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October 30, 2018

David Grann's Playlist for His Book "The White Darkness"

The White Darkness

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

David Grann's new book The White Darkness is the thrilling story of Antarctic adventurer Henry Worsley.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote of the book:

"The suspense of a thriller…so compelling…Grann is expert at making readers feel as if they are on the journey."


In his own words, here is David Grann's Book Notes music playlist for his book The White Darkness:


While researching my new book, The White Darkness, about the remarkable polar explorer Henry Worsley, I was curious about the music that he and his companions listened to while enduring a brutal and uninhabitable environment. What songs inspired and nourished them during those endless hours?

Worsley was a polymath and a revered British Army officer. Ever since he was young, he’d been obsessed with the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. During the early twentieth century, Shackleton had failed in repeated attempts to reach the South Pole and a later effort to trek across Antarctica, but he had rescued his men from certain death and proven himself to be a masterful leader. Worsley felt a special connection to the great explorer: one of Worsley’s ancestors had been a member of a Shackleton-led expedition. Worsley became a leading authority on Shackleton, and even modeled his military command on the explorer’s methods of leadership.

In 2008, one hundred years after Shackleton tried to reach the South Pole, Worsley set out to reenact the doomed journey, which was known as the Nimrod expedition. It was Worsley’s first polar experience. He was forty-eight, and he teamed up with two descendants from the original party: a thirty-seven-year-old banker named Will Gow, who was Shackleton’s great-nephew, and Henry Adams, a thirty-four-year-old shipping lawyer and the great-grandson of Jameson Boyd Adams—the second-in-command on the Nimrod expedition.

Worsley and his two companions planned to try to reach Shackleton’s farthest point and then press on to the South Pole, completing, in Gow’s words, “unfinished family business.” It was a journey of more than nine hundred miles, across a region where icy winds frequently blow at gale force and temperatures can sink to minus one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Each man had to haul all his supplies on a sled, which weighed, at the outset, more than three hundred pounds. Worsley estimated that the expedition would take nine weeks. Because of the howling winds, it was hard to converse as they trekked—sometimes as long as fourteen hours a day. To break the awesome silence, each of them carried an iPod with playlists.

“Eyes on the Prize,” by Bruce Springsteen and The Seeger Sessions Band

Worsley’s taste was eclectic, but the songs he often returned to on his playlist were by Springsteen and The Seeger Sessions Band. “Eyes on the Prize” had obvious resonance. As Worsley hauled his sled, with his back bent and every muscle aching, he took encouragement from “I got my hand on the gospel plow / Won’t take nothing for / my journey now.”

“Ramblin’ Man,” by Lemon Jelly

During the morning hours, Gow preferred to march without music; if he played songs early in the day, he became consumed with calculating how many minutes and seconds each song lasted and with worrying about how far he still had to go. In the afternoons, though, he liked to slide his skis to Lemon Jelly’s electronic pulsating rhythms.

Rachmaninoff Vespers

The winds whipped up ice particles into blinding whiteouts, making it impossible to see which way was up or down. Adams, who once became so disoriented and nauseous in a whiteout that he threw up, found solace in Rachmaninoff’s choral sounds.

“Space Oddity,” by David Bowie

Gow also used music to maintain his sanity during whiteouts, though a Bowie song he listened to had an ominous message:

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead,
there’s something wrong

“Bird Gerhl” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” by Antony and the Johnsons

Worsley and his companions occasionally shared their music with each other. Adams had Worsley listen to Rachmanoff’s Vespers, and Worsley introduced both Gow and Adams to Antony and the Johnsons.

“Mothership,” by Led Zeppelin

Gow’s favorite music is the blues, but his most vivid memories on the journey are of marching through the fog of ice particles to this compilation of greatest hits by Led Zeppelin, which includes “Ramble On,” “Achilles Last Stand,” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Gow recalled, “It was hard-hitting stuff that gave you a jolt and kept you alert.”

“We Shall Overcome,” by Bruce Springsteen and The Seeger Sessions Band

As the party neared the South Pole, Worsley was depleted. “Energy just poured from my body, to be snatched away and dissipated by the wind,” he later wrote. “My legs would not work any faster. Each stride of the ski seemed locked at a precise distance.” He was spurred on by the lines “We are not afraid, / We are not afraid.”

On January 18, 2009, at 4:32 P.M., after sixty-six days, Worsley and his companions—emaciated, with icicles dripping from their beards—reached the South Pole. Worsley never thought that he’d return to Antarctica again, but inevitably he was drawn back. In 2015, at age fifty-five, he bade farewell to his family and embarked on his most perilous quest: to walk across Antarctica alone.

This time, his playlist included even more songs than before. Early during the journey, he noted, “Music certainly helped today,” adding, “Lots of Bowie, Johnny Cash, and Meat Loaf.” But as he pressed on the earbuds to his iPod broke, and he found himself alone in utter silence.


David Grann and The White Darkness links:

the author's website

Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Wall Street Journal review

CBS Sunday Morning profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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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

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