I’ve written so many times now on how music affects my writing that everyone must be getting sick of it. And I’m not the only one doing this — practically every writer with a blog has commented on his or her writing playlist at some point. I think it’s because we all wish we could be rock stars (or at least that writers got treated like rock stars).
But whatever. I hope you aren’t completely sick of the subject yet, because here I go again.
Except that this time I’m writing — revising, really — a novel set in the American Civil War, which is pretty hard to make a soundtrack for. Sure, we have plenty of music from that era: practically all our popular folk music comes from the Civil War. “Dixie,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic”…. You know, all those songs you were forced to sing in fourth-grade music class.
But I’m not listening to any of those while revising my novel. They were largely propagandistic, rousing attempts to inspire men to fight and women to bake bread and sew uniforms or, toward the end of the war, at least not die of utter despair. And my novel — set in the eighteen months or so just before and just after the end of the war — is full of despair. And desperation, and violence, and grit, and bitterness…. I don’t need rousing. I need honesty.
And I need earthy. Southern helps, but earthy is more important. The characters in this book are literally killing and dying in the dirt, scratching out their desperate, meager lives from the Louisiana bayou, sandy saltmarsh to their south and dirty Texas grassland to their west and full-blown swamp everywhere else. I need music that makes me feel grimy, sweat-stained, exhausted. I need banjos and drums and some weeds and gravel in a sorrowful, twangy voice.
Which is why I turned to William Elliot Whitmore.
But I couldn’t just listen to him through the days — weeks, months — of revision, because it would wear me out. I needed to mix it up, but I’m so focused on the writing that I don’t want to bother tracking down people to add to the playlist. Which is why I turned to Pandora.
Pandora is not a perfect DJ — it keeps throwing Tom Waits at me, who is awesome but too modern in his sensibility for what I’m working on — but for the most part, the mix is turning out pretty well. In addition to William Elliot Whitmore, I’m getting a lot of Johnny Cash and Guy Davis, and a bunch of music from O Brother Where Art Thou? (the Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, and Dan Tyminski versions are better than the movie versions). And there is still a smattering of Tom Waits that works quite well, and (not nearly often enough) a few Muddy Waters tunes. Best of all, though, is the healthy dose of Delta blues that comes through the playlist. And it cycles back to Whitmore pretty frequently, so I’m more or less happy.
None of this is period- or region-accurate, of course — most of it is modern, and even the oldest of the “old-time music” dates from the 1930s; and the regional flavors come from all over. But it feels right, which, when I’m writing, is the only thing that matters.
And I do sometimes abandon the list to put on our Civil Wars album, which also works fairly well for the more contemplative moments in the book.
And when I get tired of either, I can always switch over to Spotify and listen to the soundtrack for the Hatfields & McCoys miniseries (which I totally plan on buying, but maybe later, as a birthday present to myself).
Got any other suggestions that might fit the mood of these things? Leave me a comment! Just remember, the darker and grittier the better, though (as the Civil Wars and the Hatfields & McCoys soundtrack prove) I’m open to somber or sorrowful as well.
- [Music] is the liquid that we’re all dissolved in* (snoekbrown.com)
- A Writer’s Notebook: Music and flash fiction (snoekbrown.com)
- Still MORE writing and music (snoekbrown.com)
- Songs for NaNoWriMo (snoekbrown.com)