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Review: Mark Twain: Words and Music

Various Artists
Mark Twain: Words and Music
[Mailboat Records (2011)]

Mark Twain was a man who never let the truth get in the way of a good story, but there was plenty about Twain’s life that needed no embellishment, beginning with the magical realism circumstances of his birth and death: His mother’s claime that he came in with Halley’s Comet and he would go out with it—and his subsequent late-life proclamations of the same—only enhance the notion for some of us that this towering figure of American words was something from another world. His interstellar origins may have breathed life into Twain’s own high (but well deserved) opinion of himself as destined for greatness. Twain would have turned 175 last year, and it’s been 101 years since his death, so there are now more years between us and Twain than there were between Twain and the founding of the country that now claims him as their greatest writer.

Mark Twain: Words and Music combines Twain’s autobiographical and (occasionally embellished) travelogue material and mixes it with third-party biography and songs composed in his honor. The cast is impressive: Garrison Keillor narrates; Jimmy Buffett is Huck Finn, Clint Eastwood is Twain himself, and Angela Lovell is Susy Clemens. Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Sheryl Crow, Ricky Skaggs, and Brad Paisley are the biggest musical names here. Sheryl Crow performs the only song that comes from Twain’s era, “Beautiful Dreamer,” as an a cappella lullaby. Harris’s “When Halley Came To Jackson” comes first and ends up being the musical highlight.

Although the music is all well recorded, well written, and well performed, it strikes me as a particularly savage mistake to have limited their choices almost solely to country musicians (with Crow being the only exception). I don’t know if it was simply the producer’s (Carl Jackson’s) preference, but it ultimately creates the impression that Twain’s life was limited to Middle America, and diminishes his inclusiveness. Twain grew up in Missouri, but he traveled the length of the Mississippi as a waterman; he lived in San Francisco in the new west and ended his life in New England. He traveled the world along the equator and made an antipilgrimage to the Holy Land. Twain had a wide world view. The music ought to have reflected that.

The narration and voice acting is the real reason to get this disc, maybe something to put on after A Prairie Home Companion has faded into the background, or as an alternative to an audio book. Twain’s words, after all, are funniest when read aloud, and his ear for speech rhythms even in narration are his claim to fame.

That ear for reproducing speech in writing would have made Twain feel right at home here in the information age. We went through a period in the last century after his death where transcribing accents became demode, where broadcasters  foisted standard American English on us, and now where news is consumed in tweets and banner headlines instead of full columns (where you have the space to stretch the truth). And yet people now use their cell phones less for speaking and more for texting messages coded in phonetics. We have more in common with our national bard than many technological worry warts care to admit when they say “Kids these days.” Twain’s mutability, that his wisdom is at home in any age, is not a new observance. The greatest writers get to a truth far deeper than telling the truth could ever hope to achieve. But to English geeks like me—those of us who “wasted” our college career studying words instead of learning something that pays the bills—Twain was rarely, if ever, held up as a pinnacle of authorship in our writing classes. He was either too obviously great or too quaint or passe.

The more distance I get from the polemics of professors, the more I appreciate that Twain’s writing encapsulates the human experience through portraiture of this country at a certain age almost as perfectly as Shakespeare does through Elizabethan English. He didn’t limit himself. America was a hodgepodge of cultures, and our status a world power ought to similarly oblige us to be citizens of the world and see things though a wide-angle lens. It worries me that in the century since his death, even after the world has become a smaller and more accessible place, that the bulk of our literary writers, perhaps representative of the population as a whole, really seem to have become as insular as the Nobel prize committee views them.

So when listening to this disc, pay particular attention to the formulative years in the first half, and listen how Twain’s vision expands as he encounters the world outside our borders in the second half. Personally, I wasn’t satisfied hearing those moments surrounded only by artists recording in Nashville.

—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)

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