An Interview with Charles Frazier, Author of Cold Mountain
Susan Ketchin, author of The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction (1994), has kindly shared an interview she conducted with Charles Frazier about his novel Cold Mountain, and specifically the inspiration he drew from sacred music. Their conversation underscores the centrality of what has become known as old-time music to the culture of southern Appalachia. Folk songs, as Ketchin and Frazier discuss them in the context of the novel, serve as commentaries on the fragility of human existence, the problems of the soul, and the hope for redemption. But further, they serve as surrogates for faith in a harsh world that yields no easy answers. For those unfamiliar with or forgetful of the novel, it follows the journey of Inman, a Confederate soldier, back to his home in the North Carolina mountains. He hopes to reunite with Ada, who in the meantime has been surviving the war with the help of a character named Ruby. Another key character is Ruby's father Stobrod, a ne'er do well fiddler. -Editors
I met with Charles Frazier, author of the National Book Award-winning novel, Cold Mountain, on a cold, bleak-looking January afternoon at his North Carolina farmhouse, situated on several acres of land, outside Raleigh. For more than two hours, we talked together and listened to favorite, legendary songs and ballads, and took what for me was an astonishing journey through the music of his homeland, the mountains and hollers of the American South. When we finally stopped talking, looked up from our study of liner notes and old hymnbooks, we noticed that snow had started falling. The huge, floating flakes had already covered the entire landscape outside. This kind of blanketing snow was unusual for North Carolina (at least in the Piedmont where we were) and was to turn out to be a freakish blizzard that dumped two and a half feet of snow over eastern North Carolina in the space of about four hours. Charles and his wife, Katherine, a professor at North Carolina State, were two of the most hospitable, kindly people I've ever met. Charles said, "Let's open a bottle of wine. Katherine's fixing a good supper for us. And you will stay the night." In the fading light, it seemed the snow was falling more rapidly than ever; he was sure the back roads were already impassable. Who could resist? We sat together, in silence, drinking cabernet, listening to the music of the mountains, and taking in the wonderful smells of the dinner Katherine was preparing.
In 2004, the film, Cold Mountain, directed by Anthony Minghella (who also wrote the screenplay) was released. Of the eight Academy Award nominations this film earned, one was received for best original score by Gabriel Yared, others for best song(s) by Sting ("You Will Be My Ain' True Love") and T-Bone Burnett and Elvis Costello ("The Scarlet Tide"). Music for the film was performed by Dirk Powell, T-Bone Burnett, Allison Krauss, and Jack White (who also appeared in the film as Stobrod's musical collaborator). Dirk Powell was asked by Mingella to play his fiddle on the set while filming was going on; he and Frazier were consulted throughout to assure authenticity, as Powell put it. The result was a score and soundtrack that beautifully enhanced the novel's story and the mountains it came from.
The film showed, to chilling, dramatic effect, the power of these old songs, this music, to intensify and comment upon the action before us. In the opening scenes, of the Siege of Petersburg and the Battle of the Crater, a choir of shape-note singers sings out in robust fashion, a hymn from the Sacred Harp, "I Don't Care To Stay Here Long" as the bloody carnage of the battle is played out on the screen. It is a bitter irony this music provides us. For what seems like an eternity, we watch men being blown up, men falling into a vast pit of dead and dying bodies, the wreckage and debris of a horrendous battle (more than 5, 000 men died in one afternoon), as the choir sings, "In this world of sorrow and woe/I don't care to stay here long." It is the sacred and most profane in terrible juxtaposition. Later on, in a scene that flashes back to the time just before the war, when the choir is singing another Sacred Harp hymn, in foursquare formation in Ada's father's rough-hewn country church, the irony is brought home to us like a twist of a knife: On this bright morning, people dressed in Sunday best, the whitewashed church filled with sunlight, Ada and Inman begin to fall in love. We know, already, what Inman's fate will be.
