As a gay kid growing up in a very conservative and uptight denomination, I understand why a lot of people dislike Christmas music. I understand that what some people hear when those songs play is, “You must conform to this belief system that has oppressed you, or else!” Seriously, some sacred music provokes memories of very bad experiences for me, too, so I get it.
My particular idiosyncrasy is that traditional religious Christmas songs just don’t register that way for me. I can sing “O, Come All Ye Faithful” in more than one language (my Latin’s a bit rusty, but…). I love singing along to “Angels We Have Heard on High” because when I do it bring back memories the many Christmas concerts where I either sang it or played in the orchestra. In my head, I’m singing the tenor, and bass, and alto part (and wishing I could still hit all the notes for the soprano), as well as playing the trumpet and baritone horn parts.
So, while I understand intellectually that those particular Christmas songs are sacred hymns, to me they’re just part of the “Ho! Ho! Ho!” extravaganza. Yes, “O, Holy Night” brings tears to my eyes, but is the wonder I used to experience every night when I lived in tiny towns in the Central Rocky Mountains, where we could walk outside, look up, and see the entire Milky Way, not being washed out by the lights of a city. Which is the same sense of wonder I used to get when I was a very small child laying on the floor in our living room with the Christmas tree lights providing most of the light in the room. It’s why sometimes during this time of the year, my husband will come out of the computer room and find me sitting in the darkened living room, staring at the Christmas tree.I think part of the reason is because music was a part of the holiday season for as long as I can remember. Every year Mom would pick up at least one or two new Christmas albums. For a good part of the 1960s every November would signal the arrival of such albums at gas stations and other place that you wouldn’t expect. You could get a whole vinyl album full of song recorded by various people (some names quite famous, others not) for practically nothing when you filled up your gas tank, or made some other purchase. Those made up a rather large part of our collection.
Dad mostly tolerated the music. The only album that I know he actually liked was Elvis’ Christmas Album, because Dad was a bit Elvis fan.
Anyway, while we sang some of the sacred Christmas hymns in church, and some of those Christmas concerts I performed in over the years were at churches or with religious groups, I spent a whole lot more time singing and listening to Christmas music at home. Where “Up on the House Top” or “Sleigh Ride” or “Silver Bells” or “All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth” or “Snoopy’s Christmas” or “I Wanna Hippopotamus for Christmas” was just as likely to come up as any of the religious songs.
My current iTunes library contains 13.9gigabytes of Christmas music. That’s 2,657 songs which would take about 5¼ days of continuous playing to get through the lot. Which I know is totally bonkers. And the fact that there are Christmas albums still on my wish list that I haven’t acquired, yet, is even more mind-boggling for some.
Then there are albums that aren’t actually on my wishlist, but I wouldn’t mind adding to the collection if I could. I was reminded of some of this this weekend when Mom texted me about find a box of cassette tapes of Christmas music, including some that are kind of my fault. Twenty-two years ago (the first Christmas after Ray died) I spent several days visiting Mom for Christmas, but because Mom was still working in retail at the time, that meant for several of those days I was hanging out at her place by myself.
It just so happened that she had recently found in the back of a closet a box full of old vinyl Christmas albums, including a bunch that—so far as I can tell—have never been re-issued on CD or digital. I went out and bought a bunch of cassette tapes and spent one day recording all my favorites onto cassette. I made two copies of each—one for me and one for Mom (because she liked to listen to music in her car). After I showed her the first day’s work, she asked me to transfer several more.
I wish I could say that, when I had the chance a few years later, I transferred those recordings to compact disc. I’m not sure why I didn’t. But I’m glad to know that Mom still has hers (though I suspect the quality may have degraded a bit by now, and I have no idea the quality of the player she’s listening to them on).
I’m not obsessed with finding those old odd albums. I just wouldn’t mind if I happened to find one had been issued at least once in a more modern format. Just because listening to an old recording that you used to hear often is kind of like running into an old friend you haven’t seen in years, and sharing stories and laughs about things you did together a long time ago.
It’s another sense of wonder, like looking at a twinkling Christmas tree in the dark and remembering the bright starlit skies of yore.
Back in 1954 writer Sylvia Wright proposed a new word: mondegreen, meaning a mishearing or misinterpretation of a word or phrase in a poem or a song. Her idea for the name came about because when she was a child her mother frequently read to her from a book of poetry, and one of her favorites was a specific Scottish ballad that referred to the murder of an Earl by his enemies “and they laid him on the green” — in other words, put his body on display as a warning to other enemies. But Wright had always thought the line was “and the Lady Mondegreen.” So she had always thought that two people had been murdered.
One of my oldest friends used to tell how back in the day her Mother had thought that the Bee Gee’s hit from 1977, “More Than a Woman,” was actually “Bald-headed Woman.” And I’ve written before about how I had completely misunderstood a lot of the lyrics of the song Doris Day was most famous for singing.
