Wiley Cash’s third novel, The Last Ballad, is set in and around Gastonia, North Carolina, during the textile workers’ strike of 1929. The central character is Ella May Wiggins, who bravely offered her voice to the union strikes, writing and singing songs which captured the spirit of the labour movement. Here, Wiley Cash selects a playlist to go alongside the novel and reflects on the power of folk songs.
‘I’ve Endured’ – Ola Belle Reed
There’s a toughness to Reed’s voice and a drive in these lyrics that I know Ella May would appreciate. “I’ve Endured” could be her theme song. I listened to it a lot when thinking about how to portray Ella’s struggle on the page.
‘Blue Ridge Mountains’ – Fleet Foxes
The Fleet Foxes’ sound is so mysterious and haunting, much like the Blue Ridge Mountains themselves. This song makes me feel the uncertainty and overwhelming possibility I imagine Ella felt as she and John descended the mountains for the mills in the South Carolina upstate where their lives would change forever.
‘Old Shoes’ – Tom Waits
This song is told from the perspective of a man who’s leaving a woman he’s pretty certain he never loved. I imagine John could have felt this way about Ella, especially after their lives began to come apart after so many years of struggle. But I don’t think John was nearly as sensitive or decent as the man in this song.
‘Daisy Bell’ – Dinah Shore
This song was very popular in the early twentieth century. It’s about loving someone who may be above your social standing, but perhaps your love is enough. In the novel, Katherine is listening to this song on the night of her daughter’s engagement party, and she’s reflecting on her marriage and wondering if the love she once felt for her husband will be enough.
‘The Night We Met’ – Lord Huron
Katherine and her husband Richard are recalling the first time they met years ago. Who were they then? Are they still the same people now? Can they find their way back to being the people who’d once seemed so pure and interesting and kind?
‘Two Little Blackbirds’ – Charlie Hope
I sing this song to our daughters every night, and I always change the words and put their names in it: “Two little blackbirds flying to the moon; One name Early, one named June; Fly away Early, fly away June; Come back Early, come back June.”
‘Mississippi Goddam’ – Nina Simone
This is a powerful protest song written and performed by one of the most socially active and politically engaged musicians in American history. There’s rage here, but there’s also intense sadness. These are the emotions Hampton is feeling as he travels south to organize African American workers for the union.
‘Can’t Buy My Love’ – Barbara Lynn
This song feels bright and charming, but if you give it a good listen it’s tough and wise, and that’s exactly how I would describe Ella’s friend Violet, especially when Violet suspects that Hampton may be hitting on her.
‘Bright Morning Stars’ – The Wailin’ Jennys
The lyrics in this song are so beautiful, but the melody feels like a funeral dirge. I wanted readers to feel similarly conflicted on the morning Ella sets out to travel to a rally for the last time. We’re proud of who she’s become, but we’re heartbroken by what that means.
‘Feel Like Going Home’ – Charlie Rich
At the end, Brother must confront who he’s become while also looking back on who he was. How did the mistakes he made earlier in his life lead to tragic consequences for others? This song captures the melancholy that comes with the realization that the past is gone; you can’t change it, and you can’t outrun the ways in which it will follow you.
‘Big Country’ – Edgar Meyer ft. Mike Marshall and Bela Fleck
I was listening to this song the first time I sat down to work on The Last Ballad after we moved home to North Carolina from West Virginia in the summer of 2013. It was a spiritual moment for me. I wrote my first novel, A Land More Kind than Home, in Louisiana and my second novel, This Dark Road to Mercy, in West Virginia. The Last Ballad is the only novel I’ve worked on while living in my native North Carolina.
‘Gastonia’ – The Star Room Boys
I was so thrilled to learn that someone had written a song about my hometown. I don’t know that there’s much of a relationship between this song and The Last Ballad but both the song and the novel are set in Gastonia, which is reason enough to include the Star Room Boys here.
Playlist original posted by Largehearted Boy here: