In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle’s novel Even As We Breathe is a stunning debut, a profound coming-of-age story.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
“Clapsaddle’s lush debut thrusts 19-year-old Cowney Sequoyah into WWII intrigue… The clear, crisp prose hums consistently as the intricate story easily moves along and new details about Cowney’s family’s past emerge. Both an astonishing addition to WWII and Native American literature, this novel sings on every level.”
In her own words, here is Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle’s Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Even As We Breathe:
Set in 1942, Even As We Breathe, relishes in the musical backdrop of Big Band, Swing and Jazz–genres that match the ebb and flow of the narrative itself. While a comprehensive playlist would include more songs by artists such as The Ink Spots and The Delta Rhythm Boys, I also consider this novel to be largely contemporary in theme and so the music is as well. The contemporary artists I have chosen represent the same soul, and often rhythm, as their artistic predecessors while providing a reminder that the ills of society such as racism, classism, and bigotry are not contained in the past. The pain they dredge is ever felt on the American lyrical continuum. This playlist is largely post-publication. These are not necessarily the songs I listened to while writing the novel, but those that seemed to find me the deeper I delved into the revision process and sharing of the narrative. Essentially, I am a romantic and I adore a good, painful love song. Many of these selections tear at my gut in only the way love can.
Son Little Lay Down
Cowney, the novel’s protagonist, begins his story in a contemplative state and introduces us to Essie, a woman he can only wish to spend time with. He studies and admires her from afar at first. Son Little’s Lay Down places me straight in the cool waters of Oconaluftee River of Cherokee, North Carolina as Cowney recalls first seeing Essie. Little wrote the song while listening to a tea kettle whistle. He begs listeners to ignore the alerts of distractions and sink into moments with those we love, just as Cowney does with Essie both at the river and later in Room 447 of the Grove Park Inn. As a writer, I delight in lounging in scenes such as these, just as Little lounges with his lover through the song’s lyrics.
Randy Travis Diggin’ Up Bones
While Asheville, North Carolina is identified as a brassy “jazz city” that “breathed blue notes” in the novel, Cherokee was built with the strings of country and gospel music and, even in the ‘40s, this music would be what Cowney grew up on and heard during his returns home that summer. Randy Travis’s Diggin’ Up Bones, released in 1986, may not have been available to Cowney, yet this lighthearted, upbeat tone in consideration of a painful history speaks to Cowney’s own coming of age and how he must cope in relative silence. Travis is also a North Carolina son, and the voice of my own childhood. There is something in our culture, whether it be Cherokee or Appalachian that balances levity with pain as a survival technique. Cowney both literally and symbolically digs up bones in the narrative. The consequences of this grow evermore dangerous despite his original, innocent motivations.
Counting Crows Monkey
Edgar, the Capuchin monkey in the story, is likely my favorite character. He is an arbiter of mystery and metaphor, just as Counting Crows’ Monkey is. While Duritz’s monkey is thought to be former girlfriend Courtney Cox, Edgar is also a reminder of lost companionship and the threat of both imprisonment and the danger of simplifying labels. Edgar (based on a real primate figure) originally served a small role for entertainment purposes when I was writing the novel. However, his importance continued to grow and his later absence became more significant than one might originally think.
Harry James Sleepy Lagoon
The Grove Park Inn, then and now, seems like a dream—perhaps a very expensive dream, but one nonetheless. Harry James’ 1942 Sleepy Lagoon echoes the nostalgic grandeur of this resort turned prison. I am transported in time by this whimsical piece, though the “guests” of the Grove Park during the summer of 1942 would no longer lavish in the decadence of such privilege evoked by the song. For me, this song is the illusion of the moment that was shattered by wartime, secrets, and loss of innocence. As a side note, coincidentally, Harry James, like Edgar, got his start in a circus.
Glenn Miller (I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo
For all of the serious subject matter presented in the novel, EAWB is not devoid of the lighthearted humor that one might expect when reading about the actions and decisions of young adults. Cowney and Essie share laughter, make friends, and create their own adventures in line with the tone of this 1942 classic.
