A quick note: Thanks again to everyone who followed the Elysian Fields online tour for the past month! There will be one or two more flash-fiction pieces in the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned. And I’ll have the full flash fiction archive links up later today. I should be able to announce the tour prize winners by the end of the week–fingers crossed that one of you guys wins! There were more than 10,000 entries (holy cow, Batman).
Now, if you’ve read some of my posts recently, you know I am an absolute evangelist for author Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa novels, which got started last year with The Hum and the Shiver and continued this summer with Wisp of a Thing. I would classify them as “rural fantasy” (as opposed to urban fantasy), but they really transcend genre because they’re so beautifully written. (The novels can stand alone, by the way–they’re set in the same world but not with a continued storyline.)
Wisp is by far my favorite read of 2013, so I’m excited to have Alex here today to talk about the role of the Kate Campbell song “Wrought Iron Fences” in the novel. Ironically, I’d just put an article about singer-songwriter Campbell in my day-job magazine about three weeks before I read Wisp. Kind of mystical, eh?
Alex grew up in west Tennessee an hour north of Graceland (home of Elvis) and twenty minutes from Nutbush (home of Tina Turner). He has been a reporter, editor, photographer and door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. He now lives in a big yellow house in Wisconsin, writes before six in the morning and says he tries to teach his two sons (and, recently, a beautiful daughter) to “act like they’ve been to town before.” You can learn more about Alex by visiting his website, find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or by visiting his blog. Alex is also the author of the popular Eddie Lacrosse fantasy series (with a new book coming out soon!) and the Memphis Vampires series.
ABOUT WISP OF A THING: Touched by a very public tragedy, musician Rob Quillen comes to Cloud County, Tennessee, in search of a song that might ease his aching heart. All he knows of the mysterious and reclusive Tufa is what he has read on the internet: they are an enigmatic clan of swarthy, black-haired mountain people whose historical roots are lost in myth and controversy. Some people say that when the first white settlers came to the Appalachians centuries ago, they found the Tufa already there. Others hint that Tufa blood brings special gifts. Rob finds both music and mystery in the mountains. Close-lipped locals guard their secrets, even as Rob gets caught up in a subtle power struggle he can’t begin to comprehend. A vacationing wife goes missing, raising suspicions of foul play, and a strange feral girl runs wild in the woods, howling in the night like a lost spirit. Change is coming to Cloud County, and only the night wind knows what part Rob will play when the last leaf falls from the Widow’s Tree…and a timeless curse must be broken at last.
And now, let’s hear from Alex!
HOW “WROUGHT IRON FENCES” ENDED UP IN WISP OF A THING
by Alex Bledsoe
It was probably inevitable that Kate Campbell would become the first living musician to have a song featured in a Tufa novel. Because in a lot of ways, she was there at the beginning.
Back in the early 2000s, after attending the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., I started thinking about a story set in Appalachia. I began my research back then the same way I do now: by listening to new music. I knew a fair number of classic folk songs, but I was also interested in modern folk, the stuff that hadn’t yet been classified as “Americana.” And that led me to Kate.
At the time, I’d never heard of her. I found her website, entered a drawing for a free CD, and won. When she asked which one I’d like, I chose her first, Lanterns on the Levee, first released in 1994. And it made me a fan for life.
Kate isn’t from Appalachia; she’s from Mississippi, as the first song of Lanterns, “Mississippi and Me,” emphatically illustrates. She’s a preacher’s daughter with a strong link to the past but one eye firmly on the future, and her music is the best kind of contemporary folk–it stretches out both behind, and ahead.
I’ve been lucky enough to see her perform twice. Once was at the Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN; if you’re not familiar with the place, its’ internal decor is all done in an Egyptian motif, which for someone like me, raised in simple rural churches, was quite an eye-opener. (You can see a virtual tour here.) Kate’s performance was not the only highlight of the day: they also showed Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, in dead silence as the director intended.
The second time was at the Memphis Orpheum Theater in 2003, where a dance troupe performed an elaborate show based around her songs. She performed live with a band, and her unbelievably moody tale of snake-handling, “Signs Following,” was a real highlight, as was “Bowl-A-Rama,” about an unlucky bowler (and with an impossibly catchy chorus).
Because that’s what Kate’s songs do best: tell stories. One of her classics, “Look Away,” tackles the dichotomy between what Southerners really experience and what the outside world thinks of us. It’s not defensive, it simply states what many of us can also say: “Never saw a cross on fire/never saw an angry mob.”
But when it came time to use a song in my second Tufa novel, Wisp of a Thing, I picked my favorite, “Wrought Iron Fences.” It’s from her second CD, Moonpie Dreams, and it’s a deceptively simple tune about an abandoned family cemetery. In the novel, it also contains coded clues to the central mystery. Kate must like the song as much as I do, because she’s recorded it twice more, in very different arrangements: once on The Portable Kate Campbell, and once with her side project band, The New Agrarians.
I was nervous writing Kate to ask permission to use it; even though I’m a longtime fan, I’ve never had a chance to just sit down and talk with her, so I had no idea how she’d take the request. Thankfully, she couldn’t have been more gracious, and she sent me a nice note when she read the book.
I could’ve made up a song to fill the same narrative function, or combed through public-domain lyrics for a traditional ballad that might work. But something about this story just connected with that song. It’s not a logical connection, or an obvious one, and maybe the connection exists nowhere except in my head. But thanks to Kate, you can now experience both Wisp of a Thing with the music I intended, and “Wrought Iron Fences” in a whole new context.
Thanks, Alex! Here’s a video from YouTube with Kate performing the song live. It’s an awesome song. And if you like her music, you can sample quite a few video performances with a YouTube search.
Have you read a novel or series that uses music in its storyline (either real music or imaginary)? Most of you who’ve read the Sentinels series have heard me yap about Zachary Richard until you’re probably sick of it! Leave a comment to be entered for your chance to win a copy of Wisp of a Thing, by Alex Bledsoe, or, if you prefer, the first book, The Hum and the Shiver.