I listen to music a lot. I have literally thousands of playlists, and I like to have background music when I’m writing, or working, or doing just about anything. Particularly in my writing playlists, some songs appear again and again. There are some songs that I think of as themes for some of my characters, for instance. Others just really go well with certain kinds of subplots. And the song is one that is currently in my draft NaNoWriMo 2019 playlist, which I’ve been fiddling with for a bit over a week.
Sometimes I like a song really well, but there are a few of the lyrics I’m not sure of. You can’t hear some words as clearly as the others for various reasons. For instance, there is a song that has been in a bunch of playlists for two or three years, now, “Dancin’ with the Devil” by Lindsay Perry. And I like the song quite a bit, but there is one line that I’m slightly unsure of. In the chorus there’s this sentence, “Cause there’s nothing much more for me to do, but go dancin’ with the devil in these old soled shoes.” Or at least that’s what it sounds like to me.
Except, I’m not sure what “old soled shoes” means, exactly. I mean, all styles of shoes have soles, and it the soles are old, one presumes the entire shoe is old, right? It’s just a weird phrase. There is a brand of children’s shoes called “Old Soles” but they are children’s shoes (and expensive), so not really in keeping with the rest of the song where the character portrayed in the lyrics is at the end of their rope because they made a deal with the devil that has turned sour as those deals always do.
I kept thinking that I must be misunderstanding her, so I finally decided to see if lyrics to the song were posted anywhere.
They are. But it soon becomes clear that every site hosting them is copying them from a single site where a fan with really bad hearing has made a guess at the lyrics. I say this because there are lines that are quite clear and unmistakeable earlier in the song that this attempt at transcription gets wrong. For instance, the line in the song “It was the devil in disguise with his hazy eyes, I should’ve known better from all his lies.” But the web lyrics render it as “He was the devil in disguise with his eyes of ice. Should I know better from how is last” Which makes absolutely no sense at all.
Plus there are other, worse mondegreens later.
The line I am slightly uncertain of they render as “go dancin’ with the devil in its handsome shoes” which I know is wrong, because, for one, everywhere else in the song the devil is referred to as he/his, not it. And frankly, I can’t imagine how anyone could get handsome out of the phonemes there.
Well, I’m not completely sure I’m right about that one bit of lyric, so do I really have a right to judge someone else who thinks it’s something that, to me, makes no sense at all?
Maybe you can hear it better than me.
Lindsay Perry on Sonny’s Porch / Dancing With The Devil:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
I am constantly saving various images to possibly use to illustrate a post, then wind up using only a fraction of them. Between the recent slushmageddon and my being sick, I’m behind on lots of things and have way more errands to run than usual. So, rather than rant about some news developments that have happened since I compiled yesterday’s Friday Five (sold them the rope edition) here are some of my recently collected images/memes/what-have-you:
Finally, some of you may know that my latest musical obsession is Panic! At the Disco—specifically lead singer Brendon Urie, so when I saw this tweet I laughed outloud and said, “Welcome to the club!”:
Which seems like a good reason to link to one of his music videos that hasn’t been included in any of my previous posts:
Panic! At The Disco: Girls/Girls/Boys [OFFICIAL VIDEO]:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
“Is it just me or is the reason that Earth Kitt’s original version of ‘Santa Baby’ is better than all the rest (other than the fact that Eartha Kitt is inimitable) the fact that Eartha was actually singing to a sugar daddy that was was playfully calling ‘Santa’ and was dead serious about all the thing she was asking for (…and Micahel Buble was really trying to sing to Santa).”
“Wait. Do people genuinely think that Santa Baby is about Santa??? I’ve known that it was about a sugar daddy since I was like 11.”
“Michael Buble doesn’t know what a sugar daddy is and that’s the flaw that will finally kill him.”
“Bold of OP (original poster) to assume Eartha Kitt had not, in fact, landed Santa Claus as her sugar daddy.”
I had planned to keep a streak of posting every day through my vacation, and I had several other topics I meant to write about today. But I reached the point last night with this cold where I can’t think very clearly, and naps keep attacking me, but I’m not sleeping well since last evening because I keep having coughing fits that wake me up.
While transferring some content from my various Tumblrs to other platforms, I’ve also been scrolling through to see what remains there, and this particular post really cracked me up last night.
At a fairly early age I understood that Eartha was singing to her sugar daddy, but I also was absolutely certain that the real Santa was, indeed, the her boyfriend who came with financial benefits.
As I got older, I realized that it was a little… odd, that some of the same people (in church and so forth) who railed on about the crumbling morals of the nation and so forth, also thought that this was a funny song.
Eartha Kitt – Santa Baby:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
I don’t need to justify why I think a particular song is a Christmas song. As a matter of fact, you can’t justify such a thing, because we aren’t really talking about thinking here, but rather feeling. And no matter how much logic you pile up, that doesn’t change the way another person feels.
