May 22, 2019
A musical journey through The Great Eastern
by Howard A. Rodman
Listen along HERE.
What would Captain Nemo be without his organ? In The Great Eastern, the organ aboard the Nautilus was built for him by the legendary designer Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, with pipes crafted from sea-mammal horn. What does Nemo play? The canonical Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Bach, BWV 565. My favorite recording of it is the one by Simon Preston.
In addition, within the novel Nemo can be heard to play Organ Concerto in A Minor, BWV 593, based on Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins. Here, too, I am hearing Simon Preston.
Though it isn’t specifically cited within The Great Eastern itself, I’ve often imagined Nemo to be playing Boëllmann’s Suite Gothique, which in my mind sounds exactly like the rendition by Peter Hurford.
Within The Great Eastern many songs are sung: folk ballads, sea chanteys, work songs, and the like. Among them are:
- Judgement, as sung by Sister Mary Nelson, from Harry Smith’s essential Anthology of American Folk Music.
- The song that the crew sings at the North Pole (or thereabouts) is Blood Red Roses, which exists in many different renditions. The one I that has resided in my head for half a century is the a cappella rendition by Richard & Mimi Fariña.
- The Great Eastern excerpts William Winter’s Song to the Transatlantic Cable, which begins Grand with feeling, sweet and strong/ Swell to-night the choral song!/ For the noble work is done;/ And the precious prize is won;/ And the raptured nations stand/ Face to face and hand in hand was sung to the tune of Hail Columbia. But if there’s an extant recording, I’ve not been able to find it.
- The classic chantey Reuben Ranzo figures prominently in The Great Eastern. I have several versions, including a most excellent one by former Byrd Roger McGuinn; but the one in my head as I wrote was that by the X-Seamen’s Institute.
- The haulers aboard the Great Eastern, pulling in the severed transatlantic cable, are heard in the book to be singing the chantey The Black Ball Line. The house version is by The Foc’sle Singers.
- One of the songs of Langhorne’s childhood goes If you want to have a fill/ Of kingfish or of mackerel/ Just come down the hill/ To Charlotteville. Unlikely that if there were a real Langhorne, he’d have sung it: those words were not written until 1940 (by Lio Mitchell). I’ve yet to find a recording.
- The spiritual Hold the Wind was also part of Langhorne’s childhood; and the line I’m going to stand a sea of glass echoes throughout The Great Eastern’s second half. There’s a deeply stirring rendition by The Sparkling Four Quartette.
- Haul Away for Rosie-O is another chantey, whose lines And then I had a Baltimore girl and when she took the notion/ She’d rise and fall as steady as the waves upon the ocean are cited in The Great Eastern. Heard, in my head, as sung by Stuart M. Frank, Stuart Gillespie, and Ellen Cohn.
- Perhaps the most seminal song in The Great Eastern is John the Revelator. The book follows the version by Blind Willie Johnson, again from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. (But I also sometimes listen to Depeche Mode, and the very different rendition done by Nick Cave.)
- The Great Eastern contains the lines from a chantey, A dollar a day is fisherman’s pay/ Oh yes it is/ Sail all night and fish all day/ Oh yes, oh yes it is. Anyone who can tell me what song that’s from will earn my eternal gratitude.
- In The Great Eastern, the dockworkers of Bombay are heard to chant Good are the cable-wallahs, great are their names!/ Good are the cable-wallahs, wah, wah!/ Great are the cable-wallahs, wah, wah!. The lines are cited in the wondrous 1883 book The Battery and the Boiler, Or, Adventures in the Laying of Submarine Electric Cables by R. M. Ballantyne. But alas: I know of no recorded version.
Then there are lyrics in The Great Eastern that are not chanteys at all, nor folk songs, nor did they exist in the time frame that the novel subtends. Which is to say: fragments of songs, long-resident in the deeper recesses of the author’s mind, that found their way to the surface as I wrote like bubbles in a lava lamp. Hence, a basket of Easter eggs, which I leave for you to find.
- Some words from The Faith by Leonard Cohen.
- A few more words from Leonard Cohen’s Master Song.
- A line from the song Autosalvage, by the band Autosalvage.
- A misheard phrase (Mondegreen!) from Iggy Pop’s Kill City.
- And (this one’s easy!) some words from Iggy and the Stooges’ Gimme Danger.
- Six words heard in John Cale’s Barracuda.
- A nautical reference from Television’s See No Evil.
- And, embarrassingly enough, a few words from The Doors’ The End.
- It is the opinion of Steven Soderbergh that I may have written the novel, in its entirety, for the sole purpose of smuggling into it a phrase from the Elvis Costello song Beyond Belief. In this instance, Mr. Soderbergh may be wrong. But also: he may not be.
And then, nondiagetically, we have the music listened to while composing the novel. We have the above-cited organ music by Hurford and Preston, but also
- Miles Davis’ He Loved Him Madly (a favorite of Brian Eno and the late Robert Quine);
- a lot of Dinu Lipatti, most notably Chopin’s Piano Sonata #3 in B Minor, Op. 58;
- Bard, Elegy For William Burroughs And Allen Ginsberg, and Lament for Linus, among others, from the Brad Mehldau album Elegiac Cycle;
- Charles Mingus’ solo piano rendition of his own composition Orange Was The Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues (an early version of what was to become Orange Was The Color of Her Dress, then Blue Silk, best heard on Mingus at Monterrey);
- Bruce Langhorne’s original soundtrack for the film The Hired Hand. (For what it’s worth, the character Langhorne in The Great Eastern is named after Bruce Langhorne, above, the seminal guitarist of what we now think of as folk-rock, and for whom Bob Dylan wrote Mr. Tambourine Man.)
- Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto’s vrioon;
- Camille’s Theme from Georges Delerue’s score for Le Mépris;
- The compilation of David Bowie instrumentals, All Saints—particularly A New Career In A New Town; Abdulmajid; The Mysteries; Subterraneans.
- Though it appears nowhere in the text, the song Old Man—composed and sung by Bryan MacLean, performed by Love on their seminal 1967 album Forever Changes—is central to The Great Eastern. There’s an ivory ball in the song; there’s an ivory ball in the book. I can say no more.
And, above all Philip Glass’s Some Are from his Low Symphony, as recorded by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra. That was the theme that, every day over a period of months, took me back down beneath the waves to continue the work, and kept me there until the words flowed into the sea.
Howard A. Rodman is the author of The Great Eastern.