Susan Ketchin: I'd like to ask you about the characters in Cold Mountain, the intimate relationships they each seemed to have with the music in their lives. Even old Stobrod, reprehensible as he is, when he is singing "Green-eyed Girl," finally realizes that there was meaning to music, beyond just making notes for money. He thinks, "The grouping of the sounds, their forms in the air as they rang out and faded, said something comforting to him about the rule of creation. What the music said was there is a right way for things to be ordered so that life might not always be just tangle and drift but have shape, and an aim." Throughout Cold Mountain, it seems that each character feels strongly about music and yet each feels profoundly differently.
Charles Frazier: As for Stobrod, I just always felt that his life had been so wasted, so lacking any kind of pattern or form or discipline of any kind, that the thing that had attracted him末because of his sorryness, that he could go play a few tunes and dance and get a drink for free末became a thing that, once he took it seriously, had the potential to save him.
SK: I've noticed, too, that there's a very real ambivalence in Inman about music that seems to be tied in to the ambivalence that he has about God, religion, and the nature of good and evil. Do you intend this, to some extent, or am I simply reading my own ambivalence into the story?
CF: I'm not sure that I was thinking ambivalently toward music. Ruby is, though. She wishes she could have just taken Stobrod's fiddle and sailed it off down the river, mainly because it's connected with her father.
SK: It does give Stobrod a kind of redemption, doesn't it, at least partially. Do you feel that music has the potential to be redemptive?
CF: Well, I don't play anything. I'm a listener. Listeners and readers末whatever it is, whether it's music or writing or art, in general, the artist is offering the ability to make a little bit of sense out of the world. I don't quite know how people who don't pay any attention to art in any form get through a day, hardly, much less have any sense of redemption.
SK: That reminds me of a song you included in Cold Mountain, "Hard Times" by Stephen Foster. Its opening lines tell it all: "Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears/while we all sup sorrow with the poor." I first heard it sung by The Red Clay Ramblers, and others have recorded it. When it's a struggle just to survive that doesn't allow for much thought on philosophical fine points. Yet, it was this very stony, hard-scrabble life that gave birth to that "hard, hard religion" of the frontier South that Flannery O'Connor and you wrote so movingly about. It is as if somehow, in a culture without ready access to books, or other 'outside' perspectives beyond the local minister's preaching of the Word, the music, listened to, danced to, and played on homemade instruments, often provided the only glimpse or hope of what salvation from this "short life of trouble" these people may have had. What are some of your earliest memories of old-time music? Does your love of it, which is obvious, and the reasons for making it such an integral part of your novel come from this ancient relationship between the individual and his/her spiritual connection to the land they cleared and farmed?
CF: Yes! I grew up hearing this music sung in different forms. For instance, at my grandparents' house which was a fairly old-time farm in western North Carolina, they had a big old console radio. And in the winter time on Sunday afternoons I can remember them tuning into a station that played like the Carter Family. When I was ten or twelve, I thought that that was just the most mournful sound. On a rainy Sunday afternoon that was enough to drive you over the edge.
I can remember listening when I was about twelve years old to末I think there was a real strong station out of Nashville, TN that we could pick up that played a mixture of the real old Carter family period stuff and then maybe some newer bluegrass. I sort of remember Jimmy Martin from then. Also, when I was growing up, I can remember when I was a little kid going to talent shows in school auditoriums where there'd be just all kinds of music being played but some of it would be old-timers doing the old music. When I was eight or nine years old, I went to the folk festival that Bascom Lamar Lunsford started in Asheville. I remember meeting him when I was a little boy.
SK: That must have been a great occasion, even for a young boy.
CF: I remember him for his organizing that folk festival in Asheville, and then, of course, he recorded hundreds of songs for the Smithsonian that he had collected along with some that he had written. He was very aware of his presence and his stature, wore these white suits, very old time southern gentleman. I heard the old music when I was a kid, but then by the time I was fourteen, I didn't want to listen to anything but the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and all that. We had been living in Colorado for a long time and moved back here in the mid-80's, and I was just thinking about a book, some kind a book about the southern Appalachians. I started listening to the old music as a way to access that old world.
