Posts Tagged John McCormack

The Undercover Soundtrack – Brendan Gisby

‘My stories replay the soundtrack of my life’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is McStorytellers founder, biographer and novelist Brendan Gisby @twistedfoot

Soundtrack by John McCormack, Robert White, Bridie Gallagher, Julie Driscoll, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ella Fitzgerald, Irving Berlin, Vivaldi, Frank Sinatra

It came as a revelation to me.  ‘Do you use music in your writing process?’ asked Roz Morris.  I didn’t know.  I would have to check.  I had written a handful of novels and biographies, together with some short stories – well, a mountain of stories, actually.  It was amongst the latter that I began my investigations.

It didn’t take me long to partly answer Roz’s question.  Yes, I do use music in my writing.  Every other story I examined included some sort of musical reference.  But what were the references doing there?  Crucially, did they actually help in the process of writing the stories?  I needed to look more closely at a few examples.

A young couple’s love

In one of my earliest stories called The Legend, the octogenarian Kate (my great-grandmother) recalls the times when she and her now long-dead husband, Dan, would sing songs to each other, he singing I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen and she Danny Boy.  Now, I admit I had no idea whether Kate and Dan, who were both of Irish extraction, ever sang those particular songs, but I do know I had chosen them – two of the finest, most moving Irish ballads ever written – as a way to reinforce the tenderness of the young couple’s love.

Then there’s Up The Indians!, a story about my Irish-born mother’s lifelong love for the underdog.  At one point in the story, I compare her actions with those of young Peter O’Loughlin, a character from The Mountains of Mourne, another beautiful Irish ballad, this time, appropriately enough, about émigrés.  You see, both Peter and Mum were able to stop the whole street with a wave of their hands, as Mum did one memorable day in the centre of Edinburgh.


Next stop is The Boxer.  It’s the summer of 1969, and ruthless bully Johnny Morris (he’s definitely no relation, Roz) is driving in his brand new Daimler Saloon.  He’s due to marry the boss’s daughter in two days time, but right now he’s lusting after a waitress called Julie and he’s humming the tune of the latest hit by another Julie – This Wheel’s on Fire, sung by Julie Driscoll.  The chorus from that song is then quoted, I’m sure, to emphasise both the thrust of the car’s V8 engine and the burning ambition of its driver.

Fast-forward to the winter of 1970 and The Ballad of Billy G.  On the night 19-year-old Billy dies from an overdose of heroin, the narrator imagines what music is blasting from Billy’s stereo: ‘Some satanic licks from Hendrix, maybe.  Or Joplin rasping out Summertime.’  Musical references to define a culture, then.


There are other references that help define a mood.  Such as when cheery Bill, the silver-haired Lothario in The Race, whistles along to Ella Fitzgerald as she sings Cheek to Cheek.  Or when the lovelorn Eugenio in The Exile wanders through a deserted Venice on New Year’s morning, hearing the strains of Vivaldi’s Winter swooping over him.

And there’s one final reference that perhaps defines an era, rather than a mood.  It’s found in The Bookie’s Runner, my tribute to my late father: ‘He’s dressed like Frank Sinatra, like a member of the Rat Pack.  He’s the bookie’s runner with the lopsided grin, but he’s destined to lose.’

So I was able to answer Roz in full.  Yes, I do use music in my writing process – either to reinforce the thoughts or deeds of a character, or to help define a mood, a time, even an era.

As I said at the beginning, the answer was a revelation to me.  But it shouldn’t have been.  By placing those musical references throughout my work, I’ve been replaying the soundtrack of my life.  I grew up in the 1950s to the sound of those beautiful Irish ballads sung by wonderful Irish tenors like Count John McCormack. I was a schoolboy when Frank Sinatra and others in the Rat Pack dominated popular music in the 1960s. Later that decade, I was another teenager enthralled by a young Bob Dylan. Later still, I was immersed in the drug-fuelled blues of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and many others.  Then gradually, grudgingly, I embraced the world of classical music.  And Ella Fitzgerald?  Man, who could ever forget the voice of an angel?

 Brendan Gisby was born in Edinburgh halfway through the 20th century and brought up just along the road in South Queensferry (the Ferry) in the shadow of the world-famous Forth Bridge.  Retiring from a business career in 2007, Brendan has devoted himself to writing.  To date, he has published three novels, three biographies and several short story collections. Brendan is also the founder of McStorytellers, a website that showcases the work of Scottish-connected short story writers.  His own website is  Blazes Boylan’s Book Bazaar.  You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter @twistedfoot

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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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