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Cold Mountain

Posted by bj on Friday, November 27, 2009

I picked up a bunch of books at a yard sale a couple weeks back, and a few days ago I started reading "Cold Mountain" by Charles Frazier. Not only is it a great historical fiction novel about the Civil War period, but I can also tell that the author is an Oldtime Player. Throughout this book are tune names that are familiar to many of us! It's as if the author made a game of putting those tune names throughout the book in ways that are like a code for any OT  player but totally transparent to anyone else.

They're great jokes for us who are initiated into the language--  when one of the characters starts singing "God Gave Noah The Rainbow Sign". Or when they talk about the soldiers singing "Lorena". Or when Ruby says to Stobrod "Your aim in life always was to dance all night with a bottle in your hand."

But the biggest tipoff that the author is a musician, and probably a fiddler, is when he tells the story of Stobrod and how he came to be serious about fiddling. From the book:

. . . He came to prefer spending as much of his time as he could manage in the dim regions of Richmond's taverns, rank places that smelled of unwashed bodies, spilled liquor, cheap perfume, and unemptied chamber pots. In truth, he had throughout the war spent as much time as he could afford in such places, but the difference now was that his main interest became the musical niggers that often played for the customers. Many a night Stobrod wandered from place to place until he found a fellow working at a stringed instrument with authority, some genius of the guitar or banjo. Then he'd take out his fiddle and play until dawn, and every time he did, he learned something new.

He first spent his attention on matters of tuning and fingering and phrasing. Then he began listening to the words of the songs the niggers sang, admiring how they chanted out every desire and fear in their lives as clear and proud as could be. And he soon had a growing feeling that he was learning things about himself that had never sifted into his thinking before. One thing he discovered with a great deal of astonishment was that music held more for him than just pleasure. There was meat to it. The grouping of sounds, their forms in the air as they rang out and faded, said something comforting to him about the rule of creation. What the music said was that there is a right way for things to be ordered so that life might not always be just tangle and drift, but have a shape, an aim. It was a powerful argument against the notion that things just happen. By now he knew nine hundred fiddle tunes, some hundred of them being his own compositions.

I just can't imagine anyone who isn't at the very least a musician, if not an actual fiddler, could have written that. It rings with way too much truth.

An enjoyable and surprising novel, for sure, like finding a silver charm in a box of crackerjacks. I can't wait to find more oldtime tune names in this ripping good story.

11 comments on “Cold Mountain”

autumnstrings Says:
Friday, November 27, 2009 @9:22:22 PM

It's a favorite book of mine, I quite enjoyed the movie as well.

Arkansas Traveler Says:
Saturday, November 28, 2009 @12:25:55 AM

I' ve not seen the movie, though it' s been out for quite a while...
But i' ve heard the sound track is amazin'...
'appy fiddlin'

Mandogryl Says:
Saturday, November 28, 2009 @3:38:27 AM

Yep, great book and a very good movie. The fiddle in the movie actually has a carved head peghead. They play music several times in the movie on fiddle, banjo and bowlback mandolin. I thought the movie was very well done.
The book is one of my all-time favorites. Read the acknowledgements in the back, if you haven't yet, and so will see where he referenced his research material. I would not doubt it of he visits fiddle hangout.

bj Says:
Saturday, November 28, 2009 @4:56:46 AM

I don't much pay attention to movies that are out, since movies act like valium with me and are a waste of my money. :-) This must be the movie Jane's been yabbering about, insisting it's one that won't put me to sleep.

ScottK Says:
Saturday, November 28, 2009 @8:58:19 AM

Dirk Powell, Riley Baugus, and Tim Eriksen were all involved in the music for the movie (sountrack produced by T-Bone Burnett). If you rent the extended DVD (at least the one I rented), the second DVD contains a live performance with them playing some of the music and I think the author reading some passages. In the movie, "Shove That Pig's Foot Further in the Fire" gets played in D and renamed "Ruby with the Eyes that Sparkle".

Dirk Powell, John Herrmann, and Tim O'Brien also did an album called "Songs from the Mountain" that contains tunes and songs referred to in the book. I think that came out before the movie was made. It's a good CD, worth picking up. I don't have the movie soundtrack, so can't comment on that.

robinja Says:
Monday, November 30, 2009 @8:03:53 AM

Yes, I need to re-read the book since I read it prior to picking up the fiddle. I enjoyed the heck out of it then. "Songs from the Mountain" was one of the first old time CD's that I bought, and it's still one of my favorites.

janepaints Says:
Monday, November 30, 2009 @12:46:51 PM

For many a moon now Cold Mountain had become a beloved text among OT folks. Dirk Powell & buddies named their offshoot Punk OT band from a chapter in the book: The Freewill Savages. (GREAT band--besides the 'usual' instruments, they used an ELECTRIC BATHTUB)...BJ, I know you hate movies, but the next time yer down here I'm a-gonna DUCT-TAPE you to a chair and MAKE ya watch the swell film made from the book...I'll make ya watch it at GUNPOINT if need be...(of course, I'll haveta drop the gun when my weeping commences at the film's finale)....i was expecting a dreadful film, but--tho no film can match a good text--they did the book proud. The music in it is real, and oh my god! RUBY THEWS! For awhile my hobby was giving copies of Cold Mountain to people. "Modern World clogged yer brain & soul with more worthless crap than seems bearable or possible? Here: READ THIS!!!!!

janepaints Says:
Monday, November 30, 2009 @12:48:29 PM

now ya gotta read Charles Frazier's seconf novel "Year Of Thirteen Moons'. It's bonafide.

janepaints Says:
Monday, November 30, 2009 @12:50:18 PM

Yeah, the 'extra features' on the DVD has some swell stuff. Jack White the White Stripe shore knows how to download the spirits and shaman breezes.

fishinmusician Says:
Tuesday, December 1, 2009 @7:21:07 AM

When it first came out, I read Cold Mtn twice, and gave away at least two copies to friends as gifts. What writing, what a book....

I read an interview of Frazer where he stated he immersed himself in Western N. Carolina culture as part of his writing process, including listening to old time fidders. I don't recall that he is actually a fiddler himself.

coryobert Says:
Friday, February 10, 2017 @10:45:24 AM

A couple of years ago I was feeling a little burned out and uninspired with my fiddling, and then I read Cold Mountain. The entire book, but especially those passages about Stobrod, were just the kick in the butt that I needed to to get excited about playing again and really get serious about Oldtime fiddling.

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