In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Mary Elizabeth Pope’s novel The Gods of Green County is a vivid debut that brings to life Depression-era rural Arkansas.
Jill McCorkle wrote of the book:
“A vivid and memorable portrait of a time and place—intricate threads weaving together a whole community—and the journeys of those forever changed.”
In my novel, The Gods of Green County, I pay tribute to Greene County, Arkansas, and Dunklin County, Missouri, in the fictional “Green County” of my title, using the setting of my father’s upbringing to tell a larger tale about the destructive nature of power in an impoverished small town. At least half the albums I’ve ever bought in my life have been movie soundtracks, so I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to match scenes from my novel with the right songs, which, as Quentin Tarantino has said, “is about as cinematic a thing as you can do.” I know some authors say music inspires their work, but in my case, choosing these songs after writing the novel helped me understand my novel and my characters in a fuller way, and I’m so grateful to Largehearted Boy for giving me this opportunity.
The irony here is that music was often considered sinful by the evangelical population of the counties that form the basis of my fictional “Green County.” Hymns were the only music openly condoned at various times in history, so the very act of choosing songs to match scenes in the novel feels subversive. As a nod to this history, I begin with a song called “Hymn #35” which isn’t a hymn in the traditional sense, and conclude with my favorite version of an actual hymn.
Hymn #35—Joe Pug
I think of this as Buddy’s song: “Some call me gone, some call me here” and “I will return, don’t ask me when” and “I have done wrong, I will do wrong, there’s nothing wrong with doing wrong.” Buddy’s backstory remains a mystery for so long in the novel that nobody seems to know for sure what to make of him—was he guilty? Was he innocent? Was there more to him than Coralee knew? These questions leave room for an entire spectrum of possibilities, and all the characters have to live with these various possibilities for a long time until they finally learn the truth.
Pick a Bale o’ Cotton—Johnny Cash
There are many versions of this song, but I like the tempo of Cash’s version because it matches Coralee’s enthusiasm for picking cotton. She loves waking up early and getting out in the fields before most people are awake, and she’s proud of her reputation for being a fast picker and a good worker. It not only takes her mind off her troubles, but it gives her something to feel proud of. It’s hard work, monotonous and tiring, as the lyrics reflect, “Oh Lordy, pick a bale o’ cotton/Oh Lordy, pick a bale a day.” Mama tells her she’ll ruin her health taking too many shifts, but she says picking cotton is the only thing that keeps her terrible thoughts away.
Cheek to Cheek—Fred Astaire
Earl and Coralee meet up again at the social Coralee reluctantly attends with her sister Shelby, and Earl asks her to dance. Despite a few superlative lyrics—“Heaven, I’m in heaven”—it’s an understated song. “And I seem to find the happiness I seek” is a line with the qualifier “seem” in it that makes me think of both Coralee and Earl’s feelings about their meeting and how that changes over time. Coralee, having lived through the marriage and divorce from Chess, likes Earl’s unpolished straightforwardness. And Earl, who is probably the straightest shooter in the novel, does not need a complicated life to be content. At one point he says his happiest memories are of driving home with his pretty wife waiting for him and the smell of supper in the air. He has all he needs. But I like the qualifier “seem” in that lyric about finding happiness. It says a lot about how relationships can change over time.
I’ll Be Seeing You—Billie Holiday
This 1938 song is about missing a loved one who is gone, either temporarily or permanently, and became popular during WWII when women were watching husbands, sweethearts, brothers and sons go off to war with no certainty that they’d return. I think of this as Coralee’s song, however, because she does see her brother repeatedly after his death and never gives up hope that he’s come back from the dead, even as she tends his grave in the cemetery. Coralee does not believe death confines people to nonexistence, because she knows the stories of Lazarus and Jesus coming back from the dead, and believes miracles are possible.
Cry Me a River—Jeff Beck (featuring Imelda May & Jason Robello)
This song reminds me of the many moments when Coralee feels Earl has betrayed her, even though she does not know he is really trying to help her. Although the reader knows how Earl feels and what he believes he must do, Earl only really tries to explain it to Coralee once. I imagine her response as a version of these lyrics: “Now you say you’re lonely/You cry the whole night through/Well, you can cry me a river, cry me a river/I cried a river over you.” Although the reader knows the depths of Big Earl’s reservations about what he has to do to keep Coralee safe, she only sees it in glimpses until she comes to understand that he’s done it to help her. In the meantime, her sadness and anger at him is maintained and nursed over a long period of time, and the tempo of this song captures that well.
