NOVEMBER GRACE NOTES
Art by Austin Kleon "Overheard on the Titanic"
In my other life, when I’m not selling books, blogging, or leading our book club, I am a musician. Fortunately for me in the time of Covid, it’s not my main source of income. Many of my friends and acquaintances are not so lucky these days. Professional musicians who depend on gigs to survive are having a hard time getting by, as are the venues which host them. So here’s my PSA for the month - if your favorite band or musician is streaming a show online, make sure you drop some love into their Bandcamp, Patreon, or PayPal account. If you love a particular venue and want it to be there post-Covid, buy a gift certificate or a T-shirt from them or donate to the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund. Thank you.
That said, this month, I’m turning my focus to books about music and musicians. Let’s start with a review of Sarah Smarsh’s affectionate new take on a country music legend -
She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh
Journalist and social commentator Smarsh (Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth) turns her focus on a single hard-working woman in her latest book. Smarsh grew up in rural Kansas to the soundtrack of country music sung by the likes of Reba MacIntyre, Shania Twain, and K. T. Oslin. Her grandmother introduced her to the godmothers of the genre - Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and, of course, Dolly Parton. Smarsh draws parallels between the abject poverty of Parton’s upbringing in Sevier County, Tennessee, and her own struggles growing up poor in Kansas.
Parton has always been a pop culture icon, but in recent years has emerged as a feminist symbol. Her visage, under the signature mountain of yellow hair, adorns coffee mugs, candles, t-shirts, and greeting cards. While Parton does not call herself a feminist, her life tells a different story. Smarsh recounts how the singer has fiercely fought for self-actualization in her career, making shrewd business moves while charmingly making mincemeat out of anyone who would minimize her. When Elvis himself wanted to record “I Will Always Love You,” but insisted on taking half the publishing of one of Parton’s most iconic songs for himself, she politely told him no. The song went on to become a number one hit not once, but three times, twice with Parton’s own recordings and once with Whitney Houston’s. Smarsh writes: “The confidence to heed her inner voice and, in doing so, piss off a powerful man allowed Parton to … say no to Elvis, and become not just a successful artist but also a business juggernaut.”
Much has been made of Parton’s outsized appearance. Smarsh recounts the myriad leering actions by men who simply don’t know how to react to a women who owns her sexuality. She writes of an appearance on the Porter Wagoner show by singer Jimmy Dean, who all but gropes her on camera while she struggles to push him away. “Parton has held her own against Wagoner in a verbal fencing match,” writes Smarsh, “only to be physically accosted by a man whose name was synonymous with sausage.”
Parton’s work as a philanthropist is well documented. Her Imagination Library project has put books into the hands of millions of children worldwide and her theme park near her home town has created thousands of jobs. But there have been problematic aspects in some of her projects, most notably the annual Dixie Stampede, with its Confederate imagery. While this has been toned down in recent years, the event remains a celebration of the antebellum South. Smarsh doesn’t shy away from taking Parton to task for this as well as celebrating her good works.
Throughout the book, Smarsh’s ardent admiration of Parton shines through. She holds her idol up as an almost unwitting symbol of feminism and as a champion for the downtrodden. Her writing is clear, fierce, and pulls no punches, whether holding Parton accountable for errors in judgment or holding her up as a beacon of light for the underclass.
And if you are a Parton fan, keep an eye open for this autobiography, coming out on November 17th -
Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics
Here’s a preview from the publisher -
Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics is a landmark celebration of the remarkable life and career of a country music and pop culture legend.
As told by Dolly Parton in her own inimitable words, explore the songs that have defined her journey. Illustrated throughout with previously unpublished images from Dolly Parton's personal and business archives.
Mining over 60 years of songwriting, Dolly Parton highlights 175 of her songs and brings readers behind the lyrics.
Here are some short takes on a few of my favorite books by and about music and musicians -
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
There is no more insightful commentator on music and society than Abdurraqib. This collection of essays uses pop culture as a means of making sense of the world.
Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska by John Luther Adams
Not so much a book about music as a memoir of the composer’s years in Alaska, the friendships he formed there, and the heartbreak of leaving the increasingly compromised landscape.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein
This raw, honest memoir traces Brownstein’s life from her childhood in the Pacific Northwest to her growth as a musician in Sleater-Kinney, to her experience as co-creator of Portlandia.
Silence by John Cage
This classic of twentieth-century avant-garde music literature gives a glimpse into a truly singular mind.
Men, Women, and Pianos by Arthur Loesser
A history of the piano told through a sociological lens by the former program annotator for the Cleveland Orchestra. Entertaining, educational, and highly readable.
Gay Guerrilla edited by Renee Levine Parker and Mary Jane Leach
An overview in essays of the life and work of pianist/composer Julius Eastman, one of twentieth century music’s greatest but most troubled geniuses.
The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross
Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, is one of the best writers on music out there. This collection of essays puts twentieth-century music squarely in context with the era’s history.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
This poetic memoir traces the rare friendship between Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Poems of the month -
A Crazed Girl by William Butler Yeats
That crazed girl improvising her music.
Her poetry, dancing upon the shore,
Her soul in division from itself
Climbing, falling She knew not where,
Hiding amid the cargo of a steamship,
Her knee-cap broken, that girl I declare
A beautiful lofty thing, or a thing
Heroically lost, heroically found.
No matter what disaster occurred
She stood in desperate music wound,
Wound, wound, and she made in her triumph
Where the bales and the baskets lay
No common intelligible sound
But sang, 'O sea-starved, hungry sea.'
If Light Were Music by Daniel Thompson
If light were music
The night earth spinning
Toward its golden star
And in that turning
The echo of the moon
On the water reveals
The killer in the mirror
A shadow breathing hard
Whose dark weight
Pitches on the shore
Whose heart of glass reads
In case of emergency…break
If light were language
Spoken only in tongues
By hearts on fire
The wordless eye would sing
Its blind desire; forgiveness
Would flow like blood
If light were sound
Natural to the ground of all beings
Would each creature cross the field
To comfort each in the deep dreaming?
Wordless Music by Tim Joyce*
How did you manage
To drag a granite
Up to the mountain top
Play in a flutter of fingers
A few measures
And with a feather from an eagle wing
Change it into a bow and cello
Drawing a serene planetary music
Until it became a soaring bird?
How to you gather
The altitudes mist into your lap
Enter the silent white billowing
And float away
In a singing cloud?
*My gratitude goes out to Suzanne DeGaetano for bringing this poem to my attention. She generously dedicated her reading of it to me in an event at Mahall’s several years ago. Thank you, Suzanne!
We lost an iconic poet last month. Diane DiPrima was a towering figure among Beat writers. Here is one of her early works -
Song for Baby-O, Unborn
when you break thru
a poet here
not quite what one would choose
I won’t promise
you’ll never grow hungry
or that you won’t be sad
on this gutted
but I can show you
enough to love
to break your heart
I love reading about music almost as much as I love playing it. Here are some great articles for futher exploration -
Coming in January -
The Center of Everything by Jamie Harrison
The slipperiness of memory, the strength and weakness of family ties, and the unexpected jolt of sudden death are all touchstones of this striking novel. It’s 2002, and Polly, who has sustained a head injury that causes her to doubt her own recollections, is preparing for a Fourth of July family reunion. The death of a family friend throws the gathering into turmoil, bringing up skeletons from the extended family’s past. Polly experiences dreams that may or may not be memories. The narrative alternates between events from 1968, the repercussions of which extend to the novel’s present. The writing is crisp, the large cast of characters is adeptly drawn, and plot twists and turns like sheets on a laundry line.