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May 20, 2020

Juditha Dowd's Playlist for Her Poetry Collection "Audubon's Sparrow"

Audubon's Sparrow by Juditha Dowd

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Juditha Dowd's Audubon's Sparrow is a unique and entrancing book, a "biography-in-poems" that vividly portrays the life of Lucy Bakewell, wife of James John Audubon.

The New York Journal of Books wrote of the book:

"Dowd’s combined depth of research and imaginative understanding results in a remarkable work—brief, spare, and deeply rewarding to read."

In her own words, here is Juditha Dowd's Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection Audubon's Sparrow:

Ten years ago, when I borrowed Richard Rhodes’ book John James Audubon: The Making of an American from my husband’s nightstand, I had no intention of creating a verse narrative in the voice of Audubon’s English wife, Lucy Bakewell. I just wanted a good read. My initial response to the biography was to write a few poems about the intrepid couple, poems I thought might eventually form part of a chapbook. But even more than her husband, Lucy Bakewell had gotten under my skin, and soon she became my primary interest. Over the next few years I committed myself to telling her remarkable story, one that deserves to be better known, and my handful of poems expanded into a full-length biography of invented letters, diary entries and dramatic monologues in Lucy’s voice, interspersed with Audubon’s drawings and brief excerpts from his published writings. The Audubon’s Sparrow playlist follows the pair from their meeting as teenagers in 1804 (soon after both arrived in America), through decades of travel along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers—a journey haunted by misfortune and poverty but also, against all odds, resulting in the publication of Aubudon’s masterpiece, The Birds of America.

"Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair" - Peter Hollens & Avi Kaplan

John James Audubon is a larger-than-life personality—gregarious, handsome, impetuous, and multi-talented. Having come to America from France a few months earlier, he takes his time before paying the customary social call on his new neighbors, a family of wealthy English gentry from Derbyshire. When he finally visits, he is smitten by the Bakewell’s eldest daughter, Lucy—at eighteen, a striking and poised young woman who does not at first share his infatuation. It’s easy to imagine young Audubon obsessing over the lady he desires, even as he finds excuses to see her again—a skating party, a walk in a nearby woods to study birds. This contemporary arrangement of “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” speaks to Audubon’s physicality, passionate nature and tendency toward hyperbole.

"I Gave My Love a Cherry" - Nana Mouskari

Although taken aback by the Frenchman’s brash style, Lucy soon becomes enamored of John James, pleased when her mother invites him to join the family for supper or an evening of music and dancing at the Bakewell’s Pennsylvania plantation. Even so, Lucy’s natural reserve plus the social conventions of the era encourage quieter ways of making her interest known. “I Gave My Love A Cherry” is an old English lullaby that Lucy probably learned from her mother and may sing to her younger siblings, who are often in her care. This gentle song is also a riddle, with a girlish and teasing quality appropriate to the couple’s early stage of courtship.

"Islands in the Stream" - Bertine Zetlitz
(note: I prefer this intimate version to “bigger” ones recorded by some better-known names.)

Despite the misgivings of Lucy’s father, who envisions a more practical and better-situated husband for his daughter, Lucy and John James marry in 1808 and set out for Louisville, Kentucky, joining the great westward migration of the nineteenth century. The grueling trip of several weeks via overland carriage and riverboat test the young woman, but there is no indication it dampens her resolve. The pair’s passionate devotion, as well as their confidence in a joint ability to meet the future’s demands, are vividly expressed by “Islands in the Stream.”

"Hush, Little Baby" - Elizabeth Guest

John James opens a general store after the couple arrives in Louisville. The frontier town is bustling, people of all sorts needing supplies a general store would stock—food staples, cloth, building materials, tools, hunting gear, and so on. Lucy hopes they will settle in a cabin of their own, but housing is in short supply. After a year the couple is still living at the Indian Queen Hotel, a rough frontier establishment that provides three basic meals a day and houses travelers overnight in a common dormitory. But soon the Audubons secure their own room, which affords them a little privacy. Here in 1809 Lucy bears her first child, Victor Gifford Audubon. It’s likely she turns to familiar lullabies to soothe him in the noisy hotel, as well as to keep a newborn’s crying from annoying others trying to get a few hours’ sleep.

"Maybe I’m Amazed" - Paul McCartney

The Audubons move to what John James considers a better store location: Henderson, KY, a rough town one hundred miles south on the Ohio River. It doesn’t take much longer for him to realize he’s ill-suited to business, though he tries hard to make a success of it and is disturbed by (and ashamed of) his failures. Still, he remains distracted by the abundant natural world, an environment where he often spends days studying wildlife and hunting for the family’s food—days when he neglects his duties at the store. Lucy seems to understand and sympathize with this ambivalence, appreciating her husband’s talents and his longing for a different life. Beyond a strong physical attraction, this compassionate understanding may be what most binds John James to his wife.

"In the Arms of an Angel" - The Celtic Angels

The Audubon’s third child, a daughter also named Lucy, is born with hydrocephalus (commonly known as “water on the brain”), a painful, disfiguring condition that is usually fatal. Both parents are deeply attached to the little girl and try to make her as comfortable as possible, but she dies before her second birthday, in 1816. Around the same time John James overextends himself and the family resources by building an expensive and difficult-to-operate steam mill. Baby Lucy’s death ushers in a sustained dark period, one that will challenge the Audubons’ strength, commitment and endurance, both as a couple and individually.

