The Undercover Soundtrack – Catherine Czerkawska

‘This uncanny, heart- rending and deeply disturbing sound’

The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by contemporary novelist and playwright Catherine Czerkawska

Soundtrack by Luke Kelly, John McCormack, Christy Moore, Liam Ó’Maonlaí

Music is such an intimate part of the creative process for me that it’s not often I’m tempted to reveal it, unless it figures in the work itself.  My plays have accompanying music but the public and private soundtracks only occasionally coincide. With a novel, music helps me to tease out characters, situations and stories, but everything goes through many versions. The first draft of my new novel, Bird of Passage, was written so long ago that the story seems like a completely different entity now.

The change in the book or the change to the music?

It would be hard for me to say which came first: the change in the book or the change to the music of the book. That early story focused on Kirsty Galbreath and her relationship with a young Irish farm worker, Finn O’Malley. But at some point, I realised that my flawed hero was a cipher about whom I knew very little. The late Luke Kelly was my constant companion, musically, when I embarked on the re-drafts. Many years ago, I saw him in person, walking down a Dublin Street, and I still find his voice inspirational. In listening obsessively to his solo songs, particularly Will You Come to the Bower and Raglan Road, I began to recognise what I had known subconsciously: I had neglected the Irish dimension to the story.

In the 1960s, Finn and poor, vulnerable Francis had been sent from Ireland to work at the Scottish potato harvest. But why? What had happened to them?  My  grandmother was Irish and her favourite songs had been a part my childhood. They may seem a little sentimental to our ears now, but whenever John McCormack came on the wireless, singing Bantry Bay or the uncanny She Moved Through the Fair, the whole house was hushed. When I went back to these songs, they triggered long-buried memories, not just of my own childhood, which was safe and happy, but of overheard adult conversations about other people’s sad secrets.

                Francis stood up and sang, his voice wavery at first but growing in confidence:

The winter it is past, and the summer’s come at last,

and the little birds they sing in the trees.

Their little hearts are glad, but mine is very sad,

for my true love is far away from me…

Francis had a sweet voice and he sang well, but in a traditional style, his voice dipping under and over the notes, embellishing them in a dozen ways. The men and women fell silent. There could not be one of them who had not heard it before, many times. It was a song of youth and heartbreak and hurts that could never be repaired.

There were songs which leapt the barrier to become part of the story and The Curragh of Kildare was one of them. There are countless good versions although I still prefer Christy Moore’s.

Cover design Matt Zanetti

No need to know what the words mean

But even listening to this, I was aware that I was avoiding the heart of the matter. And so, I began to hunt for another form of traditional Irish singing. I knew it existed beyond the confines of the safe, gentle versions which make the normal playlists. My great-grandfather – so I’m told – sang like this. I’d heard others singing like this, fragmentary contributions to pub sessions. It was then I came upon Liam Ó’Maonlaí.

There are few singers who can give you so much insight into the weight of Irish history. You don’t need to know what the words mean. All you need to do is listen to this uncanny, heart- rending and deeply disturbing sound, part of an unbroken tradition of attempting to circumscribe raw emotion within the confines of a human voice.  It was this voice, whether in the extraordinary Woodstock performance or the gentler Lord’s Prayer, which finally allowed me to engage with what had happened to Finn and Francis, and to consider what a terrible place their world might once have been, turning my earlier story into something much darker.

I’m not sure even now that I’m finished with this book. Francis’s sorrow is part of Finn’s sorrow too; it will colour the whole of his life – and Kirsty’s life as well. I’m still not sure that the darkness is dark enough.

Catherine Czerkawska is a novelist and award winning playwright, both for the stage and for BBC Radio 4. With degrees in medieval and folk life studies, she finds herself increasingly drawn to historical fiction and – as an unashamed ‘mid-list’ author – is joyfully embracing the digital revolution. The Curiosity Cabinet  (Polygon 2005) was one of three finalists for the Dundee Book Prize, and is now available only on Kindle. Her new novel, Bird of Passage, is available on Kindle and The Amber Heart, the first in a trilogy of novels based on her Polish family history, is scheduled for Spring 2012. She blogs at Wordarts and is on Twitter as @czerkawska

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  1. #1 by Michelle MacEwan on January 18, 2012 - 10:43 pm

    Catherine, reading the titles of the songs and your descriptions of the style, along with the excerpt you share, evokes so much! Sean nós singing reaches out and grabs your heart – and Liam is undoubtedly up there with the best. I live part time in Connemara and soak up traditional sessions. I usually take my notepad along and my writing can barely ever keep pace with the playing. I love the hush that is demanded for a song – the power of the voice bending the melody, the audience participation, the feeling of ancient tradition that is still alive. What you describe about the tradition and it’s part in your story is very powerful.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 19, 2012 - 12:38 am

      It was a lovely piece, wasn’t it, Michelle? And what a lovely idea, to write at a concert. A very immersive creative experience.

  2. #3 by Catherine Czerkawska on January 19, 2012 - 9:37 am

    Thank-you so much, Michelle, you express that feeling precisely. That kind of song always sends a shiver down my spine – and you’re right – it’s so powerful. I get the same feeling with traditional Slav/Eastern European singing – but that’s probably another novel.

  1. ‘This uncanny, heartrending and deeply disturbing sound’ – Catherine Czerkawska on The Undercover Soundtrack « Nail Your Novel

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