Musical interlude #3: Farewell Ronnie Gilbert

The_Weavers_at_Carnegie_HallThis musical interlude will be a short tribute to Ronnie Gilbert, who sadly passed away on 6 June just over a year since the death of her fellow ex-Weaver Pete Seeger. Like Pete, she’d lived a long life and got to sing a lot of songs before her death at 88. I find myself imagining the duet she could be singing with Pete somewhere. And Joe Strummer could join in a chorus or two… OK, better stop now before I add all my favourite deceased musicians to this fictitious band. And given that Pete Seeger is the guy who pulled the plug on Bob Dylan the first time he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, he and Joe might not see eye-to-eye musically.

Anyway, back to the Weavers. My parents were big fans. Though politically conservative in many ways, they did appreciate the lefty culture of the 50s and earlier 60s. So for us it was Paul Robeson, Threepenny Opera with Lotte Lenya, the Weavers and Pete Seeger. We also had the Red Army Chorus and Band, along with jokes about how the comrades made that tenor hit the high notes.

But the Weavers topped the list. We had several of their albums, though our favourite was The Weavers at Carnegie Hall.  I only learned recently – from a family-oriented Facebook thread inspired by Ronnie’s death – that my parents had attended the Weavers’ famous gig at Carnegie Hall in 1955. They were sitting at the front and apparently Pete Seeger didn’t take his eyes off my mum!

From that album I’ve selected “Venga Jaleo”, a Spanish Civil War song. Even when I was too young to know what the song was about, I found Ronnie’s singing in this very stirring. It still raises goose bumps.

Here’s another Weavers song I loved, their rendition of “Follow the Drinking Gourd”. This song dates back to the underground railroad and contains coded directions for slaves escaping to the north. Though Pete sings solo in this, just listen to Ronnie’s intro and all the power and warmth she adds to the chorus. The Weavers’ style centred on harmonies and singing as a group, and Ronnie’s ringing contralto was central to it.

As I read more about the Ronnie Gilbert and the Weavers and wandered about YouTube, I realised that they influenced my writing more than I thought. So I promise that it really isn’t an abrupt change of subject to end with some publication news: Soliloquy for Pan is up for pre-order at Egaeus Press. This anthology contains my story “The Lady in the Yard”, where Pan takes a female form and appears in the Bronx. My next bout of bloggage will say some more about the story and why it is not far from the content of this post at all!

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Meat, motion and light

The-Outsiders-2014-703x1024My story “Meat, motion and light” has been released in The Outsiders, a shared-world Lovecraftian anthology edited by Joe Mynhardt at Crystal Lake Publishing. This is my first venture into shared worlds as well as Lovecraftian fiction, and I enjoyed the process of brainstorming ideas with the editor and the other contributors. I was also pleased to see that co-contributor James Everington also set out to tackle the same “shoggoth in the room” that shambles around any Lovecraft-oriented conversation…

When Joe invited me to contribute to this anthology, I knew straight away I wanted to write about racism, given the issues around HP Lovecraft’s racist and anti-Semitic attitudes – he has described black people as ‘gorilla-like’ and among the world’s ‘many ugly things’ – and how they manifest in his writing. Some critics have suggested that Lovecraft is not simply a ‘man of his time’ expressing mild prejudice, but a virulent racist whose hatred of the ‘other’ is intrinsic to his work. Much has been written about this, which I won’t try to reproduce here.

A quick google for ‘Lovecraft’ and ‘racism’ will result in a plethora of links and discussions. Much of this was sparked by a move to replace the bust of Lovecraft awarded to winners of the World Fantasy gong, supported by writers including 2011 winner Nnedi Okorafor. Some writers and fans suggested a bust of Octavia Butler as suitable for an inclusive award. Personally, I would favour replacing Lovecraft with a more abstract trophy, one that represents the breadth of fantastical fiction and not merely one author or sub-genre within it.

This came from a bunch called Cthullhu Punx. Their Facebook page is here

This came from a bunch called Cthulhu Punx. Check out their (Polish) Facebook page

I found this post by Noah Berlansky interesting. While taking a critical view, he also adds: “At the same time, focusing on race in Lovecraft can also lead to a greater appreciation of his work, and a better understanding of its horror.” Fellow contributor James Everington wrote at Crystal Lake’s link for the book: “I don’t think Lovecraft shouldn’t be read or enjoyed because of his views on race… but I do think they matter.”