"Take Me To The River" - Eva Cassidy

In 1819, a collapse of the U.S. economy hits the new western states particularly hard. The Audubons are among its many casualties, losing their land, businesses, and home. John James moves his family along the Ohio River to several different locations before ending up in Cincinnati, where he has been promised work as a taxidermist at a museum. To bring in extra money he teaches art and makes portraits for townspeople, while Lucy tutors a few neighbor children along with her sons. When the museum cannot pay him, Audubon decides to seek publication for his bird drawings, which by now are many. He’s recently seen work by another naturalist, Alexander Wilson, and has reason to believe his own art and knowledge are superior. But to publish, he will need to increase his collection considerably. Along with an apprentice, he leaves Cincinnati to travel to New Orleans, drawing birds and animals and paying his way by hunting for food when the flatboat is in port. Lucy and their two sons, close to destitute, remain in Cincinnati for the winter before moving downriver to stay with her married sister until it’s warm enough to travel south. Lucy seldom hears from her husband, partly because he has no money to send. To make matters worse, she receives word that her beloved father has died in Pennsylvania.

At this juncture Lucy desperately needs reassurance that she and her sons are John James’ priority, as too often has not seemed to be the case. And she is angry. The long separation and her impoverished state are proving to be the last straw. She considers leaving her husband, a radical and risky move for any woman at the time.

"Somewhere Out There" - Linda Ronstadt & James Ingram

After reassurances by John James, as well as the receipt of money earned from his making portraits in New Orleans, Lucy reconsiders. When spring comes she gathers her sons and travels to New Orleans, hoping for the best. There she is encouraged to see that her husband’s drawings have achieved a new mastery, improving his chances of publication. But John James is plagued by self-doubt, often unable to draw or even to hunt. Recognizing that the family’s best chances for survival lie with her, Lucy takes the first of several positions, serving as a tutor and music instructor on the plantations of wealthy local families. In an era where women are generally barred from paid employment, teaching is an exception, a respectable albeit lowly position; essentially, she is a domestic servant. Despite several dramatically-unpleasant incidents involving John James and one of Lucy’s employers, this is a mostly happy period for the reunited family. Eventually the Audubons save enough money so John James can travel to England, hoping to find an engraver for his pictures and enough subscribers to make production possible.

"Only a Woman’s Heart" - Mary Black

John James’s considerable success in England and France go to his head, leaving Lucy to rightly feel he has not appreciated her sacrifices. Their letters, which often cross enroute, are rife with misunderstandings and accusations. Once again, the relationship is being tested past endurance. More often than not now, Lucy is sad and discouraged as she goes about her teaching duties, uncertain about the future.

"I’m Here" - Cynthia Erivo

During this period Lucy finds herself a better position with another Louisiana plantation owner who is less demanding and more appreciative of her considerable abilities. It is here that she comes into her own, developing a music school with fifteen students and a waiting list. By now her sons are nearly grown and both are back in Kentucky, one as an accounting apprentice, the other as a student supported by her youngest brother. Lucy has little to offer them anymore; they need a father’s hand. Now in her forties, she is tired of waiting for her mercurial husband to send for her. Come for me, she writes, doubting that he ever will. But these days she is comfortable and reasonably content to be where she is, for the first time in many years. She enjoys spending evenings playing music with her employers’ guests or riding out on a Sunday afternoon, alone with her horse on a windy day. She has finally achieved some well-earned peace.

"I’m Your Man" - Leonard Cohen

But he does come. Arriving unexpectedly in New York, John James writes to Lucy and insists she travel north to meet him. From there they will go back to England together. However, as he makes clear, there are matters to attend to while he awaits her—lectures to give at societies, important people to see, days he must spend drawing new wildlife for his productions … Hurry, he says, making his usual assumptions. Unimpressed, Lucy holds her ground. She too has work to do, other obligations. If he wants her, then he must come to Louisiana. Months pass. Letters cease. And then early one morning, as she begins her day at the piano with a young music student, the door to her apartment inches opens ….

Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man,” a song of swagger, persistence, sympathy and infinite possibility is perfect for the now-famous but still emotionally needy John James.

"Back to Before" - Marin Mazzie

The Audubons are about to step into a brighter chapter, a successful period that will help them forget some of their past hardships and unhappiness. Nonetheless, it’s a safe bet that their relationship, newly rebalanced, has altered permanently—and almost certainly for the better.

Juditha Dowd is the author of a full-length poetry collection, Mango in Winter (Grayson Books, 2013), as well as short fiction, lyric essays, and three poetry chapbooks—The Weathermancer (Finishing Line, 2006), What Remains (Finishing Line, 2009), and Back Where We Belong (Casa de Cinco Hermanas, 2012). Her work appears in many journals and anthologies, including Poet Lore, Poetry Daily, The Florida Review, Spillway, Rock & Sling, Kestrel, and About Place. With the ensemble Cool Women she regularly performs poetry in the New York-Philadelphia metro area and occasionally on the west coast. Juditha currently lives in Easton, Pennsylvania with her husband and two cats, not far from where Lucy Bakewell began her long-ago adventure with John James Audubon. Visit her website at

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