Just as an example: the exact same logical case that certain other people are making that a specific song isn’t a Christmas song applies to “Jingle Bells.” Seriously. “Jingle Bells” doesn’t mention the manger, nor the angels, nor the shepherds. Absolutely nothing in the lyrics at all about the arrival of Jesus, so not a religious Christmas song, clearly. There is also no mention of Christmas, nor a Christmas tree, nor holly, no mistletoe, not even chestnuts roasting on a fire. Yes, it mentions snow, and a sleigh is mentioned a lot of times, and then there’s all those jingling bells. But first, it’s a one horse open sleigh, not a reindeer drawn sleigh. Snow doesn’t just happen at Christmas. Bells were put on sleighs and carriages and the horses that pulled them at night and particularly in winter time as a precaution to avoid collisions in dark intersections.
In fact, the original author of the song back in 1822, wrote it as a party song. We’re so used to children singing the song that we don’t notice how racy the song is. A couple being out in a one horse sleigh meant no chaperone, after all, and that means all sorts of naughty things could occur. The word jingle, by the way, is meant to be a verb, not an adjective. Jingle those bells, because you’re driving fast! And there’s also some innuendo that.
And then there’s that line “He got into a drifted bank And then we got upsot.” Most people assume it’s away to make “upset” as in overturned or fallen over, to rhyme with lot. Not so fast! The word appears in a number of 18th and 19th Century songs, where it does seem to refer to something fallen over and such, but not just fallen, but in fallen in a drunken manner. Yes, other uses of the word seem to be referring to a more stumbling and raucous situation amplified by the liberal application of alcohol.
So not only isn’t “Jingle Bells” not a Christmas song, it’s not a wholesome children’s song either.
Except, of course, that for most of its history, Christmas hasn’t been a wholesome children’s holiday either. There are reasons the puritans banned the celebration of Christmas entirely in the old Massachusetts colony, and not because Christmas trees were pagan symbols. In point of fact the decorated evergreen tree wasn’t associated with Christmas in English-speaking countries at the time of the Puritans. But untangling the tree’s origin is way more complicated than I want to be here.
But, everybody knows that “Jingle Bells” is a Christmas song. And I think a case could be made that other Christmas songs mention sleigh rides and jingling bells at least as much because the modern celebration of Christmas appropriated “Jingle Bells” in the 1860s as the fact that those things are associated with winter.
I’m a Christmas music addict. And yes, there are some Christmas songs that I absolutely hate. I have walked out of people’s houses when certain songs come up. So I understand that someone can have strong negative feelings about a song or a movie. Let me like my songs and movies, and I’ll let you like yours.
And if you happen to stop by my place, I will offer you some eggnog. With the rum and brandy if you like, or without. Let’s just all have a cheery, jingly, non-judgmental holiday!
Khruangbin – Christmas Time Is Here:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
Big Freedia – Make It Jingle:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
So I supposed I can be forgiven for sometimes forgetting that I own a particular book or a music album, right?
I own a lot of Christmas music. According to iTunes I own 2,538 Christmas songs. While a substantial fraction of that comes from Christmas albums recorded by a single musician or band, a whole lot of the collection comes from various compilation albums where every track is by a different person. Before the era of digital music stores, I would go through displays of Christmas CDs at this time of year, reading the track lists on those compilations and sometimes buying a particular disc just to get one single track. And because my friends and my husband know I love Christmas music, I have been gifted with various albums over the years.
I have rules about when I listen to Christmas music. The earliest that I can listen to Christmas music each year is after Thanksgiving dinner. And usually I wait until the day after Thanksgiving. I can keep listening to Christmas music up until Three Kings Day/Epiphany (the literal 12th day of Christmas). For most of that period each year, I pick my Christmas music by choosing from playlists. If I’m in a silly mood, I might pick the list called “A Silly Christmas” or “A Quirky Christmas” or “Xmas Oddments.” If I’m in a more serious mood, I might pick “A Grand Golden Christmas” or “A Choral Christmas” or “A Sombre Christmas.” An other days I’ll pick “A Dame & Diva Christmas” or “A Gay Yultide” or “A Jazzy Christmas” or “A Swingin’ Christmas.” If I can’t decide, I just grab “A Class-ic Christmas” which contains the songs that I think of as Christmas Classics.
And I update these lists. When I get a new album, I often pick a few songs from the album to add to one of those playlists.
Unfortunately last year while updating one such list I added a song that I absolutely despise. It was part of an EP that I wound up buying without sampling all the songs. As I recall, someone linked to the music video for a song, and I liked it enough to go see if I could buy the song, and that’s when I found a it was part of an EP of five I think it was. I listened to the samples of a couple of other songs on it, decided that I wanted to buy those three, so might as well just buy the whole thing. And four of the songs are great. But the fifth… no.
I went to delete the song from the playlist that it didn’t belong on (wondering briefly how I had added it), and when I right-clicked, onr of the options on the pop-up was the remove the download entirely. So I picked that. And it was oddly satisfying.
