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September 29, 2022

Norman Lock's Playlist for His Novel "Voices in the Dead House"

Voices in the Dead House by Norman Lock

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.

Norman Lock's novel Voices in the Dead House brings the Civil War crisply into focus through the eyes of Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"A twin tale of two literary luminaries. . . . Lock’s deep knowledge of the time period is evident throughout, his research impeccable, his prose iridescent."

In his own words, here is Norman Lock's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Voices in the Dead House:

You Shall Know Them by Their Songs

Like the songs of our day, those of the nineteenth century had much to do with current events, whether the hanging of a notorious criminal or a political campaign. Conventions and stump speeches, camp meetings and revivals were likely to conclude in an impassioned singalong. Printed on broadsides and sheet music, lyrics were fresh as newspaper headlines. Sentimental, sensational, mournful, or provocative, sung music was a chief entertainment of the day, as well as a transmitting medium for news and opinion, both political and religious.

Throughout The American Novels series, songs transcribed onto the page serve as a musical leitmotif to an age, a temperament, the character of an individual or the nation at a significant moment in its history.

Voices in the Dead House, the ninth book of the cycle, is set during the catastrophe of the Civil War as experienced and interpreted by Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott. These two important figures of our national literature nursed casualties of that war, in Washington and in Georgetown. The issues of their day persist unresolved.

Here are a few songs that appear in the text of Voices in the Dead House and a few others that could have.

“Softly Now the Light of Day”

A lyric by George Washington Doane (1799-1859) sung to a melody by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826).

One can imagine this song of earnest prayer for deliverance sung by a timid soldier waiting for his battery on the Potomac to be overrun by the rebels of the Confederacy. I did so, and put into his mouth a request to have it played by his hard-bitten sergeant on a harmonica given to him by Walt Whitman, who spent much of his clerk’s pay on treats for “his boys.” The request was denied in favor of the far less pious “Effie, the Maid of the Hill.”

“Foller de Drinkin’ Gou’d” (“Follow the Drinking Gourd”)


The young Black man that my recreated Walt Whitman found drowned on the Union side of the Potomac would have heard the lyric singing in his ears as he struck north for freedom (which could only be assured in Canada), after escaping from whatever infernal master “held the papers on him.” Sadly, the nameless fugitive who followed the North Star (and would have known the Big Dipper as the Drinking Gourd) was dead on arrival in the Promised Land. Legend has it that this song was the work of “Peg Leg Joe,” a conductor of the Underground Railroad, but this claim has been disputed. Its author matters not at all. Thousands of enslaved people made the dangerous journey north, navigating by the lyric’s prompts.

“John Brown’s Body,” or “The John Brown Song”


The lyricist of what came to be the Union soldiers’ anthem of the Civil War was likely not one person but a collaboration of soldiers of the Second Infantry Battalion of the Massachusetts Militia. Newspapers reported that the troops sang it (to the camp meeting tune “Say, Brother, Will You Meet Us?”) as they marched through Boston on July 18, 1861, three months after the war had begun. Soon after, the words went into print on broadsides and sheet music. The lyrics refer to John Brown, whom Melville called “the meteor of the war,” and Lincoln “absurd,” as well as (in a comic flourish) to Sergeant John Brown of the battalion.

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic”

Lyrics by Julia Ward Howe written in 1861 to a melody composed by William Steffe in 1856; arranged by James E. Greenleaf, C. S. Hall, and C. B. Marsh in 1861.

The “flavor of coarseness” of the original (“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in his grave”) was gradually refined out of existence until the soldier’s ditty was transmuted into Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” exulting in Christ Militant as the Union’s ally in the War of Secession. In that spirit, I altered the “Glory, Hallelujah” chorus, which is the one constant in all of the song’s variants.

Gory, gory, Hallelujah!
Gory, gory, Hallelujah!
Gory, gory, Hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

“We Wait Beneath the Furnace Blast”

A musical setting by the Hutchinson Family Singers of the abolitionist poem by John Greenleaf Whittier.

Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott would have heard this musical setting of a poem by their contemporary John Greenleaf Whittier, the renowned poet and outspoken abolitionist, both in their respective hometowns of Brooklyn and Concord, Massachusetts, and in the capital, where they nursed the sick and the wounded. The song was provocative, even dangerous, especially in Washington and Georgetown, where many citizens were “secesh” (sympathizers of the South’s secession). The response to its premiere by the Hutchinson Family Singers on January 17, 1862, in Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia, was violent since there were those in the audience of Union soldiers who detested abolitionists as much as they did rebels. Lincoln, able politician that he was, waited until January 1, 1863, to issue his Emancipation Proclamation because he knew that the North would sacrifice its blood and treasure to preserve the Union, but not necessarily to end slavery.

“Lincoln and Liberty, Too”


Abraham Lincoln had his own musical endorsements for the 1864 race, the most popular being “Lincoln and Liberty, Too,” which promised, “We’ll finish the temple of freedom and make it capacious within, so all who seek shelter may find it, whatever the hue of their skin.” (As of this moment, the temple is still under construction.)