I guess the first festival I went to was the second year of the Merle Watson festival. I remember going to that stage out by the creek and it was just a real loose kind of session. It was raining, and there weren't many people there that day. I can't remember who all was there but . . . they were just singing and getting the people in the tent to sing along, and they started singing "My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains" and it was just like everybody in that tent. It was just like a church choir. I thought, then: 'whatever there is in this old music is going to give me a direction in this book, whatever kind of book it turns out to be.'
And after that I started going to Mt. Airy and to Galax, Va. and I would just hang out in the parking lot and listen to the old-timers. I remember talking to one old guy who was just sittin' by himself in a lawn chair in the parking lot playing the banjo. He looked like he was about eighty. I walked up and said "You look like you been doing that for quite some time." He said, "Sixty-seven years." And I thought, 'here's a guy who's been doing this, playing this banjo for 67 years, never had any notion of making money off of it, or becoming famous because of it, or anything like that. He just played this music because he loves it and it gives some kind of shape to his life.' Talking to that fellow really had a lot to do with me developing the Stobrod character.
SK: Do you remember some of your favorite old songs? When you first heard them?
CF: Well, one that I featured real prominently in the book was "Wayfaring Stranger," I remember seeing Bill Monroe do that on television and the band sort of stepped back and he went up to the microphone with his mandolin. I thought it was the most haunting, rawest-sounding thing I'd ever heard. I thought, 'that's not even exactly music, it's something else altogether.'
SK: It's otherworldly. Especially when he sings it.
CF: Yeah . . . so that very spooky spiritual quality that he had in doing that song . . . I wanted to get into that scene where Ada [in Cold Mountain] just starts hearing it in her head.
SK: That scene sets the tone for the whole novel.
CF: I'd run across in a book that legend about looking down in a well and seeing your future. I found it in an old book on North Carolina folklore maybe published in the 20's called, I think, The Southern Highlanders, and it was just a collection of folk sayings, folk beliefs, superstitions, all kinds of stuff. [Frazier is referring to The Southern Highlander by John C. Campbell; see also, Our Southern Highlanders by John Kepler, SK].
SK: What kinds of research into old-time music were your best sources? Did you primarily draw on personal sources? Your own imagination?
CF: I did read a good bit . . . Robert Cantwell's book, When We Were Good, is a fine, fine book.
When I would have a period of writer's block––it'd go on for a while and one way that would always shake me loose would be to drive up to Floyd [VA] and go to county sales and buy a whole big stack of old time music and come back and listen to it.
There's a real wonderful narrative quality to a lot of those old songs that I kept listening to and listening to, thinking how can I learn how to tell a story by the way these stories are told in these real brief songs, like "Pretty Polly" that really tell it. I mean listen to Ralph Stanley sing one of those songs and there's no irony, there's no pretension. It's just straight.
SK: Some of your chapter titles are lines from songs, or song titles, like "A Satisfied Mind" and "Bride Bed Filled with Blood."
CF: I did put little bits of lyrics . . . like that one and the story of Odell falling in love with the slave woman and that line "When I looked down at her pretty little feet I wished my wife was dead" from "ElkhornRidge."
SK: And the English ballad,"Pretty Polly" is in there, but just a glimpse: "She'd her apron wrapped around her." It's just one sentence that one of the characters just tosses off, but to a reader who knows the song, it evokes the entire tragic story of pretty Polly getting shot by her lover who was hunting in the woods and "took her for a swan."
CF: Have you ever heard that really great "County Sales" CD by Tommy Jarrell? It's just the most wonderful thing . . . if you listen to it and listen to it, it's just great! And then I read in, maybe in the Old-Time Herald, that in its first year of release, it had sold only 700 copies, so I thought, 'this is a very esoteric kind of music but the people who love it, really love it, so I'll just put these little bits of lines in here so that the few people who do know this music will末it'll be fun for them.'
SK: It does give extra dimension, such richness, to the novel. And it is fun for some readers, like recognizing a familiar face hidden in a picture.
CF: And it turns out that it's so many more people than I would have thought who know this music. Dirk Powell ["Songs from the Mountain" and others], when he read the book, said, "I came across the first one and I thought, 'wow'; then I started finding more, and I thought' oh man this is fun, finding these tunes!'
SK: It sets the tune off in your head, too, if you recognize it. The song can provide a theme and tone, or tune, as it were, for the entire chapter, whatever might be going on.