Anyway, while between all of those lists that’s a lot of Christmas music, it isn’t everything I own. So several years ago I got in the habit of Setting up a smart playlist each year that would gather all the Christmas songs that haven’t been listened to in over a year. I’ll set that list on shuffle and listen to it on shuffle for a day or two, watching it shrink (because each time a song plays, it gets removed the list, right?). Every time I do this, some music that I forgot even existed comes up. And that’s fun—most of the time. Of course, there are some songs that come up in this list that, well, there are good reasons I haven’t listened to it in a while.
Not necessarily because I dislike them as much as that one song I deleted. For instance, some years ago I found in one of those displays of music that pop-up in retail stores at Christmas time, an album by a pop singer whose heydey was during my childhood. I had fond memories of his music on the radio, and the disc was on sale, so I figured, what the heck?
Oh, boy. Now, it wasn’t awful. It wasn’t gouge your ear-drums-out bad like the Dylan album a couple years ago, for instance. On a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 is Great, 1 is Dreadful and 3 is Mediocre? The album is a solid 2.5. The orchestration was by-the-numbers. The session musicians who recorded the accompaniment all did just fine. The pop singer’s voice was still pleasant. He hit the notes without needing autotune. But his delivery on every track except one is just bland. And the tempo of several of the upbeat songs was just a little slower than what you would call festive. No single track on the album is terrible, but likewise, there is only one track that I’d say is good. Not great, but good.
Looking at the album more closely, it’s a great example of why sometimes these Christmas offerings by musicians who are no longer burning up the charts can be so hit and miss. Only two of the tracks are songs that are still under copyright, so licensing for the album was very cheap. Pop and rock and other genre musicians often do a Christmas album when they’re in the downside of their careers because they are usually cheap to produce, and while people were still buying most of their music as physical media, mass-produced copies were reliable sellers year after year. I still see some of the racks of Christmas music CDs in some stores, but even my inner Christmas music packrat can seldom get me to stop and look at them any longer.
Which is probably a good thing. Yeah, maybe I’m missing the occasional surprise treasure, but I have so many great treasures already! And I just got a new idea for a Christmas playlist. Gotta go!
I was reminded of this incident by two different events recently. First, after a few weeks of working on my Halloween playlist, I took a dip into a couple of music streaming services to see what they were serving up on various Halloween channels. The other was a series of disturbing dreams I had in the wee small hours of a recent morning.
Quick digression: the psychological definition of a nightmare is an unpleasant dream evoking an emotional response which disturbs the sleep cycle. It doesn’t necessarily have to be scary to be a nightmare as far as psychologists are concerned, but it does have to actually make you wake up to qualify as a nightmare. So while colloquially we usually think of nightmares as bad dreams, usually invoking fear or despair, other kinds of emotions can be involved.
So, I’ve more than once had a nightmare where I woke up extremely angry. And that was very disturbing, especially during those initial moments of waking up where you don’t quite realize it was only a dream. I had a new one, this time, I woke up extremely annoyed. Three times in one night. The first two didn’t really have any element most people would think of a spooky: I was trying to set up some sound equipment for some kind of party or concert, and someone kept moving my toolbox full of patch cables. There were a number of people in the dream, most of whom I haven’t seen in person in many years. And they were all being uncharacteristically unhelpful. The second one involved someone I didn’t recognize who kept trying to make me go to this place I also didn’t recognize and pack up things that had been left behind by someone. Oddly, once I gave in, I recognized all of the blankets and towels (which were only a subset of the items) as ones that had belonged to my family when I was a child and a teen-ager. The third one was like a combination: I was walking somewhere intending to retrieve something I needed, and I noticed an open door of an apartment, I think, and inside I saw scattered around clothes that belong to me. When I was checking out the place and gathering things, people kept wandering in to try to take stuff from me—and they people each had these weird glowing eyes and I was absolutely convinced that they were undead or something similar.
Even then, when I woke up, I wasn’t feeling fear, but extreme annoyance that I had to deal with weird creatures and someone stealing my clothes when I really just wanted to go get the thing—whatever it was—that I had started out looking for. (And no, I don’t need any dream analysis. My subconscious is never subtle. I know what I’m feeling anxiety about right now.)
The thing was, even though my feeling at each awakening was annoyance—neither anger nor fear—there were still moments while I was waking up where I felt that disturbing confusion about what was real and what wasn’t. Which is its own kind of spooky.
Many Halloween playlists I see on various streaming services or that people post often contain songs that I don’t think are spooky at all. Many seem to be chosen because the title of the song has a tenuous connection to some spooky concepts, while the lyrics of the song are often just standard pop fare.
I happen to believe that a Halloween playlist should consist of tracks where the content of the track has some connection to ideas, moods, et cetera, that people associate with Halloween, trick or treating, monsters, and so forth. I make exceptions for instrumental tracks from movies and such that I personally find spooky. I realize that most of those don’t seem spooky if you don’t recognize where they are from (but some are very eery and really set a spooky mood even when you don’t recognize their source). Anyway, here is my 2018 Halloween playlist:
1. “It’s alive!” From the Young Frankenstein soundtrack. This isn’t a song, it’s the dialog for one of the funniest scenes in the movie, when Dr Frahnk-in-steen finds out that he put an abnormal brain in the body of his creation.
