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March 2, 2016

Book Notes - Beth Hahn "The Singing Bone"

The Singing Bone

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, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Beth Hahn's debut novel The Singing Bone is a dark and complex literary thriller.

Jacquelyn Mitchard wrote of the book:

"I stayed up all night reading The Singing Bone, and I kept on reading it on the airport bus. When I finished it, I was halfway across the ocean, and I wanted to stand up in the aisle and yell, this is a terrific book by a writer with talent to burn and the only thing wrong with it was that it wasn't twice as long. Fans of the elegant, masterful, and downright chilling, watch this space for Beth Hahn."

In her own words, here is Beth Hahn's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Singing Bone:

In The Singing Bone, Alice, the main character, is a folklorist researching "The Twa' Sisters," an old murder ballad. Folklorists categorize "The Twa' Sisters" as belonging to The Singing Bone tale type, and there are echoes of the ballad throughout the novel's structure, as we discover what happened to Alice as a teenager, twenty years earlier.

The Singing Bone: A Novel has a great deal of music in it. At last count, I used over fifty songs while writing. There were endless versions of "The Twa' Sisters" to listen to, and there are other folk songs in the book, too. Since parts of the novel take place in the 1970s and early '80s, listening to music helped me envision surroundings, locate mood, and recall details of the time I might have otherwise forgotten.

Music has always had the power to bring me into a state of deep awareness and imagination, and I try to keep track of the most compelling songs as I write in case I lose the essence of a character or scene. When I say, "I'm writing," I might actually be sitting in a darkened room with headphones on and my eyes closed. In fact, I recommend just that for this playlist.

I've created a pared-down playlist of the most essential songs, but you can find the whole playlist here, and you can listen to my favorite versions of "The Twa' Sisters" here.

"Was There A Time" – Krokodil

I wonder if all music lovers played this game when they were small: I kept a radio next to my bed, and at night, when I couldn't sleep, I turned the dial as slowly as I could, hoping to find—I don't really know what—but a surprise. I switched between FM and AM until my hand grew heavy and my eyes closed. Every once in awhile, I landed on a song that kept me awake.

The habit has carried across the years—only now it's streamed songs, headphones, and randomly clicking on band names I've never heard of. Krokodil was a Swiss psychedelic band from the 1960s. "Was There A Time" is a Dylan Thomas poem set to sitar, read by a richly accented, slightly cynical sounding man whose voice is measured, a little rough. When I listen to it, the children in the song become teenage Alice and her friends, who lose their innocence to the twisted mystical narcissism of Mr. Wyck. I found this song about 2:00 a.m. one winter night while writing The Singing Bone.

"More, More, More" – Andrea True Connection

In the beginning of the novel, Alice, Molly, Trina, and Stover dance the hustle in Molly's basement, and "More, More, More" is one of the songs they dance to. I've always liked this song. Its lyrics are fragmented, and the song begins at the refrain. I think of the "narrator" as a kind of blow-up pleasure doll, or I see her filming pornography (as Andrea True did, before recording this song) and pretending to love her work, and so the song, at first fun and dancey, becomes fraught and psychologically fragile, like the characters in The Singing Bone. I love finding tension between meaning and mood in writing, and to me, "More, More, More" is a kind-of stranger song. It pretends to be one thing but, intentionally or unintentionally, it becomes something entirely different.

"Moonage Daydream" – David Bowie / "I Get Lifted" – KC & The Sunshine Band / "Main Man" – T. Rex / "Black Dog" – Led Zeppelin

These songs are pure Jack Wyck for me. If I needed his voice and couldn't find it, I put my headphones on and cued these up. He's the strut and demand of "Moonage," the seducer in "I Get Lifted," the trippy messianic lullaby of "Main Man," and the pimpish misogyny of "Black Dog."

"Durge" – Extra-Action Marching Band

In 2011, the Occupy movement camped out in Zuccotti Park. I loved visiting the camp, and whenever I could, I went to their protests, which were more like parties if the Extra-Action Marching Band showed up, as they often did. Though Extra-Action is a lot more fun and has loads more talent and charisma than the rag-tag Wyckian band, they are the the inspiration for the band in The Singing Bone's graveyard scene.

"Dark Eyes" – Devotchka

There are endless versions of "Dark Eyes," but I love the way Devotchka's opening violin fools the listener into thinking the song might be lovely and sweet. It's a bit of hypnosis, because then the drums come, and the song builds, gets louder, and climaxes with the crash of cymbals, and then settles into a melancholic denouement with a bit of spook at the end. There's something in the controlled chaos of this "Dark Eyes" that captures what I wanted in the way The Singing Bone unfolds.

"The Twa Sisters" – Paul Clayton

Like "Dark Eyes," there are endless recorded versions of the "The Twa' Sisters." I like the way Clayton sings his version simply, and there is something in this simplicity that makes the ballad more powerful and evocative. Paul Clayton was a folklorist, and the preservation of the original material is apparent. One of the most interesting aspects of folklore is that we tell the same story to each other over and over again. We change the characters and swap out endings, but the story remains essentially the same, just as The Singing Bone is a retelling of "The Twa' Sisters."

"Impossible" – Gang of Four / "EFS No 7" – Can / "Interzone" – Joy Division / "Super" – Neu

I listened to these songs during the time I was writing the novel's climactic sequences, as Mr. Wyck's hold over Alice and her friends leads to a night of horrific violence. I'd avoided writing these scenes as long as I could, but I knew it had to be done. In my twenties, I listened to these bands a lot and still like them, and it helped to have something familiar in the madness. They are also apt for The Singing Bone time period.

"Three Blind Mice" – Nat King Cole

This is another song that poses as something it's not. I never thought about how strange this song is until I used it in The Singing Bone. I imagine Allegra, who was with Mr. Wyck before he discovered Alice and her friends, as the farmer's wife with the carving knife, while Alice and her friends Molly and Trina are the three blind mice.

"Mothers Taught" - Cursillistas / "Cover the Long Way" – Grouper

When I was writing The Singing Bone, I thought a lot about what the songs that Mr. Wyck recorded his group of followers might sound like. I liked the idea of the lyrics being barely decipherable, of the voices changing and shifting. "Mothers Taught" and "Cover the Long Way" are the closest things I've ever found to the sound I imagined.

"All Tomorrow's Parties" – The Velvet Underground

A long time ago, a friend mentioned that she didn't think I could make a mix tape without a Velvet Underground song it—which was true—and so I put one in my book. "All Tomorrow's Parties" is an old favorite, and immediately brings me to Alice, to her costumes, her black dresses, her play. It feels like Alice to me, this song, at her saddest and most confused.

"Ek Ong Kar (Morning Call)" - Karam Kriya School

I'm a yoga teacher as well as a writer, and much of the cultish aspect surrounding Mr. Wyck was inspired by various famous teachers of the past. As with any wisdom-practice, in yoga, we're told stories of death and rebirth, magic and exploration. For me, the psychological and emotional aspects of a regular yoga practice are the most intriguing, but to others, yoga is a spiritual quest. This chant is popular in the Kundalini method, and roughly translates--

There is a creator / Truth is his name / Great is his wisdom

Chanting mudras with others is a strange and ecstatic experience. Though it's never convinced me to take up a more spiritual practice, I do find it psychologically fascinating. I tried to infuse The Singing Bone with the haunted quality I associate with deep belief.

Beth Hahn and The Singing Bone links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

BookPage review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Necessary Fiction essay by the author
Writers Digest essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)