[As she is looking through a pile of books she brought with her, Ketchin unearths The Sacred Harp Hymnal, 1844]
CF: That's a pretty book.
SK: I brought this along for you to see. Have you ever seen it? [handing it to CF] It is a reproduction of the original Sacred Harp. Dan Patterson, the folklorist and professor at UNC-Chapel Hill gave it to me a number of years back. This edition has the shaped notes and many old hymns that are preserved and sung today in the many shape-note singing groups around the country.
CF: Oh, yes, this is marvelous, [carefully turning the pages].
SK: I talk to people about the Sacred Harp tradition and I've paperclipped some songs, here, that are familiar to people, like "Wondrous Love," "Wayfaring Stranger," "Amazing Grace," "Give Me the Roses While I Live," and many, many others that are just golden.
I love some of these just for their titles, like "Funeral Thought," and "War Department," "Bear Creek" and "Sweet Home. [Looking at the open book with Charles]
CF: I don't believe I've ever seen what a shape-note hymnbook looks like末there are the shaped notes on the page.
SK: There are so many other great ones! When I first encountered it, I wondered where you had heard "The Sacred Song," that appears on page 250 in the novel. Its lyrics are great: "The fear of the grave is removed forever/When I die I'll live again/My soul will rejoice by the crystal river/When I die I'll live again/Hallelujah, I'll live again."
CF: I think I've got that one on a couple or three different recordings, but I know that it's on one of those Watson family ones that Ralph (Brenswick) recorded back in the early 60's. I'll go get it and play it for you.
SK: Oh, that'd be wonderful! I'd love to hear what it sounds like when they do it.
CF: My editor's husband is from England and they were down here visiting a year or so ago and he said "Now this music in the book. I don't know that kind of music at all. What's the strangest sounding thing you could play for me?" I put on some Sacred Harp kind of thing with people singing and he said that it could be from the Ukraine or someplace. It sounded so weird and foreign to him.
SK: That's the truth! And, you know, when Sara sings that strange lullaby in that haunting, blood-chilling way [see "Cold Mountain" soundtrack], it reminded me of a Balkan folk song group I've heard末they sing in that, high, pure, straight way. I thought, my gosh, what country末 what universe末am I in?
CF: I can't remember what it was, but I've got one that I really had in mind for the one Sara sings. It was one by a woman from West Virginia or some such place, singing a ballad that you can't pick out but about half the lyrics on. On the record you can't really tell how old the singer is, she just sounds like she's 150. It's just the most chilling kind of music. I've played that for a few people who were curious about what this music really sounds like.
SK: When Sara sings her lullaby, it sounds dowright scary to Inman, but it puts the baby right to sleep. Even though it was terribly disturbing-sounding, it was curiously restful to ears familiar with its eerie sound. Inman, himself, found later that it was so sad it made him happy. That reminds me of the effect that the blues can have on people. Singing the blues, even those with the most 'down and out' lyrics doesn't make you sadder, it makes you happier. Do you have some reflections about that?
CF: I think a lot of what I was thinking of there in that piece was just the kind of reward he was getting from watching this lonesome girl express something about her life. And it's clearly so difficult for her to do it. But to see her kind of win that battle of saying something about herself in that song and in the way she sang it was important.
SK: Now, Stobrod is laying up drunk all the time, playing music and gambling. "He found that the musical improvement he was seeking would come as likely from the mystic discipline of getting the rattles as from their actual function within the fiddle." Now, please tell me how you managed to come up with a fiddle that contained rattles from a rattlesnake.
CF: As I understand it, it was something that old-time fiddlers really did. And that they thought it gave the fiddle a better tone of some kind. So they'd put the rattle snake rattles in the fiddle. And I really liked the notion of sending him on this quest for his art, a dangerous quest. And I had, years ago, been hiking on Cold Mountain and walked up on a really big dead rattle snake lying beside the trail and it was one of those big fat ones. And I was thinking, what if he actually went up there looking for one like that. That would be an interesting job to send him on.
