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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: The Spirit of Appalachian Music

Appalachian music

“We don’t charge for tickets, because sometimes hungry people need music the most.” (The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, pp. 365)

One of my favorite aspects of Suzanne Collins new book, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, is the role of music woven through the story. For Lucy Gray and the Covey, music is central to their lives. Music provides their livelihood; songs define their heritage. They even inherit their names from ballads.

Through their songs, they bring laughter and smiles to a community where such simple pleasures are in short supply. We see this from the first moment we set eyes of Lucy Gray. She sashays across the stage at the reaping, every ounce of her song exuding confidence. And Lucy’s song captivates everyone from the Capitol citizens to the Peacekeepers in District Twelve to the children surrounding the stage.

Music cuts to the heart of what makes us human. It connects people, with reminders of joy and sorrow. Lucy Gray reminded others how to have fun, as Pluribus notes to Coriolanus, and she moves the hearts of those around her (pp. 165). When lost in music, we’re all just people. People brought to tears by sorrowful songs, who can’t help but laugh and clap along to cheerful tunes. Music nourishes the spirit, and the people of the Capitol and Districts desperately needed nourishment.

The Spirit of Appalachian Music: Stubborn Hope

As well as showing the power of music in general, I think Lucy Gray and the Covey’s songs perfectly capture the spirit of Appalachian music in particular. Appalachian art has a stubbornness to it. A tinge of hope that almost dares the listener to disagree. Many songs, even on sorrowful topics, have a quicker pace or a twang to the words that makes them sound daring, confident. For example, “Hangman”, a folksong sung by Jean Ritchie, tells the slightly dark story of a man about to be hung and hoping that someone coming has the fee needed to rescue him. But it’s upbeat, it’s fun, and it’s hopeful, as he continues to convince the hangman to wait just a little longer for his love to come with the gold.

This stubborn boldness and hope comes through in Suzanne Collins’s songs as well, especially in “Nothing You Can Take From Me,” and in “The Ballad of Lucy Gray Baird.” The first song, which Lucy sang at the reaping, is defiant. The speaker in the song refuses to be broken down or changed by those who hurt her, and Lucy also refuses to be silenced by the Capitol, or by the Mayor and his daughter.

In “The Ballad of Lucy Gray Baird,” the note of hope seems less, as she talks about her expected death. But her challenging confidence remains, self-assured in her identity. She seems to pity Billy Taupe more than herself, because he lost more than she did. She stands tall in this song, not asking for any pity for her circumstances, but reminding Billy of what he’s abandoned.

The Spirit of Appalachian Music: Simple Beauty

Appalachian art–whether in storytelling or music– also emphasizes simple beauty. The tunes, the instruments, the lyrics–they aren’t extravagant, overly polished, or posh. Grand pianos and orchestra sets are traded for a guitar, a fiddle, a banjo. Opera-level shows of skill take a back seat to tunes an audience can sing along with and husky voices. Appalachian music isn’t just about putting on a show; it’s about telling a story or sharing an experience.

And in sharing an experience, Appalachian music highlights the everyday parts of life. It doesn’t sugarcoat the hardships (as you can see in songs like “You’ll Never leave Harlan Alive“), but it still finds the fun and good in the ordinary. Honest, beautiful simplicity characterizes Appalachian music and storytelling. That same honest, simple beauty colors the songs of Lucy Gray and the Covey.

When Coriolanus goes to see the Covey’s show at the Hob, he can’t help but tap out the beat to “That Thing I Love With” with his heel. The audience cheers and sings along, and they’re fed by the music. As Lucy says, sometimes hungry people need music the most. They need it because of the experience of something beautiful. Something fun; a chance to cry and laugh and forget for just a moment the worries of the day. To remember that the world still has something lovely to offer.

Final Thoughts:

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes has become my favorite book in the Hunger Games world, partially because of Lucy Gray and the Covey. They bring color and life to the people around them, and I absolutely love them. I also now have this problem, where I really want to sit and listen to their music…only it doesn’t exist.

There are a few versions that people have made available on Youtube. Maiah Wanye’s created some beautiful covers of many of the songs in the book.  Emma Lee’s versions are also lovely, and much closer to what I imagined when I read the lyrics. But unfortunately, neither of them quite capture what I heard in my head. (And perhaps that’s a good thing, for I’m no musician). Ah well, reader’s discontent.

All that to say, if you haven’t read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes yet, I highly recommend it! And if you have read it, what was your favorite song in the book?


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