Other segments from the episode on March 19, 2015
March 19, 2015
Guest: Norman Blake
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Norman Blake has performed bluegrass music for about 60 years. In addition to his own recordings and performances, he played in Johnny Cash's band, played on Dylan's "Nashville Skyline" album and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Will The Circle Be Unbroken." He played progressive bluegrass with Vassar Clements and Tut Taylor on John Hartford's album "Aereo-Plain." On the soundtrack of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" he sang "You Are My Sunshine" and played a solo guitar version of "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow."
T Bone Burnett, who produced the soundtrack album, described Blake as, quote, "one of a handful of the best acoustic guitar players in the world. He's learned hundreds of country songs, including rags, instrumental tunes and fiddle numbers, knowing the influences and nuances of every one. He should be an absolutely revered musician," unquote. Blake toured for decades with his wife, Nancy Blake. Now at the age of 77, Blake has released an album of original songs called "Wood, Wire & Words" that includes this track called "The New Dawning Day."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NEW DAWNING DAY")
NORMAN BLAKE: (Singing) Flickering shadows and darkness tell all the years gone by. Humors of time, space and places rise in the barren, dark sky. But there's no reason to fear them, drifting in space, floating by. Faltering voices ask us why, why, oh, why? Now, you can believe what you want to as the winds blow cold in the night, when restless spirits haunt us between midnight and morning's light.
GROSS: That's Norman Blake from his new album, "Wood, Wire & Words." Norman Blake, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming. Were you especially experiencing restless spirits haunting you (laughter) when you wrote the song?
BLAKE: Oh, not exactly. It's just a thing that is fantasy, partly, you know, or things that could happen. And then sometimes we have dreams or visions, you know, that cause us to think these things.
GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, I know you had a mini stroke - a TIA - a couple of years ago. And I'm wondering if that just gave you this sense of mortality.
BLAKE: Oh, certainly. I think anytime you have a brush with it, you're going to think a little differently about things. It's going to adjust your perspective, so to speak.
GROSS: How do you think having that stroke and having, you know, a fairly long period of recovery, like, about a year - how do you think that affected your music at all or your taste in music - the kind of music that you wanted to play or to write?
BLAKE: Well, you know, I don't know that it really changed that. I hadn't written in a long time. I performed a lot of traditional music mostly and was busy. My wife and I - Nancy - were so busy out on the road for a number of years just entertaining people, you know, doing our shows. And we traveled on the ground. We did not fly. We drove everywhere that we went, all over the United States for 30 years or better. And we were getting pretty worn out with that. And writing was something that I guess sort of got pushed aside due to the fact that we were just working that hard and driving and concerned with our shows and the business of all of that. So that kind of took my focus off of writing. And of course, I have to say at this point that in my recovery, she was very instrumental in helping me through all of that, taking care of me and trying to make me eat the right thing and all that. She always jokes about, no wonder we had a problem. We ate out of a sack for 35 years.
GROSS: (Laughter). You mention you drove everyplace on the road. Are you afraid to fly?
BLAKE: Yeah. I've done it a lot back in the earlier days. When I came out of the Army in 1963, I started working with people in Nashville, playing over there some. And yes, I've flown with Kris Kristofferson and John Hartford and all of those people and Johnny Cash a little bit. But - and I flew in the Army. I was involved in it there, you know, in the Panama Canal Zone. They'd take us up in planes and things like that. So I never did like it. I was always afraid of it. And I never had any real close calls or anything, but it was just something in the back of my mind that it just didn't sit right. Plus, I didn't like the way that they treated us, even back in those days, about our instruments and things. And I stopped flying in 1974, so if I couldn't stand it then, I'm sure I would not make it now.
GROSS: Yeah, I think you're right (laughter). If you're just joining us, my guest is guitarist, mandolinist, banjo player Norman Blake. He has a new album called "Wood, Wire & Words."
You've literally and figuratively stayed close to your roots. You live down the road from where you grow up in Sulphur Springs, Ga. You moved there, I think, in 1939 at the age of 1. And you play music that's very connected to the music that you knew as a child. And I'm wondering, although, you know - although you've toured around the world, what has kept you living so close to the home where you grew up?
