"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Elvis Costello
Words and Music
No question about it, books and music have been an integral part of my life for as long as I can remember. I’m the guy who, when Paul Simon sings “I have my books and my poetry to protect me”, thinks “What’s wrong with that?” Enough about my psychoses though, this post is actually about the sometimes serendipitous relationship between songs and books, sort of the musical version of books to film. The other day, it struck me how many times I’ve been led to a fascinating book because of a song that had begun the story for me and caused me to want to know more, and so what follows are three examples of music to book routing that have especially intrigued me. I hope they pique your interest as much as they did mine.
This find came as a result of listening to the Son Volt album American Central Dust. The song “Sultana” tells the story of the greatest maritime tragedy in U.S. history, but chances are you haven’t heard of it. The book to complete the mystery is Sultana: Surviving Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History, by Alan Huffman. It focuses on three individuals who survived seemingly unsurvivable experiences, and how it affected their later life.
Another relatively unknown tale is highlighted in the Nanci Griffith song “Pearl’s Eye View”, off of her 2001 album Clock Without Hands. In it she relates the inspiring and tragic story of Dickey Chapelle, a now virtually unheard of war correspondent and photographer during World War II, the Hungarian Revolution, and Vietnam, and the first female reporter to be killed in combat. Find out more by reading Fire in the Wind: The Life of Dickey Chapelle, by Roberta Ostroff.
To round things out, take a listen to Dave Alvin’s excellent song “Everett Ruess”, from his Ashgrove recording, about the original Into the Wild guy of the same name. Twenty-year old Everett disappeared over eighty years ago into Utah’s Escalante badlands, and his body has never been found. Philip L. Fradkin’s book Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death and Astonishing Afterlife can help round out what more is known of his story.