SK: It makes it all the more wonderful the paradox between evil and the good of music coming from the fiddle. There it is, a snake and the Garden of Eden embodied in that fiddle and the fiddle is supposed to be the Devil's work, and yet paradoxically you play sacred songs on it.
CF: I like that sort of mythic quality of it in this comic version.
SK: There's something really comical about Stobrod, even when you simply say his name. Even though he was a real jerk! You know, he was awful to Ruby! He was mean! And terribly neglectful.
CF: Yeah, yeah.
SK: The very idea of him being a "mythic hero" as he goes on his journey is comical, but entirely true.
CF: My favorite image of him is the first one when he's standing there with his arm caught in the trap in the corncrib and trying to look nonchalant.
SK: He's always just the "ne'er do well". But as we've said, music serves as a kind of redemption for him . . . a partial redemption, at least, in the way Ada talks about it. His learning nine hundred tunes and playing to the girl who was dying, as a way of delivering her soul up toward heaven. And you say that "every time he played he learned something new"末I imagine that was so, about himself and about the world. And it reminded me of, curiously enough, there's an old saying, from the poet Seneca, who said: "He who is penitent is almost innocent." Stobrod never gets full forgiveness or pardon for anything . . . you know he's not ever "off the Hook," entirely, but he's almost innocent, simply because he loves the music . . . he just plain loves it. But Ruby says . . . and I like her, a lot . . . I think it was Ruby who said, "Who knows when your creating something whether that's good or bad cause whenever you add something to the world something else is subtracted.
CF: Yeah, they're talking about . . . Ada's asking if Ruby thinks that Stobrod wrote a particular song and she's like . . . you can't tell with this kind of stuff, everybody adds a little bit and takes a little bit away, it changes it but it doesn't get better over time, because everything you gain, you lose something else. And you're lucky if you just break even in the long haul. Which I think what I was thinking about in that piece was particularly the way we like to think about progress as this grand goal and everything needs to progress and yet, art doesn't progress, it doesn't get "better," it just gets different.
SK: It's a Calvinistic take on things, a kind of a bedrock Southern Calvinism末anything made of man is, at best, equivocal, in this life; you won't know, cannot know, until judgment day whether it's good or bad. Whether you're in or out. Because it's not a matter of deeds . . . whether its artistic deeds or other good deeds . . . it all comes down to a matter of Grace. I could tell that throughout the whole book you've been fancifully sort of playing around with philosophical issues about art and morality, about good and evil with music being one of those more unquantifiable arts that transcends ethics. One of those mysterious arts. Let me see, in the novel, there was a tune that Inman was humming to himself when he shot the Philadelphian, do you remember that?
SK: It was a sacred song.
CF: Is that the "Fear of the Great Redeemer"? A lot of them are sort of frightening-sounding things. If you look at music as a fairly deep expression of a culture and its values, then what do you make of a culture that put a pretty high value on music so mournful and scary. And then on the other hand, you've got . . . fiddle dance tunes that are as jubilant and joyful as you can get. It's such a huge range, but in both of them, the values and attitudes and emotions are so direct and so clear, not ambiguous or equivocal at all.
SK: It's essentially "direful and elegiac," music, as Inman would say末but again, the more direful they are, the happier they end up making you feel末maybe it's like Greek tragedy, you get put through the wringer so much you end up feeling lucky that the whole thing is not you, but suffering and tragedy that has been done for you, in your stead.
CF: Or else they express such a . . . so clearly and concisely a kind of fatalistic view of the world that it's sort of reassuring to hear your own thoughts expressed in an art form.
SK: Yes, I think that fatalism is reassuring when one goes ahead and accepts it, by whatever means, but especially that which is universal like art is. "Life is but a passing moment on a neverending trail," as the old primitive Baptist hymn goes. I think that the people living for generations in the mountains had every reason to see things in this world view, to feel this way.
CF: Our modern culture wants to avoid that kind of thought at all costs. And that culture seemed to want to keep those ideas right there in front of you all the time.
SK: I think it's the lack of sentimentality and a keen awareness of Eternity and where you're going to spend it. And our culture tends to want to be sentimental and say, "It'll all work out just fine, and let's not really think about it." And that is fundamentally false末it won't be just fine, not always.
