Tim Rakel’s Subterranean Library

Anyone who’s heard Tim Rakel’s music knows that he is a highly literate songwriter. The versatile folk-rock musician and host of KDHX’s Mystery Train program, Rakel works a rich vein of labor history, modernist literature, and urban lore into his songs. (And like Dylan before him, he’s unafraid to pinch a few lines if they sound right to him.) An ex-library staffer himself, Rakel kindly offered up and reflected upon some reading recommendations in advance of The Union Electric’s upcoming gig for the Library’s Not So Quiet! concert series.

The Union Electric will perform on Thursday, November 20 at 7:00 pm in Central Library’s auditorium — a space that used to be occupied by the coal cellar, which in this case couldn’t be more appropriate.

Henry Boernstein, Mysteries of St Louis 

Henry Boernstein’s writings and the title of this novel are the inspiration for two of The Union Electric’s songs “Mysteries of Saint Louis, Part One” and “…Part Two”. The first part was released as a single last year and it explores the state of the city and compares the view Boernstein had of it as an Austrian immigrant before the Civil War. Boernstein was a radical journalist who took part in the Union army’s victory at the arsenal. This novel contains a lot of description of a bygone Saint Louis.

Samuel Beckett, Watt

Samuel Beckett’s plays and novels such as Watt and another called Mercier and Camier are the inspiration behind an EP by The Union Electric called From Bad to Worstward. In Watt a manservant haplessly wanders between his tasks and thoughts. Waiting For Godot might be an easier introduction to the work of Beckett but this is actually a very funny and poignant work and worth the occasional tedium of some passages.

Lincoln Steffens, Shame of the Cities

An early song by The Union Electric called “You Have Been Served” was written because of this book which details the Saint Louis street car scandal of 1900. Joseph Folk was elected circuit attorney on a campaign promise to weed out corruption in city government. He ruined his political career but carried out his promise by exposing the people that had supported his nomination. Steffens’ book goes into the history of other cities as well but the Saint Louis portion is certainly worth looking into.

Vachel Lindsay, Selected Poems

Vachel Lindsay was a contemporary of Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters and is often considered an example of an early performance poet, traveling frequently through the country and reciting his verse for small audiences. A good deal of his verse is often musical when read aloud. He wrote about Illinois figures such as Lincoln and Altgeld as well as poems about religion, politics and nature. The song “Saint Francis Of Illinois” is a tribute by The Union Electric to this Springfield poet.

Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary

Novelist Victor Serge wrote this account of his life while in exile after many years of imprisonment in both Russia and France for his participation in various political movements. He was, at various times, jailed for being an anarchist, a communist, and an anti-communist. A fascinating figure of early twentieth century European history and an eloquent writer as well. The Union Electric’s song “Out In The Street” is derived from the first chapter of this memoir.

William T. Vollmann, Imperial

This imposing volume documents a region of the California border. The Union Electric’s song “Tunnels” was inspired from the chapter about the Chinese immigrants who lived underground as a result of persecution and economic necessity. On this subject, Vollmann’s investigative journalism takes him into restaurants and basements searching for traces of this subterranean culture.

These titles and other selections by Tim Rakel will be on display in the Entertainment, Literature, and Biography Room at Central Library throughout November.

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