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October 29, 2010

Book Notes - Lee Sandlin ("Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Lee Sandlin's new bookWicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild offers a rare, non-nostalgic look at the Mississippi River of the 1800s (until the battle of Vicksburg in 1863). Drawing on personal accounts, Sandlin tells the stories of pirates and prostitution, missionaries and thieves, as well as the natural disasters that plagued the river and its environs. The stories are truly riveting, an honest glimpse into America's past.

Bibliokept wrote of the book:

"Sandlin’s own book plumbs that culture, revealing strange, wild tales of river pirates and con-men, fiddlers and gamblers, road agents and robbers, politicians and drunkards, and Indians and would-be “civilizers.” Sandlin’s canny observations come from a myriad of first-hand accounts–always the sign of a legitimate history–but Wicked River is never dry or dusty, but rather brims with vigor and intensity, whether we’re learning about the earthquakes that shook up New Madrid, the tornado that smashed Natchez, the sinking of the Sultana, or the ice floe that destroyed the St. Louis Harbor."

In his own words, here is Lee Sandlin's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild:

I listen to music incessantly when I write, and when I'm working on longer stories I usually fixate randomly on some obscure or minor piece of music and play it over and over again because I think it somehow connects to my subject -- once it was the slow movement from a Vaughan Williams symphony, which I listened to at least three times a day, every day, for a year and a half. (I used headphones, so I didn't drive everybody else in my life into a murderous rage.) For Wicked River, which is an extended historical study about the Mississippi River, I thought I'd try something different, and deliberately absorb myself in the folk and popular music of the period (roughly 1810 to 1865). This didn't work out. First, because modern performances of this music are intolerably dweeby -- the performers are all so self-consciously bluff and hearty and boisterous that after a while you just want to punch them in the head. Second, there's the average quality of the music itself, which, as Huck Finn mildly observes, was "kind of poor." So instead I ended up listening to a lot of music that I thought was authentic sounding but which a scholar would probably tell me was anachronistic and wrong, along with the same random odd stuff that I always think fits my work but nobody else ever agrees. Here are four examples:

Elder Golden P. Harris

I know nothing whatever about this man, and I'm only aware of two recordings by him. They're on a Yazoo compilation called "How Can I Keep From Singing: Early American Religious Music and Song." They were recorded in the 1930s, but their style, as the liner notes accurately describe, is "incredibly archaic." Harris's weird, keening voice and squawking fiddle seem like survivals from some remote American region that never got mapped; they were a constant reminder to me that the past is more mysterious than we think.

"Harp of a Thousand Strings: All-Day Singing from the Sacred Harp"

Sacred Harp singing, which is also known as shapenote singing, goes back to the 19th century, but it is still with us and is still a vital American musical tradition. For me it was kind of a counter to the Harris recordings, because it suggests that the old America still persists, even if it is buried deep under a landfill of contemporary crud. As I can personally testify, shapenote singing is really hard to learn -- in fact I suck at it, even apart from my having the worst singing voice in the world. But other people do it very, very well. There's nothing like a live performance for raw soul-shaking power; it compares favorably with any hymn-singing I've heard in the cathedrals of Europe. That doesn't really come across in recordings. But this one made by Alan Lomax does capture something of its strange and complex polyphony, which is immersive, rich, and unbelievably beautiful.

"From Me Flows What You Call Time" Toru Takemitsu

This is something else I once heard live, performed by the avant-garde percussion group Nexus and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. They hung all kinds of strange bells around the rafters of the hall, and sounded them by pulling on enormously long pastel ribbons which reached down to the stage. There's a recording on Sony with Nexus and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, which may be a bit tepid in comparison but is still interesting. The title is from a Japanese poem about a river. The truth is, I don't know whether I actually like the music all that much. I may have just liked thinking about the title.

"The Mandara Trilogy," Someh Satoh

Writing Wicked River, I listened to Satoh almost as much as I once listened to that Vaughn Williams piece. This disk is kind of hard to defend: three pieces of extremely abstract music mixing ambient techniques, traditional Japanese motifs and avant-garde classical harmonies. Some of it is so ambient it just sounds like trucks whooshing past in an industrial parking lot. But as sheer background music, it was remarkably effective. It kept me isolated for hours at a time in a strange sonic landscape that had nothing to do with anything going on in my actual life -- which is the perfect frame of mind to be in when you're struggling to recreate the feel of a vanished world.

Lee Sandlin and Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book (at the Denver Post)

Atlanta Journal-Constitution review
Bibliokept review
The Daily Best review
Denver Post review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review profile of the author
Time Out Chicago profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists