Yet another novel playlist

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.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

12 thoughts on “Yet another novel playlist

    1. Everyone is different. I know plenty of writers who can’t work with anything but silence, and I completely understand why. But I often need background noise of some kind, especially noise that relates to the work. It’s not always music, either — for NaNoWriMo last year, I compiled a list of sound effect and “noise music” to set the tone (the post about those noises is at But generally speaking, music drives me. Always has.

      My playlists are always different, though. Depends on the project.

      If you make a playlist for something you’re working on, feel free to share it! I love swapping music ideas with people — I usually learn about a lot of new music that way.

  1. Maybe the ‘Cold Mountain’ soundtrack? As a kid, I also remember rewatching (over and over and over) the “Songs of the Civil War” bonus feature off the Civil War documentary by Ken Burns.

    1. Good call on both counts! I can’t believe I’m this far into my revision and I haven’t yet put on my old VHS tapes of that Ken Burns series! And Jack White has some great tunes on the Cold Mountain soundtrack. Well played, wife! 🙂

  2. Nothing does it for me like the ‘sacred harp’ version of ‘Idumea’ that they used for the siege of Petersburg in ‘Cold Mountain’:

    Unless perhaps it’s Crooked Still’s version of ‘Ain’t no grave’:

      1. I would also say check out some of the tracks on Bob Dylan’s first album – tracks like ‘In My Time of Dying’, ‘Gospel Plow’, and his wonderfully wistful version of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’.

      2. Oh, yes! I completely to forgot to mention Dylan! He turns up on that Whitmore playlist in Pandora from time to time; I mostly skip the newer stuff, but those early songs fit right in. Thanks for reminding me!

  3. Do use music when your students write in class (or do they write in class). Think I will suggest this to Debbie and high school teachers for sure need to use this as a way of getting kids to write.

  4. Check out the American Primitive collections. They’re collections of field recordings from right before the Civil War. The first one is subtitled Raw Pre-War Gospel 1926-36 and the second one tops that even by finding a recording from 1897 and going up until 1939. I can’t find any download links and my computer is too slow to upload them myself for you, but if you check the tracklistings and do some youtubing, you’ll be able to come up with most of them, I’d think.

    Volume I:,+Volume+I%3A+Raw+Pre-War+Gospel

    Volume II:

    Not sure if that will help–it might actually be too old for what you’re looking for–but the earthy rawness is there, and the southern definitely is, too.

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