October 6, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Lucile Scott's An American Covenant is a necessary and eye-opening book about five women mystics and their roles in shaping American culture.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Journalist Scott delivers an in-depth look at five ‘feminist mystics’ from American history in her provocative debut…[and] reveals how the female leaders of these movements have risen to prominence and been repressed by the powers that be…In addition to biographical sketches of each woman, Scott provides the historical context for their movements, and details her own search for identity and spiritual solace amid personal turmoil…Scott writes with blunt honesty, a sharp eye for detail, and a strong sense of purpose. The result is an impassioned tribute to the perseverance and radicalism of female spiritual leaders in America."
An American Covenant is a story about America and five female mystic leaders over three centuries who helped transform it—though by and large we’ve mocked them for their efforts then forgotten their names. It’s a story about resistance. It’s a story about power, control, and freedom. It’s also a story about a slight, blonde lesbian in her mid-thirties trying to parse her way through both personal and cosmic chaos—me.
I have selected 13 songs for this playlist—with 13 being the prime witching number, as well as the optimal attendance for a séance, according to certain leading 19th century Spiritualists. The overall genre of the playlist is, I’d say, punk-rock-Americana. I’d also like to offer that as alt-genre for the book, which, like Americana, employs elements and incidents that resonate powerfully in the collective American unconscious. However, unlike Americana, it does not do so to cast a spell of nostalgia for a lost past that never really was, but as part of a more punk-rock endeavor to deconstruct outmoded national narratives and recast them into a foundation that can sprout a better world. #HexThePatriarchy
1. “Gloria,” Patti Smith
Because a woman growling “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” seems the optimal opening for a playlist about maverick female mystics. Plus, in this proto-punk classic, Patti Smith magically deconstructs the Van Morrison original featuring the same refrain, transforming his little ditty about an object-girl “who used to be prissy” into a swaggering anthem from the perspective of a woman who when “People say 'beware!'” thinks, “I don’t care,” and then proceeds to successfully seduce another woman “humpin' on the parking meter, leanin' on the parking meter.”
2. “Standing in the Way of Control,” Gossip
Because standing in the way of control = Each of these five women’s bread and butter.
3. “The Navigator,” Hurray for the Riff Raff
Hurray for the Riff Raff is perhaps my favorite New Orleans band. And the book opens there in the early 1800s, with Marie Laveau, the Big Easy’s most powerful Voodoo Queen—or as someone who knew her once put it, “the real boss of New Orleans.” But the real boss or no, Marie Laveau was also a woman of color living in a time when a white supremacist American system was bent on stamping out the liberty Marie had found in her mystic powers and formerly Creole world. This song, laced with Spanish lyrics and Latin beats, tells the story of a woman whose people have lost their cultural homeland and who turns to a mystic force referred to as She for navigation.
4. “Marie Laveau,” Papa Celestin
After her death, the legend of Marie Laveau, went down two forking paths. The first, forged in books written by white men, painted and her “Voodoos” as powerful but satanic. The second, forged via the oral tradition in black enclaves of New Orleans, painted Marie as a figure of mystic resistance. This song by Louisiana’s own Papa Celestin, who was born in 1884 shortly after Marie’s death, relays the later.
5. “New York,” St. Vincent
To me, this book is in part a love letter to New York City, where I live. And all of the featured women except Marie Laveau lived here too, at least for a time. Two, in particular—Cora L.V. Scott, superstar 19th century Spiritualist medium and Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society—took this city built on some ever-fluxing nexus between creation and destruction by storm, then departed it. Or as St. Vincent beautifully puts it, “New York isn’t New York/without you, love,” as “you’re the only motherf*cker in the city/Who can handle me.”
6. “Rebel Girl,” Bikini Kill
This unofficial '90s Riot Grrrl anthem could be a theme song for any of the five members of my ancestral spirit coven. But this song celebrating the queerness the mystic has long embraced makes me think in particular of Helena Blavatsky—who was partial to the more androgynous monikers HPB and “divine hermaphrodite” and to draping herself in ornate gender-neutral robes.
7. “Bartender,” Lana Del Rey
After Marianne Williamson, presidential candidate and preacher of a New Age gospel of Love and Zsuzsanna Budapest, lesbian witch and founder of Dianic Wicca, absconded from New York, they landed on the shores of California and its City of Angels. The American Theosophical Society also found a second chapter there on the Left Coast. All of these women’s spiritual movements championed not just mystic but politically progressive causes, and these three movements in particular shaped and were shaped by California culture. The album Normal Fucking Rockwell could serve as a treatise for an early-21st century LA as much as anything by Joan Didion did for the mid-20th century incarnation. This tune is a stand-out in that regard, plus it mentions “tea parties” “with levitation” and “meditation in the garden.”
8. “Bang Bang Boom Boom,” Beth Hart
The members of my ancestral spirit coven had exceedingly complicated love lives—which wrought no small amount of scorn and slut shaming from the press and nation at large. I, however, would like to score their romantic pursuits with this lusty song expertly employing the most delightfully witchy imagery to evoke sex and love.
9. “Metal Heart,” Cat Power
“It’s damned if you do/it’s damned if you don’t,” I believe encapsulates how each of these—and most other—pioneering women have felt at moments of crisis. This song also makes me feel like I am eating the 1990s, and they taste really good. And while Marianne Williamson’s story very much extends into the present moment, she rose to prominence in those third-wave feminist days defined by creative works about women, in all their messy human glory, as told by women themselves. This song explores just such subjectivity, employing a cool like metal in winter to evoke depression and trauma. And Williamson is very candid about having had a complete nervous breakdown at the end of the 1970s that lead her to rebuild via spiritual light.
Plus, magic is often defined as energy moved with the intention of transforming reality, meaning all artistic acts qualify. Power has stated that, upon waking from a hallucinatory nightmare, she felt a hot certainty that “dark spirits” were “trying to get into [her] soul.” So she then picked up her guitar and began composing a fire-stream of new material in an instinctively magical attempt to ward them off. The album Moon Pix was the result.
10. “I Wish I Was the Moon,” Neko Case
The moon is the embodiment Goddess, and at the outset of the 1970s and second-wave feminism, witch Z Budapest led the first-known explicitly feminist ritual worshipping her and her electric white orb. Plus, Neko Case may be witchiest singer this side of Stevie Nicks.
11. “Eve of Destruction,” Barry McGuire
Many of these women lived on what felt like the eve of America’s destruction—as we do today—as it’s at such pivotal American moments that our nation’s ever-present mystic undercurrent tends to erupt into the cultural mainstream.
12. “Hard Times,” Gillian Welch
To me, this song is about facing down the forces of Fear Marianne Williamson believes are pushing our nation over the edge, and being brought low, but saying, “They will not win. They will not make me hard. They will not make me mean. They will not render me complaint. They will, however, make me fight like hell for what I believe in.” That, more than anything, is what the mystic and these women’s legacies has offered me. And such mystic resistance may just prove key to building a portal out of our present predicament, as the structures we’ve long relied on for stability seem to be disintegrating like Jello in the rain.
13. “Girl on Fire,” Alicia Keyes, featuring Nicki Minaj
This is the song that will be playing as the portal opens. #Vote.
Lucile Scott is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. She has reported on national and international health and human rights issues for over a decade. Most recently, she has worked at the United Nations and amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, and has contributed to such publications as VICE and POZ magazines. In addition, she has written and/or directed plays that have been featured in New York City, Edinburgh, and Los Angeles. In 2016 she hit the rails as part of Amtrak’s writers’ residency program. An American Covenant is her first book. She hails from Kentucky and moved to New York after graduating from Northwestern University.