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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

For the Anniversary of Gettysburg: Dixieland/Steve Earle

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought 147 years ago this week, July 1-3, 1863.  It produced the largest number of casualties of any battle of the Civil War, and is considered a turning point in that conflict because it represented the "high-water mark" for the Confederacy--the northernmost point the South reached before being turned back by the Union Army.

Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels, published in 1974, meticulously recreates the battle through the thoughts, actions, and impressions of the men who took part. Though his treatment is fictional, Shaara strove for scrupulous accuracy (his book served as the basis for Ted Turner's epic 1993 film Gettysburg).  All of the major characters in the book are historical figures, with one exception--Private Buster Kilrain, an Irishman serving under Col. Joshua Chamberlain in the 20th Regiment of Infantry, Maine Volunteers.  Kilrain is the only fictional character in The Killer Angels, and his surname appears to be derived from the book's title. 

Kilrain turns up in Steve Earle's song Dixieland, from his 1999 album The Mountain, recorded with the Del McCoury Band.  As Earle himself put it:  "I stole this character from the late Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, the best Civil War novel I've ever read."  Earle captures Kilrain's spirit and his devotion to his commanding officer:

I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine and we fight for Chamberlain
'Cause he stood right with us when the Johnnies came like a banshee on the wind
When the smoke cleared out of Gettysburg many a mother wept
For many a good boy died there, sure, and the air smelted just like death

Earle's lyric also paraphrases at least one line directly from the text of the novel:  I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine and I damn all gentlemen.  In the book Kilrain tells Chamberlain: "I'm Kilrain, and I God damn all gentlemen."

Earle did take some liberties with the character, however.  Writing about the song in The Civil War in American Culture, Will Kaufman notes:  "Earle gives Kilrain a striking political history not written into the novel: fleeing County Clare under a British death sentence for Fenianism, he arrives in America to join Joshua Chamberlain's Twentieth Maine Regiment."  Michael Shaara's son Jeff provided a somewhat different background for Kilrain (for one thing, he comes from Belfast) in a 1996 follow-up novel called Gods and Generals, which serves as a prequel to The Killer Angels.

Earle's song also suggests that Kilrain survives the Battle of Gettysburg, as Kaufman notes:  "After Gettysburg, Kilrain prepares to march on 'Dixieland' with the vengeance of a John Brown."  In fact, Buster Kilrain dies in The Killer Angels on July 3rd, 1863, from wounds sustained during the action at Little Round Top.

The Killer Angels (Kindle Edition)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Nice, Nice, Very Nice/Ambrosia

In The Life of Fiction, Jerome Klinkowitz points out that "in 1975, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. became the first American writer to be quoted by a starting pitcher in the World Series while at the same time having a song in the Top Forty."  The pitcher was Bill "Spaceman" Lee of the Boston Red Sox (among other things, he cited "In nonsense is strength" from Vonnegut's 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions).  The song was Nice, Nice, Very Nice by Ambrosia, from their self-titled 1975 debut album. The lyrics are adapted from Vonnegut's 1963 novel Cat's Cradle.

In the book Vonnegut created Bokononism, a religious movement indigenous to the poverty-stricken Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where much of the action takes place.  Bokononism teaches that all religions are based on lies--especially Bokononism--but by embracing these harmless untruths (called foma by Bokononists) we can live some semblance of a good life.  In keeping with its Caribbean origins, many of the key precepts of Bokononism are set down in the form of calypsos. The lyrics to "Nice, Nice, Very Nice" are drawn (with some embellishment) from the 53rd Calypso of Bokonon, as quoted in Chapter 2 of Cat's Cradle.

Oh a sleeping drunkard up in Central Park
Or the lion hunter in the jungle dark
Or the Chinese dentist or the British Queen
They all fit together in the same machine
Nice, nice, very nice
Nice, nice, very nice
So many people in the same device

Vonnegut was delighted with the song, and shared a writing credit with the band. Ambrosia founding member Joe Puerta told Classics Rock! in an email: "It was quite a thrill for me, being a huge Vonnegut fan, to share writing credits with one of America 's foremost writers." 

In January 1976 Vonnegut wrote a letter to the band (addressed "Dear Ambrosia") in which he said:

I was at my daughter's house last night, and the radio was on. By God if the DJ didn't play our song, and say it was number ten in New York, and say how good you guys are in general. You can imagine the pleasure that gave me. Luck has played an enormous part in my life. Those who know pop music keep telling me how lucky I am to be tied in with you.
And I myself am crazy about our song, of course, but what do I know and why wouldn't I be?
This much I have always known, anyway: Music is the only art that's really worth a damn. I envy you guys.

