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July 27, 2021

John Brandon's Playlist for His Novel "Ivory Shoals"

Ivory Shoals by John Brandon

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.

John Brandon's novel Ivory Shoals is a poignant and unforgettable coming-of-age tale.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Exuberantly narrated coming-of-age adventure."

In his own words, here is John Brandon's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Ivory Shoals:

“I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty

I’m starting the list out on solid and familiar ground. Petty is a North Florida boy like Gussie, my protagonist, and Gussie faces many tribulations (in his greater life situation and in the immediate day-to-day of the book) that he has no choice but to face and overcome. I’ve often wondered if it’s possible to dislike Tom Petty’s music. Not that you have to love it, but on a list of least dislikable music, it would be right up there, right? When you need music that no one in a big group of people will object to?

“Swamp Livin’” by Dr. Dog

This song, like the swamp, is a little disorienting. It’s pretty, but also untamed. I’m dedicating it to Joya and the tall woman, who come to Gussie’s rescue (one of three instances in the book where the young protagonist is bailed out by the fairer sex) when the perilous Florida wetlands have just about gotten the better of him.

“Walk in the Night” by Junior Walker & the All Stars

Other characters are afforded the luxury of horses, wagons, trains, and boats, but for Gussie it’s just his two feet. My own legs hurt just writing about how much this kid walked. There were no highways then, and Gussie wouldn't have stuck to them anyway, so it’s hard to say exactly how many miles he put on his boots, but I’d estimate it at not too far under 300 miles. No lyrics to comfort you in this song, but at least it’s got an upbeat, optimistic feel to keep you marching.

“Bury Me In My Overalls” by Malvina Reynolds

What a lot of men and boys would’ve preferred to die in, rather than a military tunic.

“Death Don’t Have No Mercy” by Reverend Gary Davis

I wanted a sad song for Gussie, whose mother passed away; for Acey, whose brothers are gone; for Searle, whose son could be dead for all he knows; even for August, who finally meets his match.

“Give Us a Flag” by Richie Havens

Again for Acey. A straightforward history-telling song about Black Civil War soldiers. Unlike pretty much every other book I’ve written, this one has clear-cut villains and a couple clear-cut heroes, amongst which Acey tops the list.

“I Want to Go to the Beach” by Iggy Pop

Gussie’s journey takes him from the Atlantic to the Gulf, and this song is perfect for the moment he emerges onto the Western Coast of Florida; it’s a moment of relief, to have finally sighted the end of the endless land he’d been trekking, but it also signals the distance from his old life and his mother. Iggy Pop’s beachgoer isn’t looking to enjoy himself, like most folks on a tropical beach—it’s more that the beach is the place a lost person belongs, somebody who doesn’t know who they are.

“Riders On the Storm” by The Doors

Besides aptly evoking the fate’s-plaything pathos of the novel, the unsolvable condition of journeying into the unknown and probably hostile future, I’ll dedicate this one to Julius and August, each a ‘killer on the road.’

“I Remember Mama” by Shirley Caesar

Another one for Gussie’s mother, who shaped his outlook and made him the boy he is. And who did what it took to provide for him.

“Streets of Laredo” by Willie Nelson

For the pair of men, old and broken down and young and spry, that briefly become Gussie’s travel mates in the second half of the book. And for the real-life Florida ‘Cracker’ cowboys who chased cattle through the swamp and scrub brush until there were almost no cattle left. (The Andalusian cows from days of yore are now, I hear, a popular boutique breed on the peninsula.)

“Bad Town” by Operation Ivy

This is one of the songs from my own angsty years, but Gussie’s got a lot bigger problems than I ever had. For Gussie, the ‘bad town’ would be the fictional Palmina (right around where the real Fernandina Beach is), a place with nothing left for him but trouble after his mother dies.

We’re going to round things out with three Florida songs in three different styles of music—something for everybody:

“Deep Down in Florida” by Muddy Waters & Johnny Winter

Another North Florida and specifically Gainesville-centric song, this time for the blues-lovers. Really scratches every itch.

“Florida Blues” by Ricky Skaggs

Scrappy, buoyant bluegrass. You can almost see the dusty but optimistic general stores standing staunch under the hot sun, awaiting the return of their customers.

“Florida” by Modest Mouse

Not sure how to describe this. Garage-y theatrical new wave-ish post-Pixies anthem? I’ll fall back on the term from my heyday of the '90s: alternative. The music was called ‘alternative’ but everyone was listening to it, much more than they were listening to the non-alternative music.

John Brandon has published four previous books with McSweeney's--the novels Arkansas, Citrus County, and A Million Heavens, and the story collection Further Joy. Arkansas was adapted into a movie of the same name starring Liam Hemsworth, Vince Vaughn, and John Malkovich. Citrus County was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award and was reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review.

Brandon has been awarded the Grisham Fellowship at Ole Miss and the Tickner Fellowship at Gilman School in Baltimore, and he has received a Sustainable Arts Foundation Fellowship. His short fiction has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, Oxford American, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Mississippi Review, Subtropics, Chattahoochee Review, Hotel Amerika, and other publications, and he has written about college football for and Grantland. He was born in Florida and now resides in Minnesota, where he teaches at Hamline University in St. Paul.

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