Lincoln handily defeated his opponent George McClellan. The feckless former major general of the Army of the Potomac, “Little Mac,” had been an able commander of troops on a parade ground, but was forever shy of battlefields. Despite his brilliant failures as a general, his campaign song (the social media of the day) used the familiar tactic of blaming the incumbent for the deaths suffered during his administration. (Nearly 600,000 soldiers, North and South, would die by the war’s end. Not even God knows how many went home blind, dismembered, and suffering an anguish none then would have known how to diagnose much less treat.)

While the following song may sling less mud than other examples I could have chosen, it is nonetheless representative:

We’re in Rebellion now, the greatest one in history!
And why it isn’t settled, remains to us a mystery:
Five hundred thousand slain and the battlefield’s all gory,
But Abe Lincoln takes it cool, it reminds him of a story.
Abe Lincoln is always joking, and widows are all weeping,
Oh, husbands lost in battle, and under Southern soil now sleeping.
McClellan is our choice, the favorite of the nation,
One whom we choose to lead us to our former glorious station;
Our enemies they curse him; for they know he’s hunky-dory,
It’s about time to tell Abe Lincoln: this reminds me of a story.

“. . . it reminds him of a story” refers to the vernacular style of Lincoln, who understood that the parable is more persuasive than the windy speeches of his contemporaries.

“Give Us a Flag”


The “colored troops” whom my Whitman surrogate saw passing the President’s House, where Lincoln raised his hat to them, would have known this Black soldiers’ anthem: “Every hope was lost, but [for that of] the colored volunteers” … “Gallant Company A [an all-Black unit] will make the rebels dance” . . . “Oh, give us a flag, we’ll fight to defend it!”

Frederick Douglass wrote at the time: “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters ‘U.S.,’ let him get an eagle upon his button and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”

Yet in this stirring martial air, there is this: “McClellan went to Richmond with troops a thousand brave; he said, ‘Keep back the niggers, the Union I will save!’” He was opposed, as were so many others, to accepting Black soldiers––free, freed, or “seized” by the Union Army from the Confederates––into its ranks. That the hateful word should have been included in this musical encomium to the Black soldier––uninflected by apparent animus or bias––speaks to how deep-rooted in the culture racism was (and still is).

“The Bonnie Blue Flag”


Washington and Georgetown, where Whitman and Alcott might have encountered each other, was an armed camp, “a tick waiting to be plucked and burned. It may be garrisoned with 23,000 soldiers and defended by sixty forts, ninety-three batteries, 837 guns, and twenty miles of rifle trenches, but I don’t underestimate the strength of the Confederacy or the resolve of desperate men. The rebels have yet to be cornered. God help us if they are; they’ll leap at our vitals like famished rats,” so said my fictional Walt Whitman. The soldiers of the Confederacy had war songs of their own, naturally. “The Bonnie Blue Flag” is one, which, to my ears, is a response to “Give Us a Flag.” It declares, however equivocally, the entirety of the South’s purpose in seceding from the Union: “We are . . . / Fighting for the property / We gained by honest toil. . . .” In the final analysis, the legal definition of human beings as chattel property made the South’s position morally despicable, and to remedy that miscarriage hundreds of thousands of men and boys in blue “gave the last full measure of devotion” (Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address”).

“Take Up Thy Cross, the Savior Said”

A musical setting of a verse by Connecticut poet Charles William Everest (1814–1877).

Lucy Higgs, an unpaid Black nurse at Union Hospital in Georgetown when Louisa May Alcott was in residence, invites Alcott to her Sunday worship service. (Freedom was felt to be sufficient recompense for many formerly enslaved people.) “At the Charles Hotel, Lucy and I turn onto West Second and follow a creek till we come to a frame house with peeling paint, a rugged cross on the porch roof, and a hand-lettered sign proclaiming THE AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH OF WASHINGTON. The windows are open to the cold air. Singing of a kind not heard in New England churches pours out in ecstatic gusts:”

Take up thy cross, nor heed the shame;
Nor let thy foolish pride rebel;
Thy Lord for thee the cross endured,
To save thy soul from death and hell.
Nor think till death to lay it down;
For only those who bear the cross
May hope to wear the glorious crown

The song that the congregation sings at the end of the service in my fictional account of a Sunday on January 11, 1863, is more to the point, which is made in the final number of my Civil War playlist.

“Joshua Fit de Battle of Jerico, Jerico, Jerico”


This song of uncertain provenance may have taken on new meaning when it was sung by Lucy and her congregation just ten days after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The deliverer of the Israelites from Canaan may have seemed far less remote to them, now that a new Joshua, Father Abraham, had pledged to bring the walls of the South’s “peculiar institution” tumblin’ down. I like to think that men and women who had no hope of earthly justice, believing that “. . . only those who bear the cross / May hope to wear the glorious crown,” were casting off the old resignation. But that may be the case only in my fiction. The novel has its own kind of truth.

Norman Lock is the award-winning author of novels, short fiction, and poetry, as well as stage and radio plays. He has won The Dactyl Foundation Literary Fiction Award, The Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, and has been longlisted twice for the Simpson/Joyce Carol Oates Prize. He has also received writing fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Aberdeen, New Jersey, where he is at work on the next books of The American Novels series.

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