BLAKE: I was raised in a very rural environment - no electricity, no real modern conveniences, no telephone. I always say the highest tech thing that we had was a battery-powered radio. And we ran that on a car battery that my father had rigged up because that sat under the table. And you could run it on that car battery because the radio batteries that you had to buy didn't last very long, and they were real expensive. And we had wind-up phonographs and things and a few old records. So life was pretty simple. And the railroad train running through Sulphur Springs, Ga. was the biggest excitement. They ran 22 steam locomotives through there a day, passenger and freight trains. And so that was a big focus in my life. And it was just a real simple upbringing down on the dirt road and railroad there in northern Georgia. And I've never lost the feel for that. That always appealed to me.
I guess we are always nostalgic for our upbringing sometimes, but those times were good in their way. Of course, I like to say that I wouldn't be alive today if it hadn't been for modern medicine, so not everything was good. But I don't know. You kind of want to go back to those times when things were simple.
GROSS: Do you - are there people there whose families you remember from when you were growing up?
BLAKE: Are they still there, you mean?
BLAKE: No, nope, not very much at all. They're about all gone. Nobody's left much. And of course Sulphur Springs, Ga., I don't think even exists on the map anymore. Sulphur Springs, Ala., does, but there was a ridge between the two. And the Alabama side, you were over on the highway - number 11 highway - which was the main road. And Sulphur Springs, Ga., was on the railroad side.
GROSS: You mention that the railroad was very important in the life of the town where you grew up and in your own life, too, that that was, like, the big excitement in town. You have a lot of train songs in your repertoire. Would you play one for us? I know you've brought your guitar with you.
BLAKE: Sure. Let me get fixed up here.
BLAKE: (Singing) Oh, yonder comes old FFV, the fastest on the line, running on that C&O road, 20 minutes behind. She's running into Seville, headquarters on the line, receiving their strict orders from the station just behind. And when she got to hitting, that engineer was there. His name was George Allen, oh, with his curly hair. His fireman was Jack Dixon. He's standing by his side awaiting their strict orders when in the cab to ride.
That's part of it. There's a whole lot more.
GROSS: All right. You do a lot of stories songs in your repertoire (laughter). So why did you choose that song? What does it mean to you?
BLAKE: Well, that's one I've heard all of my life, "The Wreck On The C&O Road" is the name of it. It's been recorded in I think some 70 or 80 times over the years since the 1920s by various recording artists. "The Wreck On The C&O" - the Carter Family did it under the title "Engine One-Forty-Three" in a different timing. They did it in 3/4 time, and - but it's about the same train, the FFV - the Fast Flying Vestibule that ran on the C&O road up in Virginia and West Virginia.
GROSS: It's funny. You were telling us you have a bad feeling about planes, but you sing the song about a train wreck (laughter).
BLAKE: Well, I wasn't on the train (laughter).
GROSS: Well, that's true. You weren't on the train (laughter). If you're just joining us, my guest is guitarist and singer Norman Blake. He has a new album. It's called "Wood, Wire & Words." Let's take a short break here, and then we can talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is guitarist Norman Blake, who also plays Dobro, mandolin, fiddle. He has a new album called "Wood, Wire & Words" in which he also sings of course. On the new album, he plays all original songs, but he also has a really large repertoire of traditional songs and other people's songs. He's also performed with Johnny Cash. He plays on the Bob Dylan "Nashville Skyline" album. He's on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack.
OK. So you play several rags on guitar on your new album, and it's one of the things you're known for. When you started playing rags, did you pick them up from piano recordings? Were there transcriptions for guitar? I mean, I don't even know if you read music.
BLAKE: I do read music, mostly on the mandolin. I can read it on the guitar, but if I was going to read a tune, I would read it on the mandolin. No, I don't get them from music. I just make up what I call country rags. Like a lot of the old players did. I've heard the Joplin rags and appreciate them very much. I never felt that I had the physical ability to play some of them. You got to really - on the guitar, you've really got to get in some contortions to get some of those things. And so I just stuck with the more simple things, you know, made them up myself. Mississippi John Hurt - people like that, a lot of your blues players, that kind of thing was more of my influence on it.