2. “Monster Mash” A blue grass cover of the classic Halloween song by a band called Hayseed Dixie. It’s quite fun.
3. “Science Fiction Double Feature” From the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the campy lyrics describe several classic sci fi thriller movies.
4. “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” by Julie Brown. “Everybody run! The Homecoming Queen’s got a gun!” and “…it’s like the whole school was totally coked or something!”
5. “Anything Can Happen On Halloween” by Tim Curry from the movie The Worse Witch. A fun song.
6. “Thriller” by Michael Jackson (with narration in the middle by Vincent Price). A classic for Halloween. And you can dance to it!
7. “GhostBusters (I’m Not Afraid” by Fallout Boy. An interesting cover/re-imagining of the original Ghostbusters them recorded for the new GhostBusters movie.
8. “Rest in Peace” from Once More, With Feeling, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode. “Whisper in a dead man’s ear doesn’t make it real.”
9. “Bad Moon Rising” by Mourning Ritual. A very creepy re-imagining of the old Creedence Clearwater Revival hit that I first heard in one of the spookiest, creepiest episodes of the Teen Wolf TV series. I can’t hear this song without reliving the scenes where Void Stiles was doing various horrific things.
10. “Monster Mash (featuring Black Magic” by Halloween FX Productions. A cute cover of the Halloween classic.
11. “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space” from Little Shop of Horrors just fun!
12. “Haunted Honeymoon Main Title” by John Morris. A spooky instrumental from one of my favorite comedies ever. Gene Wilder, Gilda Radner, and Dom DeLuis in a hilarious send-up of 30s mystery radio shows and spooky forties movies.
13. “Teen Wolf Main Theme” by Dino Meneghin & Bloody Beetroots. The theme for the Teen Wolf series is just some really dramatic music.
14. “Theme from the Ghost and Mr. Chicken” – if you aren’t familiar with this comedy send up of various Hitchcock-esque movie tropes starring Don Knotts, you really need to Netflix it or something. And the organ music is suitably spooky and silly, at the same time.
15. “”Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” Yes, the theme song from the original cartoon series.
16. “Dark Shadows” the original eerie, spooky, haunting theme song from the ’60s gothic horror soap opera.
17. “Funeral March of a Marionette” an orchestral piece which was used as the theme for the old Alfred Hitchcock show.
18. “The Munster’s Theme” by Jack Marshall. A tiki-fied cover of the them song for the 1960s horror comedy series.
19. “Mamushka” by Raul Julia and Marc Shaiman. The silly show-stopper song from the theatrical Addams Family movie.
20. “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers. The original, classic Halloween Novelty song.
There was no sign that the car had been broken into (one of the reason we have several iPods salvaged from the junk pile at my husband’s workplace is that we have had about four previous iPods stolen from over the last ten years and two cars), so I knew the most likely cause was that the iPod was too cold. I opened up the console, dug the iPod out while trying not to disconnect its cable and it was definitely ice cold. Electronic devices with internal rechargeable batteries have temperature sensors that deactivate the system if the device is either too cold and too hot, because the chemical processes inside the rechargeable batteries don’t operate as efficiently (and safely) outside certain ranges.
This made me realize that the overnight low temps are cold enough that I probably should sit in the car letting the engine idle for a couple of minutes before driving. And this is yet another sign of the changing of the seasons: sometimes it’s cold enough to disable the iPod. That probably means I should bring swap out the iPod in the car to change out the music a bit.
And that reminded me that while I have been thinking about a new Halloween playlist, all I have actually been doing is listening to all my old ones (I usually make a new one each year). Combine that with a conversation between two friends on social media about playlists for NaNoWriMo, and I spent more than a bit of my free time this week setting up a new Halloween playlist and a possible NaNoWriMo playlist.
I love making playlists. Given that there are literally thousands in my library, I probably love it just a bit much. Writing playlist are assembled in several different ways. Some songs I associate with certain characters. Lots of songs simply evoke moods. A good friend always remarks on how many of the songs in my writing playlists have lyrics. He says he can’t write while listening to people talking or singing words. I get that, and I have a few writing lists that are entirely instrumental. The key, of me, is that the songs that have lyrics can only go into a writing list if I know the song well enough that I don’t have to actively process the words to follow the song.
Many of my writing playlists are intended to help me think about writing while doing other things. Listening to my playlist, “A Dark Lord’s Lady” during my evening walk, or while riding the bus, or walking from the bus to the office, or while working on certain tasks at work make keeps me in the mood to write scenes related to one certain characters and subplots in a couple of the books in my fantasy series, for example. Whereas the playlist, “Devil in the Trickster Details” has me thinking about a completely different set of characters and their subplots across….. many more of the books in the series.
To make a new list for this year’s NaNoWriMo requires me to decide which of many projects to actually work on this November. And that’s a problem, because I’ve been running the Red Queen’s Race in regards to a bunch of writing projects for the last few years, and can’t quite manage to actually finish anything. Which is frustrating, but also entirely my fault.
I think I know what I’m going to do. And I have assembled a new NaNoWriMo playlist (currently titled “A Heart Rattling World Ending”) with 55 songs that focus on characters in a couple of the stalled projects. But I might change me mind by the time November 1 rolls around. If you happen to be doing NaNoWriMo this year, and want a writing buddy, I’m Fontfolly over there, so say “hi.”
Compounding the problem for many of us it the grinding compassion fatigue/outrage fatigue/existential fear fatigue that world events have been inflicting on so many of us. There were literal mobs roving streets of cities this weekend looking for liberals and queers and anyone else the alt-right thinks of as enemies. They beat a bunch of people up, and in at least three cases the cops arrested the victims. It should be no surprise, then, that many of us are having trouble getting into the mood for holidays, no matter how much we may love Halloween. Let alone getting in the mood to write a novel.
But I refuse to give up.
In this kind of social/political atmosphere, creating is an act of rebellion. Having fun that doesn’t come at someone else’s expense is an act of rebellion. I’m trying to remember that. Let’s all try to accomplish some creativity and celebration together, shall we?
First, let’s deal with the song a bit. If you aren’t familiar with the song (which knocked the Beattles off the top of the pop charts for 4 weeks in 1967, then went on to make it into the top twenty of the Blues chart, the Soul chart, and finally the Country chart), you must listen to it once before we talk about it. Even if you are familiar, you really should listen again, and try to listen to it as a short story, rather than just some song:
The song is often retro-activily classified as Country, but at the time it was more clearly pop with a heavy blues influence. I think people classify it country because the story of the song is set in the south and she lets her Mississippi accent through.
Anyway, as a short story, it’s pretty phenomenal. And part of appeal of the song, clearly, is the mystery at the center of the song: what did the narrator and Billie Joe throw off the bridge earlier in the week, and why did Billie Joe commit suicide?
Over the years, Bobbie gave a very consistent answer: she didn’t know and it didn’t matter2. Many times she explained to interviewer, “It’s a MacGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock called the object that moves the plot along but isn’t really important on its own a MacGuffin, and writers have been using that term since the 1930s.” The song wasn’t about what happened, rather it was about unconscious cruelty. The family is sitting around the table discussing the suicide of someone they all know as casually as they ask each other to pass the biscuits, completely unaware that the suicide victim’s girlfriend is a member of their family, sitting right there listening to them.
The something that the narrator and Billie Joe were seen “throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge” is one type of MacGuffin. It is something another character saw, and a third character comments on, which draws a connection in the minds of the audience between other events in the story. But exactly what it was and why it was thrown off aren’t important to the tale that the writer is sharing.
You’ll find a few different definitions of MacGuffin out there (also spelled McGuffin and Maguffin). My definition is:
- A story element that draws the reader’s attention to certain actions and/or,
- Drives the plot of a work of fiction (usually because several characters are willing to do almost anything to obtain it), but,
- The specific nature of the object may be ambigious, undefined, left open to interpretation, or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that in a thriller the MacGuffin is often a necklace (a small object which can be worth a lot of money, but may also hold sentimental value or be coveted for its beauty), while in a spy stories the MacGuffin is usually some mysterious papers. The important thing (storytelling-wise) about the MacGuffin is what it motivates the characters to do, not what it actually is. In the example of “Ode to Billie Joe” the thing thrown off the bridge is important because apparently it contributes to Billie Joe MacAllister’s decision to commit suicide, probably motivates the preacher to come tell Mama the news of the suicide, and draws the audience’s attention to the connection between the narrator and Billie Joe.
One might wonder how MacGuffins relate to subplots. As I’ve discussed before, subplots are sequences of events with plot-like structures that happen within a larger story an are sometimes only tangentially related to the main plot. And sometimes a way you can connect subplots more closely to the main plot, or even connect subplots which aren’t otherwise related to each other is with the use of a MacGuffin.
For example, many years ago when I became the editor-in-chief of a small sci fi fanzine, I inherited a project started by the previous editor. She had come up with a framing tale to allow contributors to write a large group story together. This allowed contributors who had trouble coming with with plots an easy situation to write some scenes about their characters in, for instance, and encouraged contributors to work with each other. When I became the editor, there were about 40,000 words worth of writing from a whole bunch of people… and most of it did not fit together very well.
I went through the whole thing, taking notes and trying to come up with an outline that would fit all the disparate pieces into the original framing tale. One of the contributors (and an Associate Editor), Mark, regularly wrote a lot of the stories we published, and had written several sequences with different characters which could have been turned into interesting plots on their own. So we talked at length before bringing the proposal back to the rest of the editorial board. There would need to be a lot of new stuff written to tie the pieces we had together and push the whole thing to an ending, and I proposed two MacGuffins to help us out.