The letter is reproduced in its entirety in Ambrosia's 1997 CD Anthology.

Cat's Cradle (Kindle Edition)

Submitted by Bob Hicks
With thanks to Joe Puerta

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

For Bloomsday: Rejoyce/Jefferson Airplane, and more

All of the events in James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses take place on June 16th. To celebrate Bloomsday (so called after Joyce's protagonist, Leopold Bloom), here are some songs with ties to the book and the author.

Jefferson Airplane's Rejoyce, from their 1967 album After Bathing at Baxter's, is an homage to Ulysses and includes specific references to characters from the book, e.g.: Mulligan stew for Bloom/The only Jew in the room and Molly's gone to blazes/Boylan's crotch amazes (Mulligan is a rowdy medical student in the book; Bloom's wife Molly begins an affair with a character known as "Blazes" Boylan in the course of the novel).

Kate Bush's The Sensual World, from her 1989 album of the same name, is drawn from the 18th and final episode, or chapter, of the novel. Often referred to as Molly Bloom's Soliloquy, it recounts the largely unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness thoughts running through Molly's mind as she lies in bed at the end of the day. The song employs the conceit of Molly leaving the fictional setting of the novel behind and entering reality (Stepping out of the page into the sensual world). The Joyce estate denied Bush the right to use wording from the book, so she revised passages for the song.

Also drawn from Molly Bloom's Soliloquy is Amber's song Yes!, from her album Naked. The word "yes" both begins and ends the soliloquy, and is the final word in the book. The lyrics hew closely to Joyce's original, and repeat virtually word for word the closing lines of the novel: I put my arms around him, yes/And draw him down to me so he can feel my breast/And his heart was going like mad/I mean yes, I said yes, I will yes. No word on whether Amber got permission from the Joyce estate, or whether Kate Bush was ticked off about it.

The Florida band PopCanon recorded a song called Bloomsday for their 2000 album The Kingdom of Idiot Rock. It juxtaposes Bloomsday observances with images of a crucifixion. It would be nice to think the crucifixion was metaphorical, but the band insists it actually happened--part of a birthday celebration that got out of hand. (You can get the whole story here.) The lyrics include the lines: In the land of the Lotus-Eaters Leopold Bloom said/"Iron Nails Ran In"--a reference to Bloom's explanation of the notice INRI that was posted above Christ on the cross.

Songs called "Bloomsday" are also available from Four Men and a Dog (from the 2009 album Wallop The Spot), Andy West (from 2002's Rama 1), and the Plague Monkeys (from the 1999 album Surface Tension).

Lou Reed's song My House (making it's second appearance in these pages), from his 1982 album The Blue Mask, alludes to characters from Ulysses in describing Reed's relationship to his mentor, Delmore Schwartz: My Dedalus to your Bloom, was such a perfect wit.

Roger Waters, a co-founder of Pink Floyd, alludes to Ulysses' main character in the song "Flickering Flame," found on Flickering Flame: The Solo Years, Vol. 1, with the line: On a back seat in a court room/Sat Molly Malone and Leopold Bloom/Until the police came down with a new broom/And swept them clean.

Alan Munde has an instrumental called Molly Bloom, from the 2009 album Festival Favorites Revisited, that seems appropriate to the day.

A song called Golden Hair by another Pink Floyd co-founder, Syd Barrett--found on his 1969 solo album The Madcap Laughs--has lyrics taken verbatim from Joyce's poem Lean Out the Window.

In 2008, Fire Records released Chamber Music: James Joyce, in which a variety of alt-rock bands perform musical adaptations of all 36 of the poems featured in Joyce's 1907 collection Chamber Music.

Van Morrison's song "Summertime in England," from the 1980 album Common One, notes: And James Joyce wrote streams of consciousness books. Another Morrison song, Too Long In Exile, from the 1993 album of the same name, includes the lines: Too long in exile, been too long in exile/Just like James Joyce, baby.

Jimmy Buffett's If It All Falls Down, from 1986's Floridays, also mentions Joyce (My life's an open book/By James Joyce and Agatha Christie).

On the morbid side, we have James Joyce In Memoriam by Mikel Laboa (from 2005's Xoriek 17), and Looking for James Joyce's Grave by Andy White (from his 2000 album Andywhite.compilation). Individual listeners will have to decide if I Got Laid on James Joyce's Grave by Black 47 (from their 2000 release Trouble in the Land) strikes the proper note for their Bloomsday celebration.

Finally, Breathe by U2--from No Line On The Horizon, released in 2009--has no particular link to Joyce or Ulysses, but as the lyrics make clear, the song takes place on the 16th of June, a significant date for any Irish rock band.