GROSS: Let's hear an excerpt of one of your original rags from your new album. So this is the "Chattanooga Rag," and this is Norman Blake from his album, "Wood, Wire & Words."
(SOUNDBITE OF NORMAN BLAKE SONG "CHATTANOOGA RAG")
GROSS: That was Norman Blake playing his own "Chattanooga Rag" from his album, "Wood, Wire & Words." And he's in the studio. He's actually in a studio in Alabama with his guitar.
So, Norman Blake, in terms of what you're doing with the picking or the fingering, what separates that from, for instance, what you'd play on, you know, a bluegrass recording? I mean, what - like, technically, what are you doing differently?
BLAKE: Well, one thing, I'm not using any picks whereas on bluegrass, I'd probably be flatpicking the guitar. This is just done with no picks at all. Just very bare-fingered, we call it.
GROSS: You are very well known for your flatpicking style. How did you end up playing with a flat pick?
BLAKE: Well, that goes back to the early days. I first learned to play guitar more in the style of Maybelle Carter and Riley Puckett and those people in the string bands. And I used a thumb and a finger pick - one finger pick. That's the way that the early bluegrass guitarists also played. Lester Flatt played that way. Carter Stanley - a lot of the guys, the old-timers back in country music, played with a thumb and finger pick, and so I was playing that way for a while when I was learning and got into that.
And along in the '60s, I was giving some guitar lessons, and I had a student that asked me, had I ever heard Doc Watson. And Doc had just made, I guess, his first records at that point. And I said no, I hadn't heard him. And I had played the mandolin along at the same time, you know, with a flat pick. And when I heard the Doc Watson records, I thought well, I've been doing that a little bit, you know? I know how to kind of do that. But I kind of looked at it as though it was a novelty at that point to my way of thinking. But I realized that people really liked that, so I started working on it myself and kind of developed my own way of doing it.
GROSS: Norman Blake, I know that church was probably a very important part of your very small town when you were growing up. I'm not sure what, if any part, it plays in your life now. But can you play a song for us that you associate with church or that you learned in church when you were young?
BLAKE: Yes, I can do one here. I'll do a little bit of "This World Is Not My Home."
(Singing) This world is not my home. I'm just passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven's open door. And I can't feel at home in this world anymore. Oh, Lord, you know that I have no friend like you. If heaven's not my home, then, Lord, what will I do? The angels beckon me from heaven's open door. And I can't feel at home in this world anymore. Just yonder in Gloryland, oh, there is no dying there. The saints on every hand are shouting victory fair. I hear the voice of them that have gone on before. And I can't feel at home in this world anymore. I have a loving mother yonder in Gloryland. I don't expect to stop until I shake her hand. I know she'll welcome me though I am weak and poor. And I can't feel at home in this world anymore. Oh, Lord, you know that I have no friend like you. If heaven's not my home, then, Lord, what will I do? The angels beckon me from heaven's open door. And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.
GROSS: That's Norman Blake playing for us. Thank you so much for doing that song and for choosing that song. How old do you think you were when you first heard that?
BLAKE: (Laughter) Boy, from the time I could remember. Not very old I guess.
GROSS: What was the role that church played in the life of your community and in your personal life when you were young?
BLAKE: Well, we had a little church up there called the State Line Methodist Church that we went to some. It was a very small thing. It used to be a one-room schoolhouse back in the latter part of the 19th century. And it was written up in "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" at one point. The state line ran right through the center of the church - the Georgia and Alabama line - and they wrote it up as the only church where that the preacher stood in the state of Georgia and the congregation sat in Alabama.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's funny. You've played so many concerts, you know, for audiences in all kinds of venues. What's the difference for you playing or singing in church versus playing or singing, you know, in a performance venue?
BLAKE: When you sing and play in church, as we have - Nancy and I have done that - you - I don't know - you have to drop some of your things that you might do in a concert. I think you're a bit more honest when you sing in church, you know, than you might be on a stage. You're certainly not putting on a show. And as the saying goes, you'd be singing for the glory of God. And so you have to be pretty honest with it and be pretty honest with yourself to feel right about it. So I think that's the main difference right there.