A lot of the existing sequences (and the framing tale) involved a criminal deal (worth the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars) gone wrong. While the initiating event for the non-criminal characters was an anniversary party to celebrate the original maiden voyage of a spaceship. So, one MacGuffin would be the 36th Century equivalent of a bearer bond: a physical object containing some kind of encryption key which could be presented to a particular financial institution and be exchanged for the hundreds of millions of dollars—that could be cashed by anyone. The other was an anniversary present which the pirate captain charged his first mate with making certain was delivered to the captain of the ship celebrating the anniversary.
This gave us two packages that were both in the possession of one of the criminal leaders early in the story and then became separated in the chaos of the shoot out and the inconveniently times major earthquake. Many of the criminal characters believed that either of the lost packages was the fabulously valuable bearer bond, but weren’t sure which one. Other characters had no idea when either package was.
A lot of the sequences which had no other connection to the established plots could thus be connected merely by adding a few sentences where one or another of the characters came into contact with a package that looked important, and then losing it. Other sequences got a more firm connection to the plot by adding a few sentences where one or more of the characters was trying to find one of the packages.
The two MacGuffins on their own didn’t solve all the problems. We spent a few months dividing various sequences and subplots to members of the editorial board to write additional bridging material5. And then Mark and I would each re-write these sequences to make them fit with the others. After a few months of this, I started sensing a bit of dread from the other members of the editorial board when we got to the standing item of this story6, so one meeting when we got to that point I immediately said, “I think we’ve reached the point where I should take over and finish weaving the rest of the tale together, and then Mark can do a clean-up pass.” At least two members of the board audibly sighed and said something like, “Thank goodness.”
We published the final tale as 24 chapters in consecutive issues of the ‘zine. The final word count was a bit shy of 250,000 words. And those two MacGuffins really helped. In the penultimate chapter, one MacGuffin finally ended its journey, and I managed to make the delivery of the lost bearer bond to the pirate captain into the punchline to a joke. The other MacGuffin never made it to where it was originally destined, but it served as the final punchline to the entire story.
The objects themselves were not really important, particularly in light of the number of characters who were killed in the course of the tale7. But the objects provided through-lines for may subplots and kept the reader guessing until the very end.
1. The opening lyrics of the song are, “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day”
2. Please don’t ping me to tell me that the 1976 movie based on the song reveals the answers. It doesn’t. Through a series of events involving a later minor hit of Ms. Gentry’s that was the theme of another movie, a studio approached her with the idea of making a movie based on her first hit. Per the agreement, her only involvement with the movie was they would use an existing recording of her singing the song in the soundtrack, and she would have one meeting with the screenwriter. Only one. He reported afterwards that the first question he asked her was why did Billie Joe commit suicide. He said Gentry laughed and told him, “I have absolutely no idea. That’s not why I wrote the song.” Then he asked her what they threw off the bridge, and she repeated that she had no idea. Left with no information he could use, the screenwriter made up a rather convoluted plot, and named the previously unnamed narrator of the song Bobbie, so that audiences would believe that the song was autobiographical3.
3. Which it wasn’t4.
4. In a very early interview about the song, when the interviewer was not happy with Bobbie’s explanation that it was a MacGuffin and pressed her repeatedly for an answer, Bobbie said, “I really don’t know. Maybe it was a ring or a locket that represented an engagement or something?” But clearly at this point she admits that she is guessing, too.
5. A lot of the authors or co-authors of some of the sequences had left the project, but we had permission to use the material, without always knowing how the absent writer had intended to end their sequence.
6. Yes, we were technically a fan project, but we had regular meetings and I had agendas for the meetings and we took minutes and everything. I’m that kind of editor!
7. It was a natural disaster story and the story of a criminal deal gone wrong, with multiple shoot-outs—of course characters died!
8. Edited to add: I should have linked to the podcast. Cocaine & Rhinestones Season 1, episode 4, “Bobbie Gentry: Exit Stage Left”.
I am, indeed, one of those people who think there is a song from a musical for every situation. Some people consider this a stereotypical gay thing, but I know way more gay people who never liked theatre (musical or otherwise) than do (and there are plenty of straight people writing, performing, or buying tickets to Broadway musicals and the like). Oh, yes, there are arguments made about the kind of misfit who is drawn to the exaggerated and colorful worlds portrayed in musical theatre, and that’s why there are enough queer people into it to create the stereotype. But I think there’s more than a little bit of a chicken-and-egg aspect to that.
Regardless, I have a lot of musical soundtracks in my music collection, along with orchestral scores for my favorite movies and TV shows. And I have been known to surf to TuneFind.com while watching something when a particularly good piece of music is used to accompany a scene in one of my favorite shows, so I can buy a copy of the song for myself. And I’ve blogged before about how I create playlists specifically for certain writing projects.
