Singing a Different Tune

In an earlier era they may have been called Renaissance men and women, perhaps even polymaths, but it’s unlikely that these musicians turned writers would see the journey from song writing to fiction writing as anything less than natural.

Through the years many musicians have turned their talents to the world of letters.

Bob Dylan’s Tarantula — a work of prose/poetry penned in 1965-66 and released without his full consent in 1971—has met with varied reviews.

It won 1st place in Spin magazine’s 2003 article on the “Top Five Unintelligible  Sentences From Books Written by Rock Stars.”  Others have compared it to Rimbaud, Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Ginsberg.

Leonard Cohen worked the puzzle from the opposite direction producing several books of poetry and two novels before releasing his first album (Songs of Leonard Cohen) in 1967.

And many artists  – too many to mention – have penned (or co-penned) memoirs and autobiographies with differing degrees of literary and financial success.

Take Keith Richard’s Life and Patti Smith’s Just Kids, for example.  The first soared on  bestsellers lists worldwide, and the second won Patti the National Book Award.

But fewer musicians have made the trip from song writing to the art of fiction.   The ones that have, however, are truly worth a listen – and a read.

John Wesley Harding is the title of a seminal Bob Dylan album which contained the track All Along the Watchtower.  John Wesley Harding is also the stage-name of a British folk/pop singer who chose to use his given name – Wesley Stace – when releasing his fiction.

Are you confused yet?  No need to be, just look in the fiction section under Stace and you find this man of many names also has many talents. If you will pardon the pun, Stace/Harding did not miss a beat with the release of his first novel, MisfortuneIt was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award in the UK and was named one of Amazon’s best novels of 2005.

By George and Charles Jessold, Considered as Murderer, his second and third novels, have further proven this fellow – whatever name he goes by – can write . . . and sing.

I was a child in the 1960s so I knew Sylvia Tyson’s voice before I really knew who she was.  Who she was, of course, was the better half of  the folk duo Ian and Sylvia and the song writer of You Were on My Mind. She is currently a member of Quartette with Caitlin Hanford, Gwen Swick, and Cindy Church, and in 2011 she released her first novel.

 Joyner’s Dream is a multi-generational family saga that follows the “lives lived and the music played by the fiddlers” of the Joyner-Fitzhelms from the late 1700s till 2006. An epic tale and task, one might say, but one that she manages to carry off with great dexterity.

Globe and Mail reviewer T.F. Rigelhof compares the book favorably with those of Robertson Davies, no less, and grants her success in large part to her ear, saying “she recreates the diction of men and women of varying social circumstances in diverse times and places . . .[who] speak to us as individuals with small, fragmented stories to tell.”

As an added bonus check out the accompanying album of the same name.   I recommend them both and if you’re truly adventurous you could try reading one while listening to the other.

Steve Earle has lived more than a few lives in his 57 years.  He dropped out of school at 16 and learned to write songs and many other things at the feet of the legendary Townes Van Zant. Some of the many other things lead him to drug and alcohol addiction and eventually to prison where his life changed . . . for the better.

With the gift of many years of sobriety, Earle embarked on his fiction career with the 2001 release Doghouse Roses, a collection of  eleven short stories that runs the gamut of his own life as a musician, addict, and winner and loser at love.

In 2011, he released his first novel, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, a parable created from the story of the fictional Doc Ebersole, the ghost of Hank Williams, and the healing Graciela, a young Mexican immigrant, who come seeking the services of the good doctor as a back room abortionist.

Miracles happen in this novel, and it won the praise of none other than Michael Ondaatje who characterized the book as “the work of a brilliant songwriter who has moved from song to orchestral ballad with astonishing ease.” The now happily married and 16-year sober singer/songwriter/political activist, is currently touring North America with an album of the same name.

To balance one talent with the other is no small feat, and I have to admit a tinge of jealousy of those with both. But it passes quickly, and once again I recommend both artistic outputs, and will end with one wish: Maestro, let the band play on.


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