GROSS: My guest is bluegrass musician and singer Norman Blake. After a break, he'll talk about playing with Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. And John Powers will review a new novel that follows four college friends. He says if you read it, you'll never forget it. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with bluegrass musician and singer Norman Blake. He's been performing for about 60 years. In addition to leading his own bands, he performed in Johnny Cash's band, played on Dylan's "Nashville Skyline" album and was featured on the soundtrack of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" He has a new album called "Wood, Wire & Words."
When you were 16, you dropped out of high school and left home to join a band. And you ended up performing on the radio. You played in the opera. What did your parents think when you left home at the age of 16?
BLAKE: Oh, they were not too happy about things like that. My mother was very protective of me. And she didn't like that kind of thing. So it didn't please her at all for me to do that kind of thing. My father was very supportive of my music. Both my parents were. But he - when he found out that's what I wanted to do, you know, that I had an ability for it, why, he helped me all he could. I have to say that.
GROSS: What kind of work did he do?
BLAKE: He was a boiler inspector at Combustion Engineering in Chattanooga, Tenn. He was a final inspector there and - 25, 30 miles north of where we lived at Sulphur Springs. And then we farmed on the side and raised a few cattle. So he would go to work real early in Chattanooga and then come back out, and we'd farm a little bit in the evening.
GROSS: Did your mother work on the farm?
BLAKE: She did mostly the housekeeping thing and cooked three meals a day, you know, all of her life.
GROSS: Do you remember the first year that you performed at the "Opry"?
BLAKE: Oh, I suppose that that would be in the very late - 1959 or '60, maybe - when I was performing with Walter Forbes and Bob Johnson over there as the Lonesome Travelers. It was a group Walter Forbes had called the Lonesome Travelers. And we were on there quite a lot at different times, you know, back in those days. I think it's '59 or '60 maybe.
GROSS: What did it mean to you to perform at the "Opry" then? And what was the "Opry" like then?
BLAKE: Well, it was a big deal to be on the "Grand Ole Opry." And it was at the Ryman Auditorium in those days. And it was just quite a thing, you know. That's what everybody at that time - if you were in country music, that's what they were aspiring to do, was to get on the "Grand Ole Opry." And so it was a big deal to us. We'd go over and play. We played traditional music. And Walter Forbes made a couple of records for Victor. And we played on them. And Bob Johnson was a banjo player that worked with us. And so we'd just go over there and do that and do a tune called the "Cumberland Mountain Deer Race," where he'd blow the fox horn during the middle of it. And we'd play the banjo and the guitar behind him real fast and all that. The crowd seemed to love it.
GROSS: Did you get a lot of advice from older performers when you were starting out and when you started to play the "Opry"?
BLAKE: Oh, you always get that, yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: What was some of the good advice you were given?
BLAKE: (Laughter). Well, I remember - it wasn't at the "Grand Ole Opry" - but I remember that when we had a little band, way back in 1953 or '4, we were going up to Knoxville, Tenn. to WNOX, to the Tennessee Barn Dance. And there was a gentleman who emceed that show and ran it named Lowell Blanchard. And Mr. Blanchard told us - he said, boys - he says, just remember, start off good and end good. But what you do in the middle's not as important. Just start good and end good.
GROSS: Something that was very - I assume was a real turning point for you, was meeting June Carter and Johnny Cash. You ended up playing in Johnny Cash's band off and on for years, right?
BLAKE: Yeah. Yeah, I did. I worked with Johnny from late 1963 off and on on his recordings through the end of his life, yeah. I think 40 years or so.
GROSS: He was looking for a dobro player when he first hired you. And dobro was not your instrument. So did you lie to him? Did you tell him, sure, yeah, I play dobro?
BLAKE: No, no, actually, dobro was an instrument that I was playing a lot.
