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Wednesday, 07 March 2012


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Should you desire, for reasons unrelated to this post, to tear me a new one, now’s the time and place to do so. I’ve asked my students to do the same, so a public shaming actually has pedagogical value. Come on, you know you want to …


I haven't read Blankets in a couple of years, so I'd need to refresh my memory to make a detailed argument. But my first impulse, thinking about a song, would be something that reflects the tenderer side of the book. For example (lyrics)

I do like the assignment.


By the way, this video for the song has much better sound (though it sounds weirdly compressed).

The more I think about it I do think that's a good selection. I'll try to make an actual argument later, but I would encourage you to listen to it.


Okay, quick argument for "The First Girl I Loved":

1) I hadn't seen the team, "Künstlerroman" before this post, but it does seem like a perfect description of Blankets. Crucially it's a story told in retrospect. While it's very good at imagining the power and the immediacy of the emotions that it describes, it's also clear from the book that he's no longer the same person who felt that way*. I would say that the brief epilogue (when he's hanging out with the people drinking on their stoop) is one of the things that I remember strongly about the book.

The song, like the book, looks back on a first love which is remembered with intensity, but distant.

2) The song is also evocative of the experience growing up as an artistic child in a small town, with a somewhat backwards-looking cultural milieu. "Now you used to play the guitar / We worked in a country band / I hung out down on the river bank, on Sunday / Your brother was my closest friend, he drove a pickup truck / he used to bring me home sometimes, from high school"

3) As I alluded to in my first comment the song nicely captures the tenderness of young love, which is one of the strongest emotions in Blankets "Now I was fifteen, oh the very first time / Love broke completely inside me / We were young, and we were learning about it together / And we had enough of what we thought we’d need / Of those well-known secret fables / We worried about it a little bit, but that’s all" Aside from the ages being different that could describe the main characters in Blankets almost perfectly.

Also note that, compared to the Pogues, there's a little bit more congruence of style. John Hartford doesn't evoke the religiosity of the book, which is central, but it is American, and Americana in a way which feels closer in mood. Besides that Shane McGowan feels about as different in tone as you can get from Craig Thompson. He just isn't a punk. I don't want to put too much weight on that, because nothing is going to be a perfect match, but I would say that if you want to argue for "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" you do have to meet a higher standard of thematic similarity just because the tone and style are so far from the book.

I'm still a bit unhappy with the sound quality at the second link, but I can't locate the CD at the moment. I will upload an .mp3 when I find (on the hope that somebody will care), but I do recommend the song.

*Note also the comment from wikipedia, "Despite the praise, the book, which was Thompson's way of coming out to his parents about no longer being a Christian, resulted in tension between him and his parents for a couple of years after they read it." I'm obviously not the only reader who felt like the book presented him as no longer believing the things that he did when he was younger.


That's great material, Nick. You sir, are now officially part of tomorrow's lesson plan.


Sorry to monopolize the blog, but one other recommendation. Thinking about Blankets I'm curious if you've seen the documentary Camp Out? It could be an interesting point of comparison. It shares a number of thematic elements with Blankets but from a different perspective (and also has an short but interesting epilogue which revisits the kids a couple of years later).


I was about to say I've seen it, but clicked on the link and realized I saw the other 2006 film about church camps, Jesus Camp. Structurally, I like the idea of pairing Camp Out with Blankets because of the epilogues, so it's to the top of the Netflix queue with it.


I really feel like in class we just focused on the God aspect of the novel. Because I am really unreligious I really couldn't connect to the struggles Craig was going through in the novel. I didn't even really understand all the Bible references at all, they just added to my religious whirpool of confusion... I sort of saw the combination of all of Craig's struggles in the book as the importance of the novel, rather than just focus on the religious aspect (again, this could be attributed to the fact I find it hard to connect with religion), so when I went looking for a song, I couldn't really find one having to do with a combination of all of Craig's problems (bullying, long distance relationship, mean teachers, strict parents, people not believing him, and yes a little bit of God, okay well a lot), for that would mean finding a song where someone had a LOT of issues (at least most of the above listed). So what I would end up finding on my search was one song which portrayed one struggle of the story, and another song that portrayed a different struggle, and yet another that portrayed a different struggle. Which was totally opposite of the point of the assignment, since we had to try to find a song that accompanied everything. So YES, this assignment was very difficult, and I really think I should probably get back to studying chemistry than think about it any longer. But hey, I tried, I really did!


Even though there is a sense of surrendering from the pressure of God/religion/church, I don’t think there is much else related to Blankets. The song in general seems to be very patriotic and almost nationalistic. The song seems almost like giving up but Craig ends up becoming stronger and more confident almost despite his break from religion. I’m also not seeing the representation of Craig and Raina’s relationship except the “let them go” parts. At the same time this assignment was pretty impossible since different people got different things from the book. For example, the religion aspect was pretty lost on me too while the relationship seemed like the focal point, while the song doesn’t really reflect this.

Mark Wise

*sigh* I wish I had you as a teacher when I was an undergrad.

Dr. Virago

What a cool assignment! I may adapt it for my own courses!

And though I haven't read Blankets, I can only assume that "If I Should Fall From Grace with God" *must* go better with that book than it does with a stinkin' Volvo ad touting the *safety* of the vehicle. Sigh. (Doesn't seem to be on YouTube any more, but it's the one with the hockey mom and the three red-headed boys.)


That's great material, Nick. You sir, are now officially part of tomorrow's lesson plan.

Woo Hoo!

Really this is right up my alley. As you know, I'm interested in trying to talk about the emotional textures and meanings of songs. A couple of additional thoughts:

1) J, in his comments, gets to part of what's interesting about the assignment -- it forces you to prioritize what you care most about in both the book and the song. It's going to be impossible to find a song which perfectly matches the book. So the challenge is to argue why the specific parts of the song and book that match are the most salient parts.

2) Respect that fact that it's hard to talk about music, particularly if the song is in a genre that's unfamiliar to people. I was thinking about playing "First Girl I Loved" for a class of college student and I suspect that the first thing that they will hear is that it sounds old, unfamiliar, and hard to get into (even though I think it's a completely lovely and emotionally direct song). It just can always take a couple of listenings to figure out how a song works. If you want to talk in detail in class about what imagery or emotions the songs contain be prepared for it to take a little time (which I imagine you will)

3) I think may be a challenging book for you students to find matching songs for. The more I tried to think about songs the more I realized how strongly the feel of nostalgia and pastness were as parts of my associations with the book. I think of it as basically a contemporary story, but when I tried to think of music to go along with it anything that wasn't acoustic felt wrong to me (though I also just like acoustic music so that may simply be a sign of my tastes). It could be tricky to think of more contemporary songs that match the feel. Certainly anything that's heavily processed would feel wrong to me compared to the naturalness of the artifice in the book (not a great phrase but I do think naturalness and artifice are both good descriptions).

4) If you're going to mention the John Hartford song you might want to show them the album cover as well. It does offer some useful context. Something to know about that album is that he worked with a bunch of traditional bluegrass stars (Norman Blake, Tut Taylor, Vassar Clements, and
Randy Scruggs) to produce an album which was not at all traditional bluegrass. It isn't that important but, who knows, maybe that picture helps break through the problem that I mentioned in (2) of getting people to identify with the music -- the album has elements that are both silly and confrontational.

5) As an example of how a song can fit without having many specific points of congruence: trying to think of a non-acoustic song that I would compare to Blankets the best one I could come up with, at the moment, is "Home At Last." It doesn't have any thematic overlap with Blankets. It isn't about love, religion, or maturation. It is about struggle, but at a significant remove. But what it does have is that the entire song is about the emotions of desire for and seeking comfort while feeling unsettled and out of place. The entire emotional kick of the song is from the feeling of wanting to be somewhere else, and wanting something new without knowing exactly what that would be or what's wrong with the current situation. It's a choice which bypasses all of the intense emotional high points in Blankets to connect to one of the currents. That is to say, a song like that wouldn't serve at all as a guide to a summary of the book. But it would be closer to answering the question, "if you were to film the book, what song would you play over the closing credits."


This is just to note that I posted a longer follow-up. Presumably it's in moderation, but I will be sad if it turns out to have been completely lost.

I'll be curious what you make of Camp Out. It's only a moderately good documentary but it's a fascinating subject matter. In my case I had an additional reason to be interested because I know people who have started and run (adult) camps and so I was interested to watch the people running the camp trying to figure out what they wanted to do -- how do you start something new and have it be interesting? But there should definitely be material from there that is relevant to Blankets (I haven't watched Jesus Camp and have no interest in that at all. It just sounds unpleasant).


I just want to say that I would hate you for giving me this assignment were you my teacher. Simply due to the fact that 99% of the time couldn't care less about the lyrics of the song. When it comes to the majority of the songs I feel passionate about, I have no idea what their lyrics are.

So while I enjoyed Blankets very much, and upon reading about your assignment immediately thought of
Marissa Nadler's music... I realized I had no idea what any of her songs are about, lyrically.


When you have time (and I totally understand not having time) I'm interested in the follow-up:

Did any of the students come up with interesting songs or interesting analysis?
Did anybody else like the John Hartford?
Did you watch Camp Out?


I had another idea for a song relating to this assignment. I was listening to the first Violent Femmes album for the first time in years, thought that it was even better than I'd remembered, and then read this description of their second album, Hallowed Ground:

After the surprise success of their landmark debut, Violent Femmes could have just released another collection of teen-rage punk songs disguised as folk, and coasted into the modern rock spotlight alongside contemporaries like the Modern Lovers and Talking Heads. Instead they made Hallowed Ground, a hellfire-and-brimstone-beaten exorcism that both enraged and enthralled critics and fans alike. ... [B]andleader Gordon Gano uses the record to expel his love/hate relationship with religion, and the results are alternately breathtaking and terrifying. Contrary to initial public response, Hallowed Ground is not a parody. Gano, the son of a Baptist minister, may wear his faith like a badge of honor, but it's a badge, not a shield, and what keeps the songs so volatile is the fact that they're filtered through the eyes, ears, heart, and loins of a teenager. Like the first record, all of the songs on Hallowed Ground were written during Gano's high-school years -- he was barely in his twenties when it was released -- resulting in a perfect rendering of the sweetness and brutality of the postpubescent teen . . .

That seems promising. I don't know the album well enough to pick the song which would be the best fit, but either the title track or, perhaps, "Jesus Walking On The Water" seem like possibilities. They are, apparently, songs reflecting somebody's struggles with religion from within, as opposed to Thompson's backwards-looking reflection on a religion which was important to him but still, I think, has some interesting overlap.

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