Music to Write to: Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Standing in the Shadows of Motown (reviewed years ago by Roger Ebert) is a wonderful documentary about the men who were the "hidden figures" of Motown--the studio musicians who created some of the best-known riffs and melodies of 20th-century popular music. I like Joan Osborne a lot as a  performer, but her role as producer does her proud. The musicians thought of her as one of their own, and the moment when she sits with them, all of them pleased and smiling, is a lovely one.


The Argument Settler, Then and Now

I stumbled into my study late one night without my glasses on, and reached for what I thought was my cell phone. It was not. It was this:

Argument Settler.JPG

Published in 1896, it was the right size to fit in a man's vest pocket, and it was full of useful information for the day, such as the origin and names of fabrics (page 30); the number of trees on an acre (page 71); the distance traveled by a horse in plowing an acre of land (page 128); and the first lightning rods (page 236). It's not hard to imagine an know-it-all reaching for this volume in a bar in 1900 to smugly say, "I'll find the answer for you!"

But it is exactly the same size, and the same heft in the hand, as my 21st century version, the iPhone SE.



What I'm Reading

A lot of books that are making me cranky, either because they're boring me or they're frustrating me with their relative publishing success. When I'm in this mood I like to read books by long-dead authors. Anthony Trollope is my favorite. If you don't have the patience for his written oeuvre, the BBC's Palliser series makes an excellent substitute.

W. E. B. DuBois in Love

WEB DuBois_Battey LOC.jpg

William Burghardt DuBois is rightfully remembered for his scholarly achievement and his social activism, and his most familiar image is one of gravitas, like this formal portrait taken by photographer Cornelius Battey in 1919. But he was not always an elder statesman or a cultural icon.

In 1885, as a 17-year-old student at Fisk University, he fell "hopelessly in love," as he later recalled. Lena Calhoun was sixteen and not only beautiful; she was the daughter of the wealthiest black man in Reconstruction Atlanta, Moses Calhoun. She would become great-aunt to Lena Horne, and DuBois, who had occasion to observe them both, later wrote that "as fair as Lena Horne is, Lena Calhoun was far more beautiful."

He loved in vain. In 1888, Lena Calhoun married Frank G. Smith, another Fisk classmate, and  Willie, as he was known at the time, had to nurse a broken heart.

The quotes from DuBois and the story (as well as photographs of Lena Calhoun) can be found in Gail Lumet Buckley's family history and memoir, The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights.


What I'm Reading: Plain Kate, Erin Bow

The Tolkien tradition has cast such a long shadow over the literature of fantasy that it's refreshing to read a fantasy in a setting that is rooted instead in Eastern Europe. I found Erin Bow's book Plain Kate appealing from the outset for its a dark and brooding Slavic cast. But it's equally compelling as a story, with an utterly believable magical quest and a talking cat, rendered completely without cloying sentiment.

Music to Write To: The Manhattan Brothers, Patience and Fortitude

Still waiting...still antsy...

I know this song in the Manhattan Brothers version, but there's also more famous cover by the Andrews Sisters (who were one of the inspirations for the Manhattan Brothers' South African contemporaries, the Skylarks). There's also a version by the jazz singer Valaida Snow, who may--or may not! have been imