On 6 April 2017, the Irish Writers Centre played host to the Dublin launch of Talkin’ Squirrel Blues.
By 6.00 that evening, the room was all set up. And at 6.30 the guests – the great and the good of the Dublin literary scene – began to arrive.
After some refreshing refreshments and casual chatter among the guests in the reception area, it was time to bring the party upstairs on to the main event of the evening…
Chris Stevens had kindly agreed to say some introductory words about blues music, specifically the blues music of Fingers Flaherty. You can read Chris’s entertaining and informative speech below.
Fingers Flaherty’s Blues
Blues music is a distinctly American musical style, which grew out of the cotton fields of the Mississippi delta in the late 19th Century, before moving south to New Orleans, north to Memphis and Chicago, and then of course throughout the world. The original blues artists – W. C. Handy, Henry Sloan, Charlie Patton, and the incomparable Robert Johnson – derived their mournful melodies from the cotton fields in and around Clarksville, Mississippi. So many of us tend to associate blues with the sadness of hard times, poverty and broken relationships – “having the blues”.
Of course, to a great extent that is true. But it might be equally true to say that blues music is about hope in the midst of despair, about the possibility of redemption in a melancholic state. It is one of the curious paradoxes of this music. While the impetus may be the blues, the effect is to forget the blues. The songs act as a kind of tonic for overcoming sorrow, with melodies and lyrics that hint at redemption, despite the pall of despair.
Although blues started as a spontaneous style of music, it soon established a convention of repeated melodies and phrases, with certain lines and riffs often repeated a number of times before a final line resolves both the melody and the narrative. To quote one of the unsung heroes of blues music, Fingers Flaherty:
I woke up this morning with my head in a guillotine.
When I woke up this morning, this head was in a guillotine.
At least the view is nice; at least the basket’s clean.
You can hear the repetition here, and how the third line resolves the previous two. But you can also hear how it also contains the characteristics I mentioned earlier: a comic twist in the midst of despair, a strange glimmer of light in the prevailing darkness.
And that brings us to the main reason we have assembled here, not to talk about the history of the blues, but to celebrate the publication of Talkin’ Squirrel Blues, a decidedly 21st century blues narrative. It is a blues man’s locus: a story about a man named Moses who finds himself in a dead-end job, speaking to a ghostly squirrel, his relationship broken down – largely his own doing – but looking to find love and redemption out of this melancholic state.
And throughout the novel Moses’s depressed mood is punctuated by verses of the songs of Fingers Flaherty. These operate as a kind of spiritual commentary on the action. And they contain many of the features of the blues tradition:
Personal failure: “My hose was way too dry, Lord, to turn her garden green.”
Grave misfortune: “She wrote my life story, and then I lost the plot.”
Love-torn recrimination: “I said, ‘Do you mind if I smoke, baby?’ She said, ‘Honey, I don’t care if you burn.’”
And what appears to be years of loneliness:
I don’t want to be your tenant, woman,
I want to be your resident.
I ain’t got it up, woman,
Since Truman was the president.
At first glance these quirky, comic blues lyrics appear extraneous to the book. But what the reader notices is the way Pádraig weaves this blues idiom into the narrative of the story itself. Moses’s friend, Banjo Corrigan, is described as being able to “listen to a kettle whistle for hours without interrupting it or passing judgement on it.” Moses describes his ex-girlfriend’s new flame as “so ugly not even the tide would take him out.” Moses comments to Paul: “We usually lose two hours of sunshine when you walk into a room.” And Jesse comments on Moses’s crowd: “I actually think Freud would be out of his depth.” Many of Pádraig’s lines have a memorable hyperbole that reminds us of that blues line from an old song we once heard, which we resurrect every now and then to help us make sense of our stricken way.
But the dance with language doesn’t stop there. Pádraig shows a great familiarity with the absurdity and mixed metaphors of corporate speak too. Moses’s company – Aztech – has this as its mission statement: “to convert the intangible quality of our product into a tangible, visible market position in an aggressive economic environment.” And Moses’s boss, Fred, states sagely: “We are never afraid to push the envelope up the flagpole.” At the turn of every page Pádraig riffs on language like a comic blues man – like Fingers Flaherty himself – lighting up this dark tale with a humour borne of cynicism and some hope.
It’s a tale of depression, a talking squirrel, and a hero with a slumped, gallows-bound posture. But I think through its language, and the pleasure with it – the reader will be redeemed. A little bit like the blues. A lot like the blues.
The speech was warmly received by the crowd. As I remarked afterwards, “There’s a lot going on in this book that I wasn’t aware of. I really must get around to reading it some day…”
Thanks again to Chris for his wonderful speech!
Stay tuned for a full report on the launch, including my own speech…
Until then, keep on keepin’ on!