I’ve had more than one friend comment, upon seeing the list of songs in one of my play lists, “How can you write while listening to songs with lyrics?” First, if a song has wound up in one of my playlists, it’s usually a song I’m already familiar enough with that I don’t have to pay attention to the lyrics to parse the meaning of the song. Even with very voice-forward songs, while I’m writing I’m not processing the music as words, but as mood music.
Second, if a song is fairly new to me—I heard it for the first time, liked it a lot, bought it, and added it to my current writing playlist—I may pause while writing the next time it comes up. Far more likely, I will have heard the song a few more times before I’m next writing because I listen to the playlists at least as often when I’m not writing as when I am. While riding the bus to work, while working at my desk at my day job, while walking in the evening before heading home I’ll be listening to the current writing playlist, in part to get my subconscious working on the story while I’m dong these other things. I’m more likely to be in the mood to be productive on a personal writing project after a long workday if I’ve been listening to a playlist that I associate with the personal writing..
I need to make a small digression about my longer bus commute. I have tried several times to write on this bus route as I used to back on the Route D—the ride’s longer; I should be able to get more writing done! Unfortunately, the other difference is that the physical road seems to have a lot more potholes and irregularities. It’s really annoying, because the bouncing and dipping is pretty much constant. So there I am, holding my phone in my hand with one of my writing apps up but we’re constantly bouncing, so my thumbs keep hitting the wrong part of the screen. I get half a word typed and then get five incorrect letters in a cluster because of a particularly bad bounce, so I try to delete and there’s a bunch of smaller bounces and half my attempts to tap the backspace hit another key near it instead.
I can read (though sometimes that’s a little difficult). I can take notes. But when I’m writing, once my head is in the scene want to just get out this sentence and on to the next and the next. But I can’t get the flow going because of the dang bouncing. I tried to ignore the wrong letters and keep going one time, but I spent way more time correcting the gibberish once I got home and transferred it to the laptop that I realized bus writing is just not possible for most of the Route E.
Which has made the writing playlists take on a new importance. Since it is very difficult to write on the new bus route, what I do instead is listen to the current project’s playlist while either re-reading recently written scenes or going through my notes on the project.
One reason I have writing playlists is because music conveys emotion. It doesn’t just convey emotion, it generates emotion. When we hear a song we know well, it may remind us about a particular event, or a person, or just a time in our lives. And it doesn’t always have to be because we are remembering that song happening to accompany a particular memory. Sometimes a song that was written long after a particular event in your life manages, somehow, to evoke your memory of the experience.
Another reason I have writing playlists is going to sound strange to some. Dialog is, in my opinion, the heart of most stories. Dialog conveys information, and illustrates relationships of the people talking, and gives you a sense of the personalities of each speaker. A good dialog is like music. It isn’t just about the literal or contextual meaning of the words, but also the rhythm. Some phrases flow easily from one’s mouth, whereas badly written dialog will tie your tongue in a knot if you try to read it aloud. For me, listening to music while I write helps me find rhythms. The dialog just works better if I have a good set of songs going.
And another reason that I have writing lists is, I don’t like to write in silence. I can write in silence. But it’s difficult, sometimes. Maybe it’s because during my childhood, when I first started writing (I literally decided that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up at the age of six, and was regularly pounding out page after page of stories on my mom’s Easter Pink Smith-Corono Silent Super typewriter by the age of ten) there was alway a lot of noise. Other people in the house doing things of their own. Dad watching a ballgame in the living room, while my sister was playing in her room and Mom was doing something in the sewing room. And there were often neighbors outside making noise.
And for a lot of those years I would be back in my room, with the door closed, tapping away on those keys with the radio playing as I tried to learn the magic of dialog that sounded like real people, and scenes that moved the story along. Sometimes, an especially good song would come up and I might have to stop typing to sing along. And yes, sometimes I got up and danced around my room as I did so. But when the song ended, I’d go back to the typewriter. Giddy with the joy of the dancing, and feeling renewed determination for my hero to save the day.
Songs never mean the same thing to other people. So sharing my playlists probably doesn’t help any of my friends write. Though I have had one or two of them say that they were glad I introduced them to a particular song or artist when I share a list. And I know I have found great new songs when other people share their own lists. But while it may be futile to expect that one of my playlists will effect you the way they do me, I’m going to share four songs from my current novel editing playlist. The full playlist is nearly 60 songs. These aren’t a representative sample, but they are particular favorites. Three of these songs I associate with a specific character in my fictional universe–evoking a particular aspect of their personality, or even expression something that character believes are feels. One of them describes the past relationship between a pair of characters.
Darling Lili– Whistling Away The Dark (HD) – JULIE ANDREWS :
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Mame – Bosom Buddies – Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur:
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Bad Influence – P!nk (Music Video):
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Shrek 2 – Holding Out For a Hero – Jennifer Saunders:
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