I did read a lot of Lovecraft in my early teens, which I hoovered up along with anything that was strange and mysterious. I’m not entirely sure whether I picked up on racism in his writing at the time; I just thought some of it was old-fashioned and florid and it just went by me. However, I do remember feeling uncomfortable when reading “The Horror at Red Hook” and this wasn’t caused by eldritch entities either.

In terms of classic weird fiction, it really was Machen who first cast that special spell with The White People – I discuss this in my post Writing Helen’s Story. While I appreciated Lovecraft’s atmospherics and I was wowed by the wild gibberings amid non-Euclidean angles, the final melodramatic deluge of ichor often let me down. At the same time, I did find his less ichorous tales like “The Music of Erich Zann” haunting and compelling.

A cat... a cat! Always there's a cat! Don't remember if there are any cats featured in Lovecraft stories. Poe was the go-to guy for cats if I recall

I have not yet had a cat in this blog, so that oversight must be corrected. So here’s a cat. Don’t remember if cats featured in any Lovecraft stories. Poe was the go-to guy for dodgy cats if I recall… Pic also from Cthulhu Punx.

I often regale Facebook friends with selections from Shoggoth on the Roof and inflict “It’s Beginning to Look Like Fishmen” at the appropriate season, yet the old Mythos still exerts a certain fascination amid all the piss-taking. Why? Perhaps it’s the idea – also found in Machen with works like The Great God Pan and in Robert W Chambers’ The King in Yellow – there are words, sounds, structures and beings that are so alien to us that our minds would break under their weight. Well, I just love those books of hidden lore that put your sanity and life in peril if you read them. Maybe that’s why I turned out the way I am… 🙂

I also enjoy contemporary Lovecraft-inspired writers such as Livia Llewellyn and Caitlin Kiernan, who distill the brooding, mysterious quality of Lovecraft while transmuting it into tales that would have HPL himself spinning with rotary precision in his grave. Perhaps these authors write more from the perspective of the outcasts, the loathsome lower orders and “infesting worms” that horrified Lovecraft so much. I tend to think they transmute Lovecraft’s dread of the alien into an encounter with what is unknowable within ourselves and the hostile world we struggle to make our lives in. Writing my own story has led me to appreciate how Lovecraftian themes can be used in a challenging, potentially subversive way – and I have definite plans to try more of this.

And this brings us to the exclusive gated and cult-like community of Priory, setting for The Outsiders. I imagined that the exclusive Priory population would share Lovecraft’s prejudices, so how would a black family end up in such a restrictive place? And what would it be like to grow up there?

Meanwhile, I’d been listening to the music found under the broad umbrella of Afropunk. So Claudia, the protagonist of “Meat, Motion and Light”, morphed into an Afropunk enthusiast. In fact, she sings in a band. After some years at university she’s returning to Priory, which would definitely not be rock ‘n’ roll friendly. I also imagined cracks in the cohesiveness and control of Priory. The recession has made an impact even in this enclave; factions have formed.

As I wrote the story, I drew on my experience of returning to places where I grew up as an outsider, the ‘home town’ that was never home – many people go through this. Add to this some scattershot googling that took in deep-sea bioluminescence and the mating habits of the giant squid…

Music has always been a big influence in my writing, so I’ll share some of the music behind my story. One of Claudia’s favourite songs is Tamar Kali’s “Fire with Fire”, where the Brooklyn-based “hard-core soul” musician covers Gossip:

Afropunk has been known as a US-based movement, with an annual Afropunk Fest in Brooklyn that attracts thousands of people. But there are also burgeoning punk scenes in parts of Africa, as well as in Asia and Latin America. In Europe, Paris recently held its own Afropunk Fest Paris. And there are groups here in the UK like Big Joanie, a black feminist punk band based in London. In addition to the video below, you can find out a little more about Big Joannie on this Vimeo link.

The late Poly Styrene has been a major inspiration for Claudia (as for many women and punks of colour), who puts up a photo of Poly in her room at Priory. Here’s a 1978 performance of the X-Ray Spex classic “Oh Bondage Up Yours”, prefaced by a poem.

I’ll now finish off with an even older song, which happened to give my story its title. I remember listening to it as a teenager and giggling. It might have been the period when I’d been reading lots of Lovecraft, but I never imagined that this song could inhabit the same stream of thought, let alone the same story and blog post.