My parents were big believers in serious music, which meant “classical.” I grew up to the sound of the New York Philharmonic’s Saturday afternoon broadcast floating through the house. But a few non-classical records managed to sneak into my parents’ collection, and I saw them recently, since my father had saved them all these years. I grew up listening to The World of Miriam Makeba, to Odetta Sings Ballads and the Blues, and to Joan Baez Volume 1. (Also to every Yiddish song that Theodore Bikel ever recorded—but that’s a different blog post.)
I’ve never strayed too far from those early influences, and I’m still listening to ballads, the blues, and all of the African-influenced music I can get my hands on.
For the last drafts of the book that became Sister of Mine, Sonny Landreth was my “get down to business” music. He’s best known for his only hit record, South of 1-10, but he’s had a long career as a blues- and zydeco-influenced guitarist and vocalist. In his songs, Sonny Landreth is often on a journey, and he was an ideal accompanist for the long and winding road that made my novel come to life. The notes of Elemental Journey, which started my playlist, got me underway every day; together, we were Outward Bound on The Road We’re On; we stopped for a breather Down in Louisiana, in Levee Town, and on Grant Street; and no matter where we journeyed, we were always Bound by the Blues.
But my first love in music, the sound of Africa in the African-American diaspora, was the heartbeat of the playlist that fueled my novel. I listened to the voices of Motown, both gritty and sweet; to the heart’s cry of soul in Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding; to Curtis Mayfield, singing of the street and the world to come. I listened to reggae, always delighting in the way that African music and African-American music call and respond to one another. And I listened to gospel. Sam Cooke is better known for his secular music, but the records he made with the Soul Stirrers still do their work—they speak of a love and hope and faith in a world beyond the one we know.
Now that I’m writing the sequel to Sister of Mine, I’ve added something else to the playlist. I just discovered Angelique Kidjo, the West African singer, whose voice is pure and limpid, and who sings a lot in Yoruba. I like to think that Rachel, whose grandmother was Yoruba, would enjoy hearing her. And I’ve come to love the work of the Manhattan Brothers, a South African vocal group popular in the late 1940s and 1950s, who sing a wonderful combination of doo-wop, jazz, and gospel in Xhosa and English. You don’t need to know a word of Xhosa to feel lifted up by their music.
On three of their biggest hits, they added a female vocalist with a lovely soaring voice. In listening to them, I found that I’d come full circle since my childhood. It’s Miriam Makeba.