Mark Twain: Word & Music is the most captivating listening experience I’ve had in a long, long time. This new 2-CD set is a benefit for The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, Missouri and features musical and spoken-word performances from some of today’s most compelling artists.
Let’s start with the speakers: Garrison Keillor narrates key moments in Mark Twain’s life. Should we just go ahead and formally designate Garrison Keillor as America’s Official Narrator? Most important projects requiring a narrator these days seem to go with Morgan Freeman if the goal is to evoke folksiness, or David McCullough if an academic or East Coast flavor is needed, but Garrison Keillor is the voice of Middle America in both the geographic and demographic senses. His voice flows like a river, never condescending, always thoughtful and wise, and he is pitch-perfect here.
Clint Eastwood lends his voice to the portrayal of Mark Twain himself. Eastwood’s craggy, almost whispered rendering of Mark Twain makes a listener feel like drawing a chair up closer as Mark Twain reads from his autobiography and other writings. I should make this point more clearly. Clint Eastwood portrays Mark Twain, not in conversation, but as a reader of his own words. The effect is akin to sitting down with Twain as he says, “I wrote something here today. Can I read it to you? I’m interested in what you might think of it.” Subtle acting is Clint Eastwood’s trademark. He never melts down on screen, but he always gets across his message. Same here. For example, Eastwood conveys barely contained delight as he tells about the spread of food at his Uncle John’s farm in the summer:
In the summer the table was set in the middle of that shady and breezy floor, and the sumptuous meals — well, it makes me cry to think of them. Fried chicken, roast pig; ducks and geese, wild and tame turkeys; venison just killed; squirrels, rabbits, pheasants, partridges, prairie chickens; biscuits, hot batter cakes, hot buckwheat cakes, hot “wheat bread”, hot rolls, hot corn pone; fresh corn boiled on the ear, succotash, butter beans, string beans, tomatoes, peas, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes; buttermilk, sweet milk, “clabber”; watermelons, muskmelons, cantaloupes — all fresh from the garden; apple pie, peach pie, pumpkin pie, peach cobbler, apple dumplings — I can’t remember the rest.
In contrast, when Eastwood reads the words Twain wrote upon the occasions of the deaths of his daughter Susy and wife Livy, your heart will break.
The heart of Mark Twain: Words & Music is Jimmy Buffett’s voicing of Huckleberry Finn. Jimmy Buffett absolutely brings Huck Finn to life. The print version of Huck Finn’s vernacular can be difficult for some contemporary readers, but Jimmy Buffett gets inside and all around every Huck Finn phrase and expression. Even if some of Huck’s idiom has been lost to modern usage, Jimmy Buffett makes it all fresh and full of meaning. Consider the challenge involved in making this passage come alive for a modern audience:
Well, the night got gray and ruther thick, which is the next meanest thing to fog. You can’t tell the shape of the river, and you can’t see no distance. It got to be very late and still, and then along comes a steamboat up the river. We lit the lantern, and judged she would see it. Up-stream boats didn’t generly come close to us; they go out and follow the bars and hunt for easy water under the reefs; but nights like this they bull right up the channel against the whole river.
Huck Finn is a rascal and so is Jimmy Buffett. Maybe that’s the reason for the magic here.
Every musical selection on Mark Twain: Words & Music is flawless. Each song is a newly recorded performance by some of today’s top country and bluegrass artists, produced by Grammy Award-winning songwriter and musician Carl Jackson. Some of the songs are directly related to Mark Twain; others are connected more indirectly but are no less relevant. For example, Emmylou Harris performs Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “When Halley Came to Jackson,” a song about Halley’s Comet, the meteor that coincided with Twain’s birth and death. Bradley Walker’s “A Cowboy in His Soul” is a great country song that appears after Clint Eastwood reads a section from Roughing It, in which Twain tells of his time in the Wild West.
Sheryl Crow’s haunting, echo-filled, a cappella “Beautiful Dreamer” closes the first disc after a section about Twain’s family life read by author and actress Angela Lovell (as Susy Clemens) and Clint Eastwood. (Brief digression: I’m a fan of Angela Lovell’s hilarious Mouseschawitz: My Summer Job of Concentrated Fun, available as an e-book on Amazon.) Vince Gill’s “I Know You By Heart” is as good a recording as anything Gill has ever done. It could and should be a hit right now.
As with so many grand adventures, this one has a couple of English teachers right in the middle of it. “Huck Finn Blues,” sung by Brad Paisley on the second disc, was written by Emily Hayes and Danny Wilson, two English teachers at Carbondale Community High School in downstate Illinois. They are also the editors of The Village Pariah, the literary magazine published by The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, and two of the nicest people you could ever hope to know.
Mark Twain: Words & Music is wrapped in an extensive, handsome package complete with transcribed narrations and lyrics. The executive producers of this project are Carl Jackson and Cindy Lovell, Executive Director the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. Cindy Lovell is one of America’s foremost Twain scholars, and she has been completely generous to me and my students over the last few years.
Mark Twain: Words & Music is an important, enjoyable addition to the world of Mark Twain. I keep thinking about how much Mark Twain would have loved this collection: terrific music; nice, talented people involved; and his life and words as the inspiration for it all.
Amazon currently has a sampler available here. Get all over this.