Music as Process

I write best when the room is absolutely silent.  No TV, no chime of a DS game, no tumbling of clothes in the dryer, no music.  Nothing.

So when I realized the topic this week was “how music inspires your writing,” I thought uh oh, this is going to be a short post.

I realized this as I was doing the dishes and listening to this song on the iPod:


It’s a song about two sisters who both love one guy.  He strings them both along, but proposes to the younger one.  The older sister gets the younger sister to go for a walk, then pushes her into the millpond to drown not only to get the guy but also because the younger sister was always so much prettier.

Its earliest print version dates from the seventeenth century, but it was probably sung a lot earlier.

This is the sort of thing I listen to pretty much all the time when I’m not writing.  I love the storytelling quality of folk music, how primal these songs feel.  Here’s one about murder, betrayal, unrequited love, treachery, unhappiness and death:


And here’s one about taking advantage of someone and having it bite you in the backside:


These songs have a meter and language and tone to them that act as a window into the thoughts and values of people who lived in former times.  The farther back you go, the harder it is to get to ordinary people’s lived experiences, but these songs are one way we can.  They were created by the same people who enjoyed them, and even though they were tweaked and re-versioned by singers over three hundred (and more) years, these are glimpses into another world we’re not going to get in more official records.

These songs also remind me how much in common we have with people in the past.  Sure, the past is filled with people who believed in the divine right of kings and the white man’s burden and foot-binding and sati, but it was also lived by people who loved their children and made sacrifices for their families and cared for sick pets and made solid lifetime friendships.

We share a lot with historical people, and that means the past can be made relatable.  You just have to approach it in a certain way.  And to do that you have to really get into their mindset, not just dress up modern people in oldtimey clothes and have them parade around spouting modern opinions.  These songs help me get there.  They help me feel the past in a way book research really can’t.

It also doesn’t hurt that many of these songs are hilarious and/or dirty as hell.  Just like the past itself.

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About J. Anderson Coats

J. Anderson Coats writes historical fiction for young adults chockful of name-calling and petty violence. THE WICKED AND THE JUST (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) is about teenagers behaving badly in thirteenth-century Wales.

13 thoughts on “Music as Process

  1. I also write best in utter silence! But I love how you draw inspiration from such compelling and quirky sources–they show the personalities behind the history, and that makes everything more real. Great post!!

  2. Carol Riggs says:

    I haven’t seen many people admit they work in silence, but I do too! Music has its own rhythm, and it messes with the rhythm of my story’s voice–makes it harder to “hear.” Enjoyed the flavor of these old songs. 🙂

  3. hannahkarena says:

    LOVE THIS! I’ve never really thought about songs being a form of historical research, at least not that far back. When I studied Joan of Arc, I fell in love with some of the WWI French troops songs (just like the awesome WWI and WWII posters of her) that chant about her coming down from heaven to save France for a second time. I thought it was so neat to learn about how Joan as a historical figure is portrayed and loved centuries later. But I never thought to study songs of how she might be praised during her own time period!

    Some of the things I want to know about medieval France is scraps or piecemeal or non-existent…I’ve been struggling to dive into the FEEL of that historical time period. I’m definitely going to look into songs. Thanks for the insight!

    Also, since you write about/specialize in the medieval period, would you happen to have any additional research recommendations? Any go-to, must-have-on-your-shelves historical non-fiction books that give a peek into everyday, common medieval life?

    • J says:

      These are skewed toward the English experience since that’s my bailiwick. Apologies in advance for my parochialism.

      Dorothy Hartley’s Lost Country Life is a seasonal catalog of small chores and tiny things that impacted the lives of premodern people, down to how they walked having never worn shoes with proper soles or heels. The level of detail in this is simply astonishing. It’s not quite medieval per se, but it’s still very useful due to how she constructs the work.

      I also love Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, which is is kind of thick and tomelike and skews toward the later middle ages (or the early modern period, depending on who you ask), but provides an AMAZING window into the medieval mindset prior to the religious schism by comparing it to changes that came after.

      The work of Barbara Hanawalt is scholarly yet readable. I particularly like The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England.

      Christopher Dyer is good if you’re interested in the late middle ages. He writes about food prices and wages and household objects. His work is mostly in article form, but they’re worth tracking down.

      My best suggestion for medieval France is Le Menagier de Paris, which is a household instruction manual written by an elderly man for his teenage wife in the late fourteenth century. Not only is it sweet and charming in its own creepy little way, there’s a lot of detail about workaday town life and interactions among all types of people.

      If you’re interested in folk music, I’d recommend starting with the Alan Lomax collections:

      http://research.culturalequity.org/home-audio.jsp

      Hope that helps! Good luck!

      • hannahkarena says:

        You win my favorite person of the month award. Thank you so much for going into detail and providing so many resources! I can’t wait to dive into these–I love those little gritty details like the walking manner before properly soled shoes–it’s going to be so helpful in my novel rewrite!!!! (I’m currently reading If Walls Could Talk, for those minute details about indoor inventions/design standards, etc.) THANK YOU :]

      • J. Anderson Coats says:

        I’m a librarian by training. There are precious few things I like better than nattering on about medieval things and even precious fewer people who appreciate hearing about them. Enjoy!

  4. Even since I read THE PERILOUS GARD back in high school, I’ve wondered about the melody for the song about the elder pushing the younger in.

    • J. Anderson Coats says:

      There are a bunch of print versions with several different names (Minorie, Binorie, Twa Sisters), but this the most common melody. Sometimes it’s sung slower, like a dirge, but I prefer this one.

  5. Pushing the pretty younger sister into the millpond! Maybe that’s a solution my Kate should consider in my “Taming of the Shrew” adaptation.

    Thanks for the list of research books, J. I’m going to look up every one of them.

    • J says:

      It’s not just pushing her in that makes the song for me. It’s sticking around to watch her drown. And heckling her as she goes under.

  6. […] lived centuries ago, but are relatable to modern readers.  I do my historical research, as well, seeking out folk songs like J. Anderson Coats, and having my characters enjoy songs by Christine de Pisan and Henry VIII himself.  And like […]

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