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March 29, 2012

Book Notes - Derek McCulloch - "Gone to Amerikay"

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, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, and many others.

Gone to Amerikay impressively weaves together three Irish immigrant stories through the years with a touch of the supernatural. Colleen Doran's dazzling, vivid artwork and Derek McCulloch's perfectly paced storytelling make this one of the year's finest graphic novels.

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Derek McCulloch's Book Notes music playlist for his graphic novel, Gone to Amerikay:

Gone to Amerikay is a book both about and inspired by Irish folk music, the music that most inescapably formed the soundtrack of my childhood. Sometime before I was born, my parents saw the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem on the Ed Sullivan Show, and their repertoire appealed to my father enough that he bought one or two of their albums. When I arrived on the scene, those albums were well-worn and their jackets were ragged, but by the time I was four I was the member of the family who spent the most time listening to them. I can't now guess what it was that attracted me to the music, but it's stayed with me my whole life. And before long, it was well known throughout my vast array of family relations that the thing I would want most for Christmas or birthdays was a Clancy Brothers record that I didn't already own. I amassed a vast collection and listened to it constantly, memorizing the songs and unknowingly schooling myself in the oral history of 400 years of political struggle. Not to say I had that strong a grasp of what I was learning, though…I remember once when I was eight or so having harsh words with the English kid across the street about his people's execution of Roddy McCorley, the eponymous hero of my favorite Clancy Brothers song. At no time did it occur to me which side my Scottish forebears would have likely taken in that argument.

In writing Gone to Amerikay, I returned repeatedly to those songs from my childhood to find the right bit of musical color to fill out a scene. Here are the songs, Irish and otherwise, that comprise the soundtrack to Gone to Amerikay.

"Cockles and Mussels," also known as "Molly Malone". This tragic ballad of a Dublin fishmonger who expires of a fever and returns to haunt the streets she walked in life is so closely associated with Dublin that a statue of poor Molly stands on Grafton Street. Almost certainly a fictional story composed by a Scotsman who never visited Dublin, the song nonetheless is regarded by many as a true historical account which, in a broader sense, it probably is. Our depiction of the song in Gone to Amerikay is equally dodgy historically…we show Irish children in New York singing it 1870, while the first written record of the song doesn't come until 1883. It's certainly possible that the song existed before then and that the children in our story could have been familiar with it, but I would makes the odds on that only slightly less long than those for a "real" Molly Malone. It's curious, incidentally, that this has been traditionally viewed as a children's song, given poor Molly's unrelievedly dismal life and death and the traditional assumption that she sold fish by day and herself by night. At any rate, there are dozens and dozens of recordings of this song under various titles, but for this soundtrack I'll select the version by The Dubliners on Forty Years – Live from the Gaiety.

"The Jolly Beggarman" or "The Little Beggarman". This song, selected for its energy and infectious good humor, is another one with many titles and many recorded versions, and like many such songs its origins are rather uncertain. It's been linked with "The Jolly Beggar," a ballad reputedly written by King James VI of Scotland (and, later, James I of England), but the two songs don't really seem to have much in common other than featuring men little who beg and yet are jolly (probably because they both seem to have quite a way with the ladies). "The Little Beggarman" shows up in Gone to Amerikay as a spontaneous jig played in a barroom, and its performance serves as a bonding agent for three expatriate Irishmen. The version I'll put forth for this soundtrack is by The High Kings from their self-titled album.

"Barbara Allen". This ballad comes from somewhere in the British Isles—nobody is really sure where—and is old enough to have been mentioned in Samuel Pepys' diary. It concerns a pretty girl so hard-hearted that she rejects her ardent suitor as he lies on his deathbed. The tale of cruelty (and, eventually, repentance) proved so popular and enduring that it survived transplantation to the new world and continued to spawn new country and bluegrass versions well into the twentieth century, and has been recorded by everyone from The Grateful Dead to John Travolta. The version in our book is, it pleases me to say, one that never existed until I wrote it. I created a regional variation that might have been (but never was) sung in County Meath. My ambition only took me far enough to write an opening couplet, but I like to think I've now made my own small contribution to this ancient folk tradition. For this soundtrack, I'll nominate a pretty a capella version by Lucy Wainwright Roche which I found on a compilation album called Old Wine, New Skins.