BLAKE: I probably played dobro more than I did anything else for a while, back early on in my life. So no, I was really a dobro player as far as things were concerned. But he had never heard me play. And I went over there with a friend after I got out of the Army, this fellow named Bob Johnson that I was referring to earlier, the banjo player. And we had worked with June earlier, down around Chattanooga, on some local shows. And so he was going over to play a session with Johnny Cash. And he says, you want to go over there with me? And I didn't have anything else to do, so I went with him. And when we went in, she introduced me to John, says, I've been telling you about Norman Blake, says he plays the guitar and the dobro and other things. And he turned right around - and he'd never heard me play a note - and he says, if you can get a dobro, he says, I'll use you tomorrow. He says, I've been wanting to use the dobro and mariachi trumpets together. You know, he'd been using the trumpets. But he hadn't had the dobro with them. So that's something he wanted to do. So I started recording with him the next day. And like I say, it went on for - off and on for 40 years.
GROSS: Are you on his recording of "Ring Of Fire" - 'cause that uses that kind of mariachi trumpet, doesn't it?
BLAKE: No, that was before. That was the one before. I started right after that.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
BLAKE: The first record that I ever cut with him was called "Bad News Travels Like Wildfire." And "Understand Your Man" I think was the name of the first tune that I may have recorded with him.
GROSS: OK. What kind of advice, if any, did Johnny Cash give you about what he wanted in his band?
BLAKE: Well, I can tell you the first thing he ever told me in the recording studio was when I started playing dobro with him that first time. I started playing, and he says, that's really good. He says, but can - he says, that's too good for one of my records. He says, can you play about half as much?
GROSS: (Laughter). What do you think he was really saying?
BLAKE: Well, he wanted me to keep it simple. He wanted me to play it on single strings. And he had his own way of wanting to do things. He wanted things kept really sparse, you know, on those records. He was into that. He had a sparse sound.
GROSS: So I'm going to play a recording of Johnny Cash singing one of your songs. And this is "Chattanooga Sugar Babe." And I think you're featured on guitar-banjo on this?
BLAKE: Yeah, it's an old Gibson guitar-banjo like Papa Charlie Jackson used to play.
GROSS: OK, well, why don't we hear it? And this is Johnny Cash with my guest Norman Blake on guitar-banjo.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHATTANOOGA SUGAR BABE")
JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) There ain't no money to buy cocaine, sugar babe. There ain't no money to buy cocaine, sugar babe. There ain't no money to buy cocaine, burn your nose and rot your brain, sugar babe... Sugar babe. I woke up this morning, blues all around, sugar babe. Woke up this morning, blues all around, sugar babe. Woke up this morning, blues all around, throw on my rags and walked downtown, sugar babe... Sugar babe. Standing on a corner, don't you see, sugar babe. Standing on a corner, don't you see, sugar babe. Standing on a corner, don't you see, they haul me away for vagrancy, sugar babe.
GROSS: That's Johnny Cash singing a song by my guest, Norman Blake, who was featured on guitar-banjo. And Norman Blake played in Johnny Cash's band for years off and on. Was it through Johnny Cash that you got to play with Bob Dylan on his "Nashville Skyline" album? 'Cause Johnny Cash sings a duet with Dylan on that, on "Girl From The North Country."
BLAKE: Yeah, my association with John - Bob Johnston, not to be confused with the Bob Johnson the banjo player -but Bob Johnston was the producer that was doing Johnny Cash for Columbia Records. And when Bob Dylan came down, he was also recording on Columbia, I believe, at the time. And Bob Johnston hired musicians for the Bob Dylan session, and I was included. That's how I ended up on that.
GROSS: So what did Dylan tell you when you played in his band on the 1969 album, "Nashville Skyline"?
BLAKE: I've been asked that question more than anything - what's Bob Dylan like, or things like that. And he didn't say much of anything. Bob Dylan was very quiet at that point. He didn't say anything. He came in the studio, and he would run the songs down, you know, play them for us on his guitar and his harmonica. And Charlie McCoy was playing bass on the session. And Charlie would write down the number charts, they call them in Nashville, you know, the chord changes. And Charlie would pass out the numbers, and we would do them. We did most of them, as I recall, on either the first or second take. He never - he was never very variable. He just was pretty quiet at that point, you know?
GROSS: My guest is bluegrass musician and singer Norman Blake. His new album is called "Wood, Wire & Words." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Norman Blake, the guitarist, mandolin player, fiddler who also sings, writes songs - has a new album called "Wood, Wire & Words."
T Bone Burnett invited you to be on the soundtrack from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" which was, you know, the soundtrack from the film with George Clooney, and there were a lot of, you know, folksongs, traditional songs on there. You sang "You Are My Sunshine" and did an instrumental version of "Man Of Constant Sorrow."
BLAKE: "Man Of Constant Sorrow."
GROSS: How did he know about you? Like, I could see several reasons why he'd know about you, but do you know how he knew about you?
BLAKE: I have a good idea, I think. I think I'm correct in saying that he was consulting quite a bit at the time that they were doing - starting to do that record and that music for that movie. And I think he was consulting quite a bit with Gillian Welch. And I think that she might have told him about me.
GROSS: This - one of the songs you do is "You Are My Sunshine" which is, you know, an old song. I don't know if it's a traditional song or if we know who the author is.
BLAKE: Well, it is a song that is credited to the former governor of Louisiana - Jimmie Davis and Charlie Mitchell who was also a partner of his. Jimmie Davis and Charlie Mitchell are the writers.
GROSS: Why don't we hear a little bit of that recording? And this is my guest Norman Blake playing and singing "You Are My Sunshine" from the soundtrack of the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE")
BLAKE: (Singing) The other night dear as I lay sleeping, I dreamed I held you in my arms. But when I woke dear I was mistaken. And I hung my head and I cried. You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray. You'll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don't take my sunshine away.
GROSS: That's my guest Norman Blake playing and singing from the soundtrack of the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" which was a huge best-seller. What impact did this album have on your life?
BLAKE: Oh, it made life quite easier for me and my wife, Nancy. We were able to get off of the road a little quicker than we might have, you know, due to the fact that it was good for us in a financial way.
GROSS: Good, good. So can I ask you to play another song for us?
GROSS: There's a song I'd like to request that you've recorded. And it's - I think it's a pretty old song, but I don't know anything about its origins. It's called "Old Pal Of Yesterday." Tell us what you know about the song and why you've chosen to, you know, perform it.
BLAKE: I don't know a lot about it. I'm not sure who wrote it. I think probably Gene Autry might have done it on record. It's just a very nice old song. I'll see if I can do a little of it.
GROSS: Thank you.
BLAKE: (Singing) At twilight when shadows are falling, at the close of a long, weary day, I fancy I hear a voice calling. It's my old pal of yesterday. Old pal, I'm so blue since you left me. Life's been a burden to bear. I wonder, old pal, do you miss me? I wonder do you still care? Does your memory string to a yesterday? And picture two hearts that were light and gay. Won't you come back for I still love you my old pal of yesterday.
GROSS: Thank you so much for playing that for us. And that's my guest Norman Blake performing for us. And he has a new album which is called "Wood, Wire & Words."
So one of the people you perform with is your wife, Nancy Blake, who is a cellist and singer. You've - you got married about 40 years ago. But you divorced for a while and then you remarried again. How did you get back together if you don't mind my asking?
BLAKE: Well, the main thing that we like to say is our divorce didn't work out.
GROSS: (Laughter). That's good. Did music have anything to do with getting back together?
BLAKE: Oh, indirectly. But we just - we just couldn't get used to being apart so, you know.
GROSS: Norman Blake, thank you very much for talking with us and thank you for performing for us. It's really been a pleasure.
BLAKE: Thank you.
GROSS: Here's a track from Norman Blake's new album "Wood, Wire & Words." It features his wife, Nancy Blake. The song is called "There's A One Way Road To Glory."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE'S A ONE WAY ROAD TO GLORY")
BLAKE: (Singing). There's a one-way road to glory. Lay down your armor and your guns in lands both near and far. Stand up, my friend, for the rights of man and put an end to war, for there's a one-way road to glory. God's love shall lead us home. As a beacon bright through the starry night, his holy light shines on.
