A bit more than a year ago, I became aware of a novel published the previous year. When I finally saw the book in a bookstore, three things immediately struck me:
1. There was a banjo on the cover, albeit of the dreaded six-string variety;
2. The novel was entitled Hang Down Your Head, a moniker that calls to mind to even the most pedestrian of roots listener “Tom Dooley”/”Tom Dula”; and
3. Upon examination, it was apparent that the story was set in Edmonton.
This final detail reminded me that I had previously read a review of the book somewhere, but all I could recall was that it involved a murder at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. Anyone who has attended the fest in the last ten years has likely fantasized about killing someone (usually morons with scruffy beards and dance hands who talk all through Rodney Crowell’s set…) while in attendance.
I purchased the novel and read it. My intent here today is not to review the book- it is two years old- but I found it a little uneven the first time through, and this feeling was reaffirmed the other night upon re-reading. It is predictable in places, awkward in others, and yet the book has so much going for it, including lots of south side Edmonton references and as much roots music discussion.
The protagonist through whose voice the story unfolds is flippant, pithy and a bit snarky and given to tangents that only serve to endear her to similarly minded people. Naturally, I quite fell for Randy Craig, given her internal dialogues and vivid descriptions about “Stackalee,” Edmonton’s summer festivals, the LRT, Rutherford North, the Tory Turtle, Yianni’s Taverna, and the vision of Moses Asch. It is MacDonald’s imperfect style of ‘writing within Craig’s head’ that I most enjoyed: she could have ‘got there’ more quickly, but the journey would have been much less rich for the sake of brevity.
I write this today because I noticed that the latest local bestseller from MacDonald has recently been released. O, and the Edmonton Folk Music Festival is approaching, although tickets for all but seniors have been sold out since the day they went on sale.
While reading the book a year ago, I made notes on the many roots music references I especially appreciated thinking that when MacDonald published her next novel, it would make a timely little Fervor Coulee piece. Of course, those notes were lost in the move and are not scheduled to resurface until twenty minutes after I hit Post on this.
Other than the novel’s title and the murder at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, what does all this have to do with roots music you may still be asking yourself. The backdrop of the plot is that Randy Craig, the accidental protagonist, is working at the University of Alberta’s Smithsonian Folkways Collection Project. Briefly, her term position is to listen to the Smithsonian Folkways collection and write little snippets to accompany the recordings on the website devoted to the Moses Asch collection housed at the university. This allows Craig- when she isn’t stumbling further into a series of murders and assaults- to make many roots music observations. Sometimes these get in the way of the plot (hence, my comment about unevenness above), but for me they add a great deal of colour and make the entire book more engaging.
Here I am going to attempt to highlight some of my favourite lines/references in the book, and link to sound bits and video found on the web, where possible linking to a song mentioned in the book. I’m dividing them into ‘roots music/Smithsonian Folkways’ related, ‘General’, and ‘Edmonton/University of Alberta’ related.
Roots and Smithsonian Folkways favourites from Hang Down Your Head:
1. “I had the feeling that Maybelle (Carter) would have been someone I’d have liked a heck of a lot if I’d ever met her.”
2. My favourite, because it almost slips by the reader- “What sort of name is ‘Eck,’ anyhow?”
3. A couple extend conversations around the roots of the Tom Dooley/Tom Dula story, as well as characters named [Black] Jack Davey and Barbara Allen.
4. “I love Doc Watson’s voice; it was as mellow as honey running in the hot sun…”
5. References to and observations made about Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, murder ballads and Childe ballads, James Keelaghan, “Down By the Henry Moore,” and Tanglefoot, as well as dialogue contributions from the likes of Ferron and especially Tom Paxton, who provides significant background on the family in the middle of the murders.
General passages or allusions/references I liked:
1. A Jerry Orbach mention! (One of my great regrets is not running down Orbach at a Montreal airport when I recognized him from a distance.)
2. “I maintain that Tom Waits would be nowhere without [Dave] Van Ronk to carve the pathway for him. Of course, that could also be true for Rod Stewart and Kim Carnes, who I had long suspected were the same person (of course, once I heard Bonnie Tyler, I realized they were both her.)”
3. Thinking of her mother, who feared apartment life should her behaviour (such as late night baths) negatively impact on her neighbours, Randy muses, “She, of course, had no idea of the basic indifference of man any more. She had been raised in an age of manners and etiquette, which is something we have somehow managed to lose along the way to the twenty-first century…the world was just more and more rude and irritable each day.”
4. A lovely comparison between homesteading in northern Alberta (Chris and Sally Jones country, for a roots reference) and life in the Appalachians.
5. MacDonald’s use of the word ‘chesterfield.’ ‘Nuff said.
Edmonton/University of Alberta references:
1. About the U of A campus- “It’s a shame that most students leave the campus for summer work or holidays back home just as the U of A is beginning to look like everyone’s dream of collegiate life.”
2. Remember when I mentioned ‘pithy’ earlier? From the same page as the above- again, writing about the U of A campus “Abandoned by all except grade school teachers hoping to escape the classroom by getting advanced degrees and becoming principals.” Ouch.
3. Mentions of John Wort Hannam and Mike Stack, and an especially nuanced discussion about Ben Sures. O, and Colin MacLean!
4. “The worst thing about hot weather in Edmonton is that you feel incredibly ungrateful if you complain about it. So much of the year is spent bundled so that you have no exposed flesh to freeze within ten seconds, that when some hot weather comes…you feel as if you can’t voice an opinion about it.”
5. “The southerners know how to celebrate their “Shortnin’ Bread” and “Jambalaya” , but as far as I could think, only Bill Bourne had immortalized “Saskatoon Pie.” I know that song isn’t “Saskatoon Pie,” but I couldn’t find it anywhere, and the line from the book was too good to pass up.
All in all, Hang Down Your Head is likely to provide any roots music fan with several hours of entertainment as the murder mystery unfolds as well as countless hours of Internet sleuthing to uncover performers and songs mentioned. The book provides lots of quips about the sociology and minutia of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, most of them kind but sometimes (and gleefully) edging on snarky.
Hang Down Your Head and other Janice MacDonald titles including the new Condemned to Repeat are available at (some) Edmonton bookstores, including Audreys. If you aren’t near Edmonton, the Amazon and Chapters/Indigo behemoths have it as well.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald