The National Endowment for the Arts started the initiative called The Big Read as a way to encourage reading. This year, for its Big Read selection, the Kansas City Public Library chose the novel True Grit.
It’s the story of a teenager in the late 1800s who seeks to avenge her father’s murder. The library is hosting a series of public events, including a performance of songs inspired by the era of the novel.
Writing songs from Mattie's perspective
Five musicians gathered recently for a rehearsal in the basement of a brick bungalow in the Brookside neighborhood of Kansas City, Mo. Jeff Harshbarger and his band, The Revisionists, are breathing new musical life into True Grit, a tale of vengeance. In the novel by Charles Portis, the main character, Mattie Ross, recounts tracking her father's killer through Indian territory, as a teenager, in 1873.
"True Grit is such a strong story and it's Mattie's story," says Harshbarger, who plays bass and guitar. "And in that story there is a lot of re-remembering and I find that a really fascinating perspective to write from.
"And I think that's a key component of folk music. It's a romanticizing of certain ideals and certain times and certain historical moments that may or may not have happened."
Family history provides context
Combined with the mythology of memory are historical characters. The fictional one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn, a hired gun, agrees to help 14-year-old Mattie in her quest. Cogburn tells Mattie he served with Confederate leader William Quantrill during the Civil War.
This led The Revisionists to a traditional song about Quantrill's raid on Lawrence, Kan. called The Call of Quantrill.
"Several of my family members actually rode with Quantrill's raiders and have connections there," says musician Kasey Rausch. "(It's) something that I've struggled with personally so I am really grateful to have this project to dive a little deeper into that history of my family and learn how to maybe accept and cope with it because there is a lot of harshness there that is not in my nature necessarily.
"Again, embracing that and trying to understand those emotions that the people who wrote those songs felt is another way for us to understand the mentality of that time period."
Relating to characters, making personal connections
To evoke the late 1800s, the musicians searched for music from the era, but they also created original material. For Harshbarger, it was important to find ways to relate to the characters on a more personal level.
"Mattie's single-mindedness is something that I think that most musicians can identify with and feel very akin to," says Harshbarger. "There are hymns that are important to Mattie. There are things that make her miss home or there are things that bolster up her resolution to see this thing through, this very adult thing that she's chosen.
"Rooster's (got) conflicted morality. Coming from a jazz background and growing up with a lot of older jazz musicians, you meet a lot of really good men who do a lot of really bad things and I like that in Rooster. I see a lot of my mentors in him."
Past meets present through song
Betse Ellis grew up listening to fiddle music from the Arkansas Ozarks. She brings 20 years of playing folk music to the project.
"It's been really fun to look at not only the few fiddle tunes that were mentioned specifically in the novel, but to think about material that might have been played by people at the time the novel takes place," says Ellis.
The 1870s gospel hymn Beulah Land is lifted directly from the novel True Grit.
"One of the songs that I am going to be singing is Beulah Land which is an historical song talking about the connection of the people to the land and their spirituality," says vocalist Kasey Rausch. "So there's variation in the songs we are singing. We've got some high energy fiddle tunes, we've got some gospel tunes, and I think it represents the era very well."
Taking a "new approach to an old song"
Betse Ellis says they’re not trying to recreate the authentic sound of the music from a pre-recorded era.
"Some of the new things about some of the songs is just kind of taking a very new approach to an old song," she says. "Jeff (Harshbarger) is singing the classic from Stephen Foster Hard Times Come Again No More, which has been sung and played over many different generations of course, but his approach to it sounds at once modern and yet really brings you back to ancient when you really listen to the lyrical content."
Jeff Harshbarger adds, "I think it's just how the molecules in the air vibrate when the five of us get together and start bringing our own experiences to the table. Just to figure out how to make the thing sound right. As you are probing a tune for its identity, there's just that moment where it's right and the air suddenly feels different, and wow, this is what we have to do, and not resting until you have that moment."
Harshbarger says he hopes that the sounds of True Grit will bring a deeper meaning to the reading of the novel.
The Kansas City Public Library is hosting a community-wide celebration of the iconic western novel True Grit by Charles Portis. Surrounding The Big Read 2013, is a range of free public events, programs, book discussions as well as a special exhibit at the Central Library.
Jeff Harshbarger and The Revisionists will perform at 6:30 p.m. (with a reception at 6 p.m.), Wednesday, October 2, 2013, at the Kansas City Public Library's Plaza Branch, 4801 Main Street, Kansas City, Mo. 816-701-3481.