"Frankie and Albert". My previous graphic novel, Stagger Lee, took a small digression into the real-life 1890 St. Louis murder that underlies the perennial blues ballad known variously as "Frankie and Johnny" and "Frankie and Albert." The real Frankie was a young lady named Frankie Baker, who shot her boyfriend Allen ("Albert") Britt during an argument over his infidelity. Frankie successfully argued self-defense and was acquitted, but found herself forever tied to the murder by the song. She moved away from St. Louis, eventually settling in Oregon. In the 1930s, when Mae West made She Done Him Wrong, based on and featuring a version of the song, Frankie sued the studio for defamation, claiming gross inaccuracies in their treatment of the story. She fared less well in court than she had when her freedom was in the balance. The movie was definitely inaccurate, but the jury did not see that this entitled Frankie to any compensation. In Gone to Amerikay, Frankie and Albert is one of several songs sung by one of my favorites of the characters Colleen and I created, Queen Mae, the royal monarch of the blues. Since Queen Mae is unfortunately unable to represent herself on "Frankie and Albert" for this soundtrack, I'll go instead with the version of "Frankie and Johnny" by Ethel Waters found on the album Down in My Soul.

"The Wind that Shakes the Barley". Explicitly a song of Irish rebellion, this is also a tragic love song and a murder ballad all in one. A young man decides to leave his love to join the fight against the English – and while he's breaking up with her, she's shot dead by a soldier, hardening all the more the young man's resolve to fight. In Gone to Amerikay, the song shows up as an impromptu audition by a couple of would-be actors. I picked the song for that particular scene because of the sense it carries of moving from one life to another—and because I can imagine an intense and intimate performance of the song raising goosebumps on a receptive audience. For this soundtrack, I'll go with the first version I ever knew, the one by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem on their 1956 album, The Rising of the Moon.

"Ain't Nobody's Business" or "Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness if I Do". When I wrote the scene this song appears in, I wanted to find an immediately recognizable standard that expressed defiance of convention…and had lyrics that have entered public domain. That last part was crucial, because I wanted to be sure I could quote as much of the song as possible. I don't remember how I came to think of it, but Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins' classic blues composition satisfies the practical third criterion and the first two aesthetic criteria better than any song I know. It plays a perfect counterpoint to a moment in the book when two characters throw convention rather brazenly to the wind. For the soundtrack, I'll pick Dinah Washington's version from The Fats Waller Songbook.

"Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye". This Irish ballad shares with the American Civil War ballad "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" both a tune and a subject—the return to civilian life from soldiering—but in all other respects are complete opposites. The soldier in the American version returns to a hero's welcome from the friends and family who have anxiously waited for him at home. Characteristically less optimistic, the soldier in the Irish version returns physically wrecked and receives only scorn from the woman he abandoned to go fighting foreign wars for British merchants. I knew at a fairly early stage that I'd want to drop this song into the book somewhere, because it underscores a key moment in the plot, when our heroine Ciara O'Dwyer hears that her husband has joined the British Army and left her to raise their daughter by herself. I confess I'm unconvinced how realistic my choice was for the moment when the song shows up—though I suppose there are stranger songs for a woman to sing when doing the laundry. I may also have gone astray when I changed the line which The Clancy Brothers (whose version was again the first I ever knew) as "why did you skedaddle from me and the child" to "why did you run from me and the child," under the assumption that "skedaddle" was a 20th century slang word that probably wouldn't have been in use in 1870. Later research shows that the word was first recorded in 1860, and likely as not I'd changed the traditional version of the line to one that arose in the late 20th century after an admittedly silly-sounding word had fallen out of fashion. Whatever the case, I'll go with a more contemporary version of the song for the soundtrack –Dropkick Murphys, off their album The Meanest of Times. (They say "run.")