SK: And what the mountaineer's view holds, I think, is a real attraction to the truth. In Lewis Nordan's work and in Flannery O'Connor's work, too, this yearning has been called an "attraction to the Holy." I think Cold Mountain fits beautifully into that category: underneath it all in that novel, there's an attraction to the truth. These characters are expressing that same world that these folks in the mountains see. Grieving outwardly, and "going on and on" about things doesn't get you anywhere . . . it doesn't change anything, it doesn't relieve anything.
You know, that is so John Calvin as his thought has been shaped by southern history and culture. There's a doctrine in Catholicism that says that suffering can be redemptive, but there's no redemption, in these people's lives, at least in that way. It is more an attitude of stoicism, of heroic bearing of suffering, than a suffering for the sake of others. There are other sources of redemption, as we've alluded to. I wonder, while we're on this subject, have people complained to you about the ending?
CF: Yeah, I've gotten a number of letters about the ending. I got another just yesterday . . . from England . . . this guy asks, "Why did you do this!?"
SK: The ending is so true to the novel, in my view.
CF: It's what . . . I didn't want to feel constrained by what little bit of the actual history I knew about this ancestor of mine that gave me the basis of this book. But that was one of the things that I knew, that he died in a gun fight right down at the bottom of Cold Mountain with the
Confederate home guard, and it was a decision I put off until I just couldn't put it off anymore, whether or not to keep that real ending or not. And I went up there . . . I had gotten to the point to where I just couldn't write any more 'cause I felt like I want to give this guy a happier life and a longer life than he really had. And that was a real strong impulse, but I was not totally comfortable making that decision. After I had gone days unable to make a decision, I couldn't go any farther forward without making it, I drove up to Cold Mountain and walked around up there in the area where he was killed and where he's supposedly buried and it was real clear from that day on that I'm going to keep the ending that really happened.
SK: It's as if once you revisited the place, immersed yourself in the actual geography where it all took place, you could not violate the integrity of the story with a made-up "happy" ending. That inability to falsify the integrity of the story is what makes a great novel.
CF: I don't feel like that historical fiction should be constrained to what really happened, necessarily, but there was a . . . I knew this about the character from page one that the real guy was killed in this gunfight shortly after he got home. I began to feel like it's just built into the character three hundred pages later. That would feel false to give him, or the novel, some kind of happy ending.
I've gotten a lot of letters that are really kind of angry, and say he deserved better than you gave him. I thought, my goodness, what an odd view of life, that you get what you deserve!
I think with some people that have complained about the ending末it's almost like there's a kind of conditioning [they've gotten] from Hollywood . . . the idea that "here is the way stories are supposed to work."
It builds this sense of expectation of how narrative works. Look at the way movies have their acts. Look at a script playwriting book, it's just so horrible.
SK: It's as if they're caught up the formula and won't let go. Unfortunately, I think in their holding on to preconceived notions, they miss out on a lot of subtlety, surprise, complexity.
Speaking of those things that are strong, tried and true末I'm curious to get back to more of the music: When you were growing up, did you listen to any of the Stanley Brothers, Carter and Ralph?
CF: I'm not so sure I ever heard them when I was little. I remember hearing some Ralph Stanley, I think, when we were living in Colorado back in the early 80's末and just thinking that this guy has got the most incredible voice I ever heard. Last weekend he was inducted into the Grand Ol' Opry. I couldn't imagine that he wasn't already, but I was flipping around on TV and there they were inducting him and he sang a couple of songs, and his voice sounded just as strong and strange as it ever has.
SK: I found an old album at a yard sale. It was Ralph Stanley with a young Ricky Skaggs末he must have been no more than 15 years old . . . singing in with Ralph and Carter and the Clinch Mountain Boys . . . the name of the album is "Cry from the Cross" . . . and they're all standing in front of this huge cross . . . it must be a storyhigh . . .the cross has railroad spikes nailed in it every six inches or so . . . it's quite a sight. It was from that album that I learned "Bright Morning Stars."
CF: Back when I was just starting to collect this music, in my early twenties, the Stanley Brothers was mainly what I was buying and I was going to see Ralph play every chance I got. I heard him play downtown in Raleigh, at some kind of Spring Festival kind of thing. He was supposed to be playing outside on stage at Moore Square or somewhere, but it got rained out and he ended up playing for 25 or 30 people inside an empty storefront there. It was great預n intimate setting, no amplification, just his pure tenor voice, his Martin guitar, him sitting on a stool.
SK: At the end of the book, Stobrod sings "Angel Band," a tune that Ralph Stanley is famous for: "My latest sun is sinking fast/my race is nearly run." It is a wonderful song. In fact, I want it sung at my funeral末much further on down the road from now, I hope. Where did you first hear it?
CF: I remember that one from when I was a kid, but had not heard it for a long, long time until Catherine's[Frazier's wife] grandmother died a few years ago, and she had picked that for her funeral. I started looking for a recorded version of it, and it took a little while, but I found the Ralph Stanley version of it, Tim O'Brien and the guys[Dirk Powell, et al] do it on Music from the Mountain.
SK: Can you sing the "Phrygian mode" that you refer to in Cold Mountain for the tape recorder? I am afraid I may have once known, but have forgotten. I know it's one of the ancient modes that lend a strange sound to the songs they're written in.
CF: No, no. And that's one that came out of research . . . I ran across some sense, a description of a song as being in one or the other of those ancient modalities.
SK: Another thing I wanted to ask you about this novel is not only are you strongly influenced by songs you knew and made them figure in thematically, but much of your writing itself is very musical; it could be songs, or lyrics to songs, like the "tock and click" of the bones" of the hanged men Inman hears that "sounded like instruments, like dry sticks." That was certainly effective use of auditory memory, aural imagery!
CF: In trying to find a narrative voice for this book, I was trying to get something that seemed to me to have a relationship to the rhythm of that old mountain speech, which had a very musical kind of rhythm and variety in volume; it was a very beautiful and also could be a very harsh-sounding language too.
SK: And very multi-layered. One thing it isn't is deadpan, or monotone.
CF: Mountain speech has a lot of rhythm and pacing, shifts in tone.
SK: The music of the mountain echoes that speech.
CF: Yeah, extremely so.
SK: I could talk with you about this forever . . . and there is so much in the book . . . Is there anything that you would like to make sure we talk about, about this book and music, or just this book. It would all have something to do with music because it runs all the way through this book.
CF: Well, I think we touched on a lot of it, the fact that old music was such a powerful shaping force in putting this book together, that it really gave me the most direct kind of access to that old world. Whether it was listening to an 80 year old man play the banjo . . . and feeling like you were hearing something from a long time ago, or finding a recording of an old man in 1920 playing, or hearing Tommy Jarrell say, 'I'm gonna play this tune just like Old Man So-and-So played it; he was a Civil War veteran,' and then he played the tune. To me, looking at the music, hearing it, was a much more exciting and very concrete look into nineteenth century American culture than looking at a photograph is, for example.
SK: Oh, yes. Although you say you're not musician, you surely are in that you have "an ear" for music and its power.
CF: The music was helpful in so many different directions . . . the lyrics gave me a sense of how to shape the language, the narrative quality of ballads, especially, made me think about how you tell stories. And then, in a larger sense, thinking about that music末the combination of the music and the lyrics末thinking about what that said about the culture that it rose out of gave me a sense of what those people valued.
SK: It did two things at once . . . it showed and preserved what those people valued very, very clearly and I think it probably encouraged you, drove you on to go ahead and write about it. It got you so excited about it that you couldn't stay silent. The music egged you on to make and reveal your story, your view of that world, that culture.
CF: Well, you know, since I'm from an academic background––where what gets valued in narrative is often complication for the sake of complication, in some cases, and ironic voice末those kind of things. For me to listen to those old songs that put their values straight out there, in a very direct kind of expression of what's in the heart of the speaker of the song gives me a different kind of model to go on.
Whatever sense we have of America as a country with a distinct personality is in that old music, just as much as it's in Mark Twain or Walt Whitman.
January 22, 2000, Raleigh, NC