“The Songs of Betty Baach” Is a Modern High Lonesome Ballad with a ray of hope

by Jody DiPerna

Glenn Taylor’s home state of West Virginia inspires his fiction. He tells stories of the resilience, struggle and joy of working people. There are labor battles, timbering, and coal mining; there is murder, environmental calamity and activism. Taylor grew up in Huntington and now lives in Morgantown, where he teaches at West Virginia University. His new book, “The Songs of Betty Baach,” just released by University of Massachusetts Press, is the winner of the Juniper Prize for fiction.

“Bend me your ear and I’ll tell you a story about everything,” Betty Baach says. 

And with that, Taylor introduces us to Betty’s inimitable voice. 

“I kind of heard it like a song,” Taylor said. “The people I want to listen to are women. I want to listen to my Aunt Linda and my grandmother. I don’t really want to listen to a man.” 

He also listened to poets — the singular Lucille Clifton and the great West Virginia poet, Louise McNeill. He read and re-read their poetry while working on this book, wrapping himself in his long-time love affairs with both Clifton and McNeill. Their spirits are present on every page. All the poetry floating around in Taylor’s head and heart and hands comes through in the 33 story-songs that make up “Betty Baach.” 

Taylor loves to write characters who simply endure and sometimes live biblically long lives. We meet Betty in the year 2038 in her homeplace on Freon Hill, West Virginia. She is 321 years old. Because Betty lives such a long life, she has to bury everybody she’s ever loved. The price to pay for a sort of immortality is a lifetime of grief in which she is able to find a sort of grace and purpose. 

“Remembering is merciful work,” she says. 

In 2038, planet earth is not faring well and, in this country, right wing extremists have taken over. This is a common theme in dystopian literature, especially that connected to Appalachia — from Silas House’s “Lark Ascending,” to Alison Stine’s “Trashlands” — all are sparked by environmental cataclysm, aided and abetted by extremists and venture capitalists. 

“I couldn’t write this book from the present,” Taylor said. “I had to write it from the future because I was just nervous and wanted to get my anxieties out through some sort of alternative future. I don’t necessarily think this is how it will be in 2038 — but that world that she is telling from could very easily be if our ship isn’t righted.”

Betty never stops fighting for women and working folks. Through a life which spans the time of white colonialism and the genocide of native peoples, slavery and Jim Crow, minewars and the coming of climate change and climate change deniers, she became an assassin and an activist. 

She says, “I will never bend an ear to the authors of our misery.” 

“I was alive when the foreman said a mule was worth more than a man. Before that time, it was the other way around and, later, it would be so again. I’m still waiting on the day when worth sees its end, a day when we can start to begin. Maybe it’ll be tomorrow. I surely know it wasn’t yesterday,” Betty tells us. 

“It is weird to live in a state that is, pretty much at this point, entirely thought of as a sacrifice zone,” Taylor said. 

Through art, through her song-telling, Betty is able to tell the story of her place, her story, and our story, too. For Taylor, Betty was a way to tell some true stories readers may not now, as her  songs are peppered with references to real women who laid their lives on the line for change. 

Betty crosses paths with Lucy Parsons (a woman who was born into slavery who became a radical labor organizer and one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World), Memphis Tennessee Garrison (a McDowell County teacher and activist who established the Gary Branch of the NAACP and helped to pass an anti-lynching bill in the state), and Ancella Radford Bickley (a Huntington native who has worked tirelessly to preserve Black history in West Virginia.) 

“Ancella Bickley has done so much good work bringing the Carter G. Woodson Center and a lot of Black history awareness to Marshall (University) and Huntington in general,” Taylor said. Through Betty, Taylor can at least pay small tribute to these women whose stories have not been told in classrooms and in larger media. 

 “How much skin does a woman have to put in the game to get in the story? There’s no time to even make up for all of them, so you just have to tell the ones you can,” Taylor said. 

Each song tells part of Betty’s story, a memory here, an allegory there, and adventure in the next song. Her songs follow an emotional throughline, rather than a linear one, and as her  memories bump into one another, they create a journey akin to a great album, rather than a history. She has lived so many lifetimes, you’ll forgive her if she recollects like a collage rather than a straight line. There is, though, a throughline and Taylor layers on paint and texture as Betty reveals herself to you. She’ll remind you of important things. 

Betty says, “I am not a robot and neither are you.” 

Glenn Taylor will read at White Whale Books on Wednesday, April 5 with Jenny Johnson.

(cover art by Glenn Taylor)