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Kevin McIlvoy's Playlist for his novel One Kind Favor (May 18, 2021)

About One Kind Favor

After the lynching of a young black man is discovered and subsequently covered up in the small fictional community of Cord, North Carolina, the ghosts who frequent the all-in-one bar and consignment  shop take on the responsibility of unearthing the truth and acting as the memory for the town that longs to forget and continues to hate. The down-the-rabbit-hole satirical storytelling of One Kind Favor, Kevin McIlvoy’s sixth novel, echoes Appalachian ghost stories in which haunting presences will, at last, have their way.

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Kevin McIlvoy's notes on this playlist

Six days a week I write in a small hut in the woods about fifty feet beyond my home. I have a big cushy chair I sit in, and I always have at hand my harmonicas. I play blues harmonica in the style of my heroes James Cotton, Little Walter, Charlie Musselwhite, Junior Wells, Ray Bonneville, Steve Baker, and many others. I love best the Delta blues sound deeply inflected with gospel fervor, but I also try my hand at Irish fiddle tunes and the Jazz era riffs of horn players, and I noodle at absolutely any other music that carries in it the breath released, restricted, redeemed, all in a phrase. The music helps me bring my body closer to the body of any sentence I write. My daily habit is to write for about an hour, blow my harp for fifteen or thirty minutes, write for another hour or two, blow my harp for half an hour, and on like that. At the end of a full week of writing, my chops are good and my ear is better attuned to musical nuance in language, and I feel that I understand in my bones how far I have to go to become as innocent as I wish to in my life and art.

See That My Grave Is Kept Clean – Furry Lewis

The title of my novel, One Kind Favor, is based on this blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson. “There’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you,” sings Blind Lemon, “please see that my grave is kept clean.” In the particular part of the South that is the setting for my novel, there is the well-known horrifying tradition of lynching; and, perhaps less well known, there is the tradition of repeatedly defiling the grave of the lynched person. The song offers a powerful cry: You who would not respect my simple wish to live, my right only to love and to be loved, please leave alone what mark of me remains. I hear this song echoed in the cry of our own historical moment: Say my name! Say my name!

Soul of a Man – Maria Muldaur & Taj Majal

This version of the often-recorded song has an authentic quality, by my reckoning. Maria and Taj sound to me like modern versions of Sister Rosetta Tharp and Blind Willie Johnson: this is the preaching blues that people sing who have walked in Job’s shoes, who have not lost one grain of their sense of humankind’s “better angels” though life has brought them countless brutal questions about the plans of The Creator. Blues music reminds people like me – I mean, people who presume to make art – that darkness is always alive inside the envelope of light, that light is always alive inside the envelope of darkness. 

Long Time Traveler – The Wailin’ Jennys

In everything I’ve written, and, so, in One Kind Favor, the figure of The Traveler inevitably appears. The Traveler is the outsider who punctures the veneer of civility in a community – and then travels on – and then, returns. The Traveler is an individual’s constant company, the version of herself/himself that is an elusively present reminder of what the individual could be or could have been: the Other Possible Me. The Traveler is the insider who returns to the community that was “home,” but returns in an unwelcome manifestation (often as a ghost), the double, the bearer of the community’s worst and best qualities. The Long-Time Traveler is the storyteller who speaks – whether or not given permission – for the “we” of the community. Above all other influences, I’m shaped by the oral tradition in which the storyteller reminds the youngest to the oldest members of her/his tribe that we are all wanderers for whom wonder is always imminent.

Soldier’s Joy – Guy Clark

The fiddle tune, “Soldier’s Joy,” one of the most familiar of all fiddle tunes, causes me to dance with tears in my eyes whenever I hear it. Most of us only hear the instrumental version of it, and we can sense how the music has absorbed the unique joys of soldiering on through the unspeakable dance of war. Of the many different lyrics written to the tune, I like best Guy Clark’s gritty telling in which you can hear our bloody Civil War echo.

You Got to Move – Arthur Jackson, Jim Robinson, & Louisiana Red

This song matters in the brotherly relationship between the characters Woolman and Lincoln in One Kind Favor. The narrator reports that two young men have brought their own style to singing it. Woolman remembers that the Rolling Stone version of it (a great version!) was favored by his mother and father once. This version is like a muddy river hungrily, happily chewing at every slightly curved bank, and maybe I appreciate that better now that 65 is well out of view and 70 is in my headlights. Hearing the three musicians in this version of the song is like hearing three pallbearers praying together after the funeral service; someone has moved on – eventually all of us got to move.

Down Around My Place – John Hiatt

As in all of the best John Hiatt songs, the pissed-off, righteous storyteller here has a list of complaints that could rightly be called bullets or missiles. In “Down Around My Place” the singer relates the devastations wrought by neglect, narcissism, hate, and the eternal choice of so-called humans to enact “the tyranny of the hour.” At a climactic moment in the song, he folds into his voice the voice of his own family member who recognizes the old and repeated patterns of the xenophobic Trump Klan: “My grandpa says, ‘Don’t worry – it’s always the last one in who’s in a hurry / to try to slam the door in the next one’s face.’” How do master storytellers like John Hiatt and Bruce Cockburn make such expressive chords of thoughts out of the raw root notes of almost inarticulate outcries? I’ll only know from listening again and again.

Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday

When Billie Holiday brought this song to audiences, she risked her life. When Nina Simone brought “Mississippi Goddam” to audiences, she did the same. Enough said.

Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying – Blind Willie Johnson

When I listen to Blind Willie Johnson I’m present for someone giving direct, unflinching witness to sorrow and hope emerging against all odds. As in his most famous song, “Dark Was the Night,” he lowers you into the coldest, darkest well, lets you touch and taste the poison he has tasted. And the sweet, healing water.

A Change Is Gonna Come – Leela James

In my warm-up for writing each day, I copy out a poem that will remind me I am a singer living on thin sandbars – sentences – formed from the smallest grains of language, as in Basho’s “Ungraciously, under  / a great soldier’s empty helmet, / a cricket sings” (trans. Sam Hamill). With humility and wisdom, Leela James inhabits every grain in every sentence of this famous Sam Cooke song.

I’ve Chosen Love – Reed Turchi

My favorite contemporary American musician is Reed Turchi, a preternaturally gifted slide guitarist. He makes music that resounds with North Carolina’s kudzu-shrouded swales and Arizona’s seering desert. His bandmates see to it that the sounds ring and roar under the blade of his voice (reminiscent of Johnny Winter’s band-saw voice). This song, inspired by Martin Luther King’s words, is marked by Reed’s big-hearted vision as an artist.

Here With You – Laurie Anderson

Before performing this instrumental at Town Hall in New York City on September 19-20, 2001, Laurie Anderson said, “We want to dedicate our music tonight to the great opportunity that we all have, to begin to truly understand the events of the past few days. And to act upon them with courage, and with compassion, as we make our plans to live in a completely new world.” I thought of Anderson and of her curious familiar, Kathy Acker, as I wrote One Kind Favor set in the aftermath of the national tragedy of January 20, 2017.

The Ballad of Lennon Lacy – Rhiannon Giddens & NC Music Love Army

In the tradition of Nina Simone, Rhiannon Giddens serves as a model for American artists who aspire to be passionate, intelligent activists. The lightning in the song is frighteningly powerful. In this historical moment in which mutant viruses of hate arise all around us, the ominous thunder in this song reaches us from very far away – and from very near.

Links for Kevin McIlvoy

One Kind Favor (print and ebook)

Author’s website
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Southern Humanities review

Puerto del Sol interview with the author
Peter Orner in conversation with the author (video)
Steve Almond in conversation with the author (video)


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