Music for the Ages

Finally, a respite from all the advice.  Now it’s my turn to ask for your help. (And, I know. You never asked for mine.)

I’ve been having a fine old time lately enjoying Spotify, a music website that has (finally) been made available over here in the US.  It is an amazing resource and I have been discovering lots of wonderful new music as well as relishing some old favorites that I haven’t heard for years.

One of the great things about Spotify is the ability for people to create playlists that others can enjoy. When I was in New York a while ago meeting with the Penguin marketing and publicity people, we thought – since there is a lot of music in the book – that it would be a fun idea to create a playlist that people could access to listen to some of the music that I talk about.  That playlist has now been created, although it is very much a work in progress.  I don’t think I can put a link to it here, but if you have signed up for spotify and are on twitter or facebook, drop me a line and I will send you the link.

Anyway, yesterday I posted a question on twitter and facebook about bluegrass music (something I know very little about, save for occasional trips to the Moniteau County Fair, where grizzled old men with big hats and straggly beards unsmilingly pluck at their fiddles), and I was overwhelmed by the generous and knowledgeable response.  It became clear that, technically, “bluegrass” didn’t really exist at the time the story is set.  There was much discussion (we got to over 50 comments!) about precisely what sort of music might have been played – thank you, Mary and Richard.  It was an illuminating discussion.

Anyway, for those of you who are interested, I thought it might be helpful if I posted an extract from the book which talks about the sort of musical acts that turned up at the local tavern in Beatrice, Missouri, to play their tunes.  This being 1919, Prohibition was right around the corner – hence the goodbye party.

The last year of the Nick-Nack’s life was an extended goodbye party.  People drank as if every evening would be their last.  Business had never been better.  Joseph began to help when he could, sweeping floors, clearing tables and washing glasses.  The customers were kind to him.  They slipped small coins into his pocket and pressed crumpled cigarettes on him with a benign wink.  Joseph began to understand that the tavern traded in more than simply drink.  Other commodities were also on offer: companionship, community, and the comfort of ritual.  He became familiar with the nightly rhythms of hope and despair, as the world slowly collapsed around the men who drank there.  They wept, fought, slept, and stared longingly at his mother, before stumbling out into the darkness at the end of each night.

Meanwhile, there was music everywhere.  The Nick-Nack was reveling in an extended, marvelous swan song.  Just about anyone who walked through the door with an instrument under his arm could secure a night’s work.  There were brass ensembles, string quartets, an endless procession of guitars and fiddles.

Joseph enjoyed the bands, but it was the singers he remembered the most.  A woman came from Quincy, Illinois, squeezed into a tight satin dress and a slash of scarlet across her mouth.  She winked and hollered her way through a honky-tonk repertoire of old bordello songs, bursting with lewd innuendo.  She had the saddest eyes Joseph had ever seen.  There was a huge ogre of a man, nearly seven feet tall with a long black beard down to his chest, who carried his double bass on to the stage as if it were a child’s violin.  He glared furiously at the audience, and then began to croon plaintive love songs in a screeching falsetto, accompanying himself with occasional low percussive thwacks on the bass strings.  Identical twins from Moberly hunched over their banjos and sang mournful songs of longing and regret.  The long necks of their instruments pointed away from each other, slender horns on a double-headed beast.

Does this inspire anyone to suggest any other music I might add to the playlist – bordello songs included?!?

Comments 1

  1. Yup, it’s me again. You want mournful…”Streets of Laredo”. It’s a cowboy song, and there would have been old guys talking of the cattle drives during your time period and place; KC stockyards being, as we say, “just down the road a piece”. Also, anything from any wars; “Minstrel Boy”, “Just Before the Battle Mother”, etc. Bordello songs…hmm. Can’t help you there. I do recall a restaurant in Hannibal, MO (across the river from Quincy, IL) many years ago called “The Bordello” that was in an old bordello, and they played lots of tin-panny piano; that’s about as close as I can you. If it’s a German settlement, most of them had community bands, known as “oompa-bands” with the tubas and everything….
    OK, stopping now….

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