs to Greenwich Village in the 1940s. And these were the values—progressive, tolerant, inclusive, trusting of everyday people-- that she fought for in her years as a urban activist. She loved the feeling of community she found in the Village, and the palpable sense of place, which is why I've included it.

"Positively 4th Street" by Bob Dylan

Even though Dylan sings about a more personal betrayal ("You've got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend"), I've chosen this song for its evocation of the larger betrayal that Jacobs and her neighbors were feeling in 1955, when Robert Moses announced his plans to run a four- lane highway through Washington Square Park, which was not only a giveaway to real estate developers but a flagrant betrayal of the people. The song's slightly bitter tone seemed a perfect reflection of something larger that people were beginning to feel: a growing mistrust of authority, rising apprehension over the duplicity of public officials, who said one thing while doing another, and a new willingness to push back, to speak truth to power.

"Like a Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan

I've always loved this song, which has everything I associate with Bob Dylan: soulfulness, ambiguity, dazzling verbal inventiveness. I chose it for two reasons: because it was an anthem for countless civil rights and anti-war rallies during the 60s, many of them held in Washington Square Park, which Jacobs helped save. But also because its lyrics seemed to speak so directly to the moment when Jacobs learned that her Greenwich Village neighborhood, the very neighborhood she has just described so glowingly in her book, was slated for demolition. It was a moment that drove her to an even deeper commitment to community activism.

"How does it feel?
To be without a home.
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone."

"The Message" by Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five

I chose this hip hop anthem to New York because it perfectly encapsulates the funk of urban street life—its rawness, gritty humor, spontaneity, bad-ass poetry. To me it seemed just the right accompaniment to the publication (in 1961) of Jacobs subversive little book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which argued that the men supposedly saving America's cities were actually laying waste to them. Jacobs' book also was a message: a celebration of street life, local neighborhoods and the sometimes-unruly social fabric of urban places. It single-handedly changed the way people thought of cities.

"Walk on By" by Dionne Warwich

This song has deeply personal associations. When I was in the hospital after giving birth to my daughter, my husband brought me a tape of Dionne Warwick songs, which I played nonstop for the first two days of my daughter's new life. It was an ecstatic interlude, a time of indescribable animal love, new and boundless rapture. Since then, I've always associated this song with fresh beginnings. For this reason, I've included it to mark the moment in Visionary Women when an exhausted Jane Jacobs decides that it's time to leave New York and move to Canada. It was a bittersweet moment, I should add, as are all such leave-takings when the place you are leaving is one you've loved. But a necessary one, given how tired Jacobs was of fighting city hall, and her opposition to the Vietnam War. (The Jacobses had two draft-aged sons)

Jane Goodall

"The Girl from Ipanema" by Antonio Carlos Jobim

Jane Goodall was young, seductive and 23 when she arrived in Nairobi, Kenya for the first time, having worked for months as a waitress to pay for her steamship passage from England. A school friend had invited her to visit, but Goodall hoped to find a job, so she could stay. A social butterfly in those first thrilling days, she was out nearly every night, often dancing at one of Nairobi's nightclubs until dawn. For this reason, I've given her the Brazilian bossa nova classic "The Girl from Ipanema" as the first song on her playlist. Within weeks of her arrival, she had become the object of many young men's attentions.

"Kayina Wura," by Oumou Sangare

It was meeting the brilliant and iconoclastic anthropologist Louis Leakey that would change the trajectory of Goodall's life, introducing her to an Africa more in tune with her own sensibilities. Leakey and his wife would invite Goodall to join them on their annual summer dig at Olduvai Gorge, where she had her first experiences of the Serengeti plains, which were stippled for as far as the eye could see with herds of wild animals. When I was working on this African section, I found myself listening nearly every night over dinner to an album by Oumou Sangare, a female artist from Mali. I love the call and response between Sangare's voice and the background chorus of women. My favorite song (and the one I've included here), "Kayina Wura," is an homage to the spirits who guard the village and who come out at dusk and twilight. I also listened a lot to "Sigi Wura" and "Dugu Kamelenba", which translates into "the Womanizer" which is what, it turns out, Leakey was too.

"Sina" by Salif Keita

This is another singer/songwriter I listened to from Mali, though his work is inflected with Cuban influences. These two musicians were the place- holders for me as I thought about Goodall's long months alone in the wilds of the Tanzanian rain forest, as well as her burgeoning friendships with the local Africans she came to know.

"Sodade" by Cesaria Evoria

This is one of my all-time favorite musicians. I love Cesaria's slow, melancholic voice, the pensive lilt to her songs, the way they're filled with heartache and longing, smoky bars and the Cape Verde Islands, where she's from. For me, her music speaks of open-air village markets and capsized fishing boats on the beach, languid afternoon heat and metallic green insects, lizards skittering in the grass: the Africa that Goodall came to love and call her own, so I played this album a lot.

"Into the Mystic" by Van Morrison

This is the last song on Goodall's portion of my playlist. I associate it with the moment that 25- year- old baron Hugo van Lawick, a shy wildlife photographer who Leakey had hired to capture Jane's work on film, arrives at the remote game preserve in Tanzania, where she has been laboring alone for months, slowly habituating the chimpanzees to her presence. Hugo and Jane eventually fall in love and "Into the Mystic" seemed the perfect accompaniment to that romantic interlude. "I want to rock your gypsy soul." Van Morrison's sings, which is just what Hugo does.

Alice Waters

The songs I've chosen for the Alice Waters' portion of my playlist are the anthems of my own coming-of-age years, so for me they have special resonance. A lot of them come out of the Bay Area music scene of the 1960's, which is fitting, since Alice's story takes place largely in Berkeley, California during the 60s and 70s. I wanted the music to embody the quixotic, playful, subversive, anti-consumer-culture ethos of the era, to include anti- war anthems and songs from Monterey pop, the spirit of the summer of love and the rise of the Free Speech Movement, the embrace of living in harmony with nature and of alternative lifestyles, and the political activism and communitarian goodwill of groups like the Diggers, who staged wiggy street theater and gave out free food. And, of course I wanted the songs to be those that Alice and her friends played in the kitchen during the first heady days of Chez Panisse. (The only hard part was limiting my choices to five or six.)

So I've narrowed it down to "White Bird" by It's a Beautiful Day, because it evokes the mood of that moment: dreamy, idealistic, filled with possibility, and "White Rabbit" by Surrealistic Pillow, because its Alice in Wonderland imagery speaks to the humor, irreverence and trippy hedonism of hippie culture, and "California Dreamin" by The Mama's and the Papa's, for all of the above, and because it encapsulates the mellow, a new-more-generous-age-is-at-hand vibe of Chez Panisse in its earliest days. I've chosen "Purple Haze" by Jimmy Hendrix, to mark the moment in February 1973 when Jeremiah Tower took over the Chez Panisse kitchen, bringing with him new heights of cooking but also a more druggy and decadent kitchen culture.

"Bennie and the Jets" by Elton John, is the next to last on the list, because it was a favorite among the Chez Panisse staff for afterhours dancing. And "Monterey" by Eric Burdon, which was written in 1967, immediately after the Monterey pop festival and at the height of summer of love, closes the playlist. It's lyrics describe ‘children dancing night and day," and music "born of love," which speaks to the utopian aspirations of the era. But also to Alice's equally utopian hopes of changing the way America thinks about food and eating and the farming practices behind what we consume.

Andrea Barnet and Visionary Women links:

excerpt from the book

St. Louis Post-Dispatch review
Washington Post review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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