Address Unknown—The Ink Spots
Libby’s life has been chaotic and difficult—her sister disappears, and when a letter finally arrives from her, it has no return address. Then Libby herself is taken from the only address she’s ever known. Even Coralee is taken from her, then returned to her, then taken from her again. This constant displacement is a great sadness to both of them (“What I wouldn’t give/to see the face of you”), but Coralee and Libby’s friendship is forged out of shared circumstances and, later, shared grief and, despite their long separation from one another, becomes an unbreakable bond through unexpected circumstances.
Blue Christmas—Elvis Presley
This song reminds me of Big Earl and Little Earl during the years Coralee is gone, not necessarily because of the lyrics (Christmas does not appear in the novel), but the mood of resignation it conveys. There’s something plodding about this song that makes me imagine the two of them enduring holidays rather than enjoying them. Holidays carry with them the power of expectation, but when you are missing an essential person, every holiday without that person—even birthdays or anniversaries—are not just less happy than a holiday with them, but actually sadder than ordinary days where there isn’t the anticipation of celebration. (Side note—Elvis is rumored to have played in a honky-tonk in the real Greene County before he made it big, so this is also a nod to that story, apocryphal or not).
Stuck in the Middle with You—Stealers Wheel
I think of this as a song about Lewis and Leroy’s unlikely alliance near the end of the novel. Leroy would probably never choose Lewis as an ally given his proximity to Wiley and his obvious weakness, which makes him somewhat unreliable, and yet, as the saying goes, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And to different degrees, both Lewis and Leroy are “stuck in the middle.” They no longer belong to the legal system they were once a part of, but they’re also not regular folks either after all they’ve done and seen. And the only other person they both know who exists in this limbo is the other. They are both reeling from their different experiences with Wiley, and together, as the lyrics suggest, they’re “trying to make some sense of it all.”
Folsom Prison Blues—Johnny Cash
Recorded live at Folsom State Prison in 1968 before an audience of prisoners, I think of this as Wiley’s song. Two things about it never fail to strike me when I listen to it, and both remind me of him. Cash’s line “I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die” has always seemed so casually cruel—the act of murdering someone just to see what it’s like, just to feel the power of taking a life. The other thing about this line is that when Cash ends on “just to watch him die” the prisoners start cheering. The response from the audience is exactly how I imagine Wiley feels about his more nefarious actions: his sense of his own power ranks far above any regrets he may have.
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall—Bob Dylan
Following the climactic moment of the novel, Leroy goes to Earl and Coralee’s house to find out what happened. He cannot yet access his feelings, but as he finishes talking to Earl, he says although it “hadn’t hit me yet, I could feel it coming, like storm clouds gathering in the distance, and I knew I needed to get off that porch before they rolled in.” This song is the storm rolling in. Dylan’s sings “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?/And where have you been, my darling young one”—something Leroy has been wondering about for a while prior to this moment on the porch with Earl. Dylan sings, “Where the home in the valley meets the damp, dirty prison/And the executioners face is always well hidden.” Although Leroy is sure who the executioner is in this moment, by the end of the novel he understands he was wrong.
I’ll Fly Away—Jillian Welch & Allison Krauss
I’ve always imagined that Coralee’s faith will carry her far beyond the last page of the novel. The lyrics “Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly/I’ll fly away” remind me of the final moments of her last chapter, where, although she is not free, she looks to her faith for answers and knows there is a larger context than the one she finds herself in. Even later in the story, we know from Leroy’s account that she keeps getting up every Sunday and going to church. After all she has been through in her life, her faith that something better lies ahead for her is ultimately uplifting, and this song is the perfect final note for the arc of her character.
Mary Elizabeth Pope grew up in Michigan with roots deep in the Missouri Bootheel and Northeast Arkansas. She is Professor of English at Emmanuel College in Boston. She is the author of Divining Venus: Stories, and her work has been featured in the literary magazines Arkansas Review, Florida Review, Bellingham Review, Ascent, Passages North, and Fugue, among others. She holds a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Iowa. She lives outside Boston with her husband.