Sarah Jarosz Build Me Up From Bones
Perhaps the most thematic reckoning of the entire playlist, Sarah Jarosz’s Build Me Up From Bones is a song I cannot stop listening to. The novel is divided into three distinct motif-driven sections: bones, blood, and skin, with breath symbolizing the human spirit as an overarching commentary. We often make so many decisions regarding citizenship and belonging based on temporary aspects of the human form that will eventually disappear when we pass. The only thing that truly remains is the human and this should be our only consideration in building our communities. And, finally, Jarosz, like many artists on this list, erases the time constraints of a soul’s true love.
Ed Sheeran I See Fire
Ed Sheeran’s I See Fire may be a bit of pop divergence, but heralds an old world ballad-style feel. Uncle Bud has brought about destruction just as the song describes. Likely because Sheeran’s song was penned for The Hobbit, it elicits a cinematic tension that I also wanted to portray in the novel. While it may be a bit theatrial for some tastes, I still respect Sheeran’s lyricism and ability to generate a physical sensation in the listener—something I strive to do in my own writing.
Billie Holiday God Bless the Child
I became a bit obsessed with Billie Holiday when reading Lady Sings the Blues. In this autobiography, she states that God Bless the Child came after an argument with her mother. Cowney, too, has his own familial struggles that are undoubted heightened by the tensions of poverty. Additionally, the recitation of amended biblical verses speaks to Cowney and Lishie’s own ideas of spirituality that embrace both Christianity and the traditional Cherokee value system. If it were on Spotify, I would have included Amazing Grace sung in the Cherokee Language as an example of this melding of cultures that both my characters and myself experience. Holiday’s song echoes the tenderness of a mother figure who refuses to spare her child from reality, knowing that doing so would only bring eventual heartache. I think of Lishie in the notes of God Bless the Child and her love for Cowney that is tempered by both protective and hopeful longings for her grandson.
Pearl Jam Just Breathe
Pearl Jam’s Just Breathe may possibly be one of my favorite songs of all time. Its complex portrayal of human existence is honest and painful, yet sweetly optimistic. It asks us to linger in a moment beyond social gaze and categories of love. It is an unconventional look at a relationship that cannot be easily defined and that is exactly the point I wanted to get across about Cowney and Essie’s relationship. In many ways, this song feels like a promise for something beyond loss. Lines like, “Practice all my sins, never gonna let me win,” are gut wrenching in their honest reflection of the human spirit. When this song was shared with me by a friend long before publication, I knew I had my title right.
George Jones He Stopped Loving Her Today
I once built a friendship on the mutual recognition that He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones is the saddest song ever recorded. Others may argue, but its message of eternal love and the slow unravel of this message is almost painful to even listen to. Essie and Cowney shared this kind of love, one greater than the world they lived in. One greater than the boundaries others established for them. Though completely different genres, Jones’ song and Just Breathe seem to be in conversation for me. They embrace this universal motif of love lasting beyond the pages of this lifetime.
Bonus Track: Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys Cherokee Maiden
I hesitate to include this song, but I think it is important and speaks to exactly the stereotypes I aim to push back against in my writing. Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys’ Cherokee Maiden was a Western Swing hit when recorded in 1941 and undoubtedly helped cement the imagery of passive Indian maidens—an othering of Native peoples that drove the tourism industry of places like Cherokee, NC. In many ways, this song makes me laugh when I think of characters like Essie who are anything but maidens. Yet, it is a reminder that the popular arts have caused much damage to Native peoples. This is a two-sided coin, of course, and I believe the arts also have a responsibility to help repair that same damage.
Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), holds degrees from Yale University and the College of William and Mary. Her work Going to Water won the Morning Star Award for Creative Writing from the Native American Literature Symposium and was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. She is coeditor of the Journal of Cherokee Studies and serves on the board of trustees for the North Carolina Writers’ Network. She resides in Qualla, North Carolina.
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