Literary Archaeology: Play Me a Memory – Using Music in Historical Fiction

Jon Black

I’m at South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin this week. Over five days, more than 2,200 bands from 67 countries are performing in 60-ish venues scattered around downtown. With numbers that large, if you can think of type of music, it’s here somewhere (yesterday, I saw a ska band from Tokyo).

This means two things. First, I forgot I had write this post until 5 a.m. Wednesday morning. Second, music is very much on my mind this week. Taken in tandem, they’ve catalyzed reflection of what a potent but criminally under-utilized tool music is for writing historical fiction and historical fiction.

Pre-Historic Flute Bone

Universal Language

Music is ubiquitous across cultures and dates to far earlier than was suspected until recently. Flutes made from bird bones and ivory found in Germany have been dated to 40,000 years ago. The Chinese were using turtle shell rattles as far back 4,000 BC. Silver pipes from 2,500 BC turn up in a grave in Ur. Mesopotamians also gave us the oldest surviving musical notation (albeit imprecise by today’s standards) from a clay tabled found in Nippur. A second tablet, dating from 1250 BC, already shows significant advances from the first. And the Cycladic culture of ancient was celebrating musicians in their painting and poetry, including graceful elaborate statues of musicians playing both Cycladic culture of Ancient Greece, include double-lutes and harps.

First, a confession. I love music. I really love music. I spent the better part of a decade working primarily as a music journalist/music historian. And that comes through in writing. Two of my works accepted for publication are music driven.  In “Gabriel’s Trumpet,” my upcoming novel from 18thWall Publications, a musician serves as the stories MacGuffin. In “So Lonesome I Could Die,” my upcoming short story from Darkhouse Books, the ill-fated protagonist is a musician. I also have a story I’ve been shopping around in which a music journalist comes to be a very bad end.

But, even if you don’t have my level of passion, there is much to recommend referencing music in Historical Fiction or Historical Fantasy. Many HistFic writers, despite our best efforts, often emphasize the sights of the past to the detriment of information provided by the other senses (excluding the now obligatory passage about how bad the past smelled). Music is a great way to insert the sounds of the past.

Referencing the sounds of Wagner, the Doors, or medieval troubadours immediately provides expositive shorthand regarding location and setting. When well chosen, it also helps build mood and atmosphere. Because sound is such a visceral sense and people often have very personal and intimate reactions to music, it is a great way to make readers feel like they’re right there in the story.

Troubadours

Video Killed the Radio Star

If you’re writing at the end of the 19th century or after, don’t forget the possibilities of recording, playback, and broadcast technologies. Consider the following sentences:

“After cranking the Victrola, she delicately set a phonograph record on the platter,”

“Jamming a cassette in the car’s 8-track player, he slammed his foot on the accelerator”

“Flipping through her phone, she wanting to share the album she’d downloaded just hours ago.”

Each of those is a single sentence that suggests an entire scene … in an unmistakable time period. Indeed, it’s not hard to go from there to characters and motivation.

STEAL THIS PLOT TWIST:  Speaking of recording technology, if you’re looking for an unusual way to challenge your protagonists, stick critical information on some obscure pre-phonograph  recording medium (cylinder, wire recorders, etc.). Now, send them scrambling to find a way to play it.

Phonographic Cylinder Player

Broadcasting technologies are very useful tools for writing. This is especially true of radio, which contains ads (in some countries, anyway) and news between songs. Such news breaks can establish the era or setting of a piece (a news story about the eruption of Mt. St. Helens), provide color (don’t forget the annual Strawberry Days festival this weekend, come on down and see the crowning of the Strawberry Queen), or advancing the plot (a hook-handed killer has just escaped the nearby institute for the criminally cliché).

Papa was a Rolling Stone

Music and musicians don’t have to be just background, color, or exposition, they can actually be part of the narrative.  At the end of the day, you don’t have to have a reason to stick a musician in your story. Archetypal musicians are colorful, larger than life, get away with flouting social conventions, and have interesting backstories. In other words, they are precisely the kind of characters that most authors like to write.

However, if that’s not enough, musicians have multiple narrative uses.

While generally considered somewhat disrespectable themselves, musicians come into contact and interact with people from all classes and walks and life. That makes them a great vehicle for providing information that protagonists might otherwise have difficulty accessing. That musicians often travel widely offers similar benefits.

And, while it’s a cliché, musicians are often portrayed with unusual (frequently shady) backgrounds.  It is easier to believe that a down on his jazz player knows how to hotwire a car than an accountant. Or that the grizzled of Meistersinger knows the paths through the mountains out of Hapsburg lands than a peasant.

In short, because of the enduring and portable archetypes we associate with them, the romantic and liminal musician can be played as something of a wildcard.

Woodstock (Dereck Redmon and Paul Campbell)

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