"I'll Be Seeing You". You're liable to miss this one in the book – unlike "Ain't Nobody's Business," Liberace's theme song has yet to lapse into public domain and had to be radically truncated for publication. This rather diminished its intended comedic resonance in the scene, but we'll include it in the soundtrack for the completists. Versions with and without vocals appear on various Liberace albums; Liberace's Greatest Hits is as good a place to go as any.

"The Castle of Dromore" or "October Winds". Ireland has several castles of Dromore that might claim to be the one in the song. Each castle has its partisans, but conclusive proof for any has yet to emerge. It's understandable that any castle—or any place really—would like to be associated with this song, one of the loveliest lullabies ever written. After all, the castle in the song is a safe haven from a hostile world, where the promise of youth persists despite all the evil and decay beyond the castle walls. In the scene where the song appears in Gone to Amerikay, the castle is a rehearsal space and the promise of youth resides in a young man discovering himself as an artist. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem recorded the song under both titles. For the soundtrack, I'll go with Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy's beautiful duet on "October Winds," from the album Hearty and Hellish!

"Strange Fruit". This was actually the first song I knew would be included in Gone to Amerikay because I constructed a pivotal scene around it, where the civil rights anthem is forcibly degenerated into a homophobic slur. Sadly, this song too had to be truncated in published form, but just enough remains to get the point across. Strange Fruit was written in 1939 by teacher and activist Abel Meeropol, in horrified reaction to the ongoing lynching of black men in the United States. It was made famous by Billie Holiday and remains most closely associated with her. The track can be found on any number of Holiday compilations.

"The Gentleman Soldier". This jaunty song of a most ungentlemanly gentleman appears in Gone to Amerikay as a throwaway, and its use is a bit suspect historically. We feature it in a scene that takes place in 1870, though it was first "collected" in the folkloric sense in 1907. It's certain the song is older than that, having been quoted by Rudyard Kipling in a book first published in 1888, but how long its origin precedes that quote is anyone's guess. For the soundtrack, I naturally select the first version I knew, that of The Pogues on their incredible album, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash.

"Rosin the Beau". I often describe the music of my youth as "tradition Irish music: songs of getting drunk and dying." This song, which has too many variant titles to bother listing here, is perhaps the most comprehensive example of what I mean. "When I'm dead and laid out on the counter/A voice you will hear from below/Saying ‘Send down a hogshead of whiskey/To drink with old Rosin the Bow'"—what seven-year-old boy could resist such drama? In Gone to Amerikay, I thought it the most appropriate song to turn up at an intersection between the world of the living and the world of the dead. To close the soundtrack, I'll return one last time to the Clancys and Tommy Makem, and select the version from their album The First Hurrah!

"Thousands Are Sailing". This is not a song you'll find quoted anywhere in Gone to Amerikay, but it's the one song without which the book would never have existed. Written by Philip Chevron for my favorite band of all time, The Pogues, this was a passionate evocation of the dreams America embodied for the Irish people—the dreams and the implacable reality. This song provided the inspiration for the entire book; and if the book holds up even a tiny bit to that inspiration, then we've done a job we can be proud of. Shane MacGowan sang the song on The Pogues' album If I Should Fall from Grace with God, but for this soundtrack I'll pick the live version sung by Philip himself on Streams of Whiskey.

Naturally, with so many different extant versions of every song on the list, you could construct an equally valid soundtrack for this book without duplicating any of my picks. I hope you'll be inspired to explore folk songs from both sides of the broad Atlantic and improve on my choices as your own taste dictates.

If you want to check in with me about Gone to Amerikay or my other books, go to or, or "Like" The Derek McCulloch Experience on Facebook.

Derek McCulloch and Gone to Amerikay links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
the illustrator's website
excerpt from the book

Comics Bulletin review
It's My Genre, Baby review

IrishCentral profile of the illustrator
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Stagger Lee
Speakeasy profile of the collaborators
Tastes Like Comic interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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