GROSS: Coming up, John Powers reviews a new novel that follows four college friends over three decades. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The writer Hanya Yanagihara is editor-at-large at Conde Nast Traveler, where she's worked for several years. Only a small handful of friends knew that she was also a novelist until the appearance of her much-praised 2013 debut "The People In The Trees," an anthropological adventure story about a nasty Nobel Prize-winning scientist who gets involved with a lost Micronesian tribe. Her new novel, "A Little Life," finds her working closer to home. It's a story of four male friends seeking their fortune in New York City. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says it's not for the timid, but this is one book you'll never forget.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: America is hooked on stories of redemption and rebirth, be it Cheryl Strayed rediscovering herself by hiking the Pacific Trail or the late David Carr pulling himself out of the crack house and into The New York Times. We just love tales about healing, but how far should we trust them? That's one of the many questions raised by "A Little Life," a new novel by Hanya Yanagihara, whose acclaimed debut, "The People In The Trees," came from seemingly nowhere 18 months ago.
This new book is long, page-turny (ph), deeply moving, sometimes excessive but always packed with the weight of a genuine experience. As I was reading, I literally dreamed about it every night. The book follows three decades in the life of four friends from a posh college. There's the kindhearted actor, Willem, and the self-centered artist, JB, of Haitian stock. There's the timorous would-be architect, Malcolm, born of a wealthy mixed-race family and the handsome, lame Jude, a brilliant attorney addicted to cutting himself. As the book begins, they've moved to New York to make their fortune, and over the next 700 pages - yes, 700 - we watch them rise, lose their bearings, fall in love, slide into squabbles and wrestle with life's inevitable tragedies.
Yanagihara has a keen eye for social detail, and reading her early riff on actors like Willem who work as waiters, you may think she's offering something familiar, a generational portrait like Mary McCarthy's "The Group" or the witty, emblematic realism of Jonathan Franzen. In fact, the book's apparent normalcy lures you into the woods of something darker, stranger and more harrowing. Turns out that everything largely orbits around one of the four, Jude, whose Gothic past Yanagihara slowly reveals. For those who want trigger warnings, consider yourself warned. Jude's tale has enough triggers for a Texas gun show. The poor guy may endure the harshest childhood in fiction, one that's equal parts Dickens, Sade and "Grimm's Fairy Tales." Evidentially named for the patron saint of the hopeless and despairing, Jude is treated so badly that I flashbacked to my mom reading me the book "Beautiful Joe," about a dog so cruelly abused that I melted into inconsolable weeping.
Yanagihara writes with even more trenchant position about the scars on the adult Jude's soul - the self-hatred and self-destructiveness, the yearning for love laced with utter mistrust, the baroque defense mechanisms he erects to keep anyone from learning who he really is. He struggles again and again in long, frustrating detail to recover from his past, along with support his friends, his doctor, Andy, and his law school mentor, Harold, who becomes a father figure.
Now, I should also warn you that these struggles become too much, as sometimes happens with a Cassavetes movie. Readers will be ready to move on, even if Jude is not. Then again, the book's driven obsessiveness is inseparable from the emotional force that will leave countless readers weeping. Besides, Jude's condition is Yanagihara's way of exploring larger issues. Even as the book pointedly challenges the neat, happy arc of popular redemption stories, people don't change, Jude decides. It calls on our imaginative sympathy.
Yanagihara is fascinated by how we understand minds very different from our own. Here, Jude's ghastly history puts you in a mental universe that his friends - and readers - must work to enter, not that this is impossible, mind you. He's no alien. Jude's guardedness makes him the heightened embodiment of the secret private self we all have, with our own calming rituals, mental hideaways and escape hatches.
While "A Little Life" is shot through with pain, it's far from being all dark. Jude's suffering finds its equipoise in the decency and compassion of those who love him. The book is a wrenching portrait of the enduring grace of friendship. With her sensitivity to everything from emotional nuance to play of light inside a subway car, Yanagihara is superb at capturing the radiant moments of beauty, warmth and kindness that help redeem the bad stuff. In "A Little Life," it's life's evanescent blessings that maybe, but only maybe, can save you.
GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed "A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. And don't forget, when you can't listen to FRESH AIR on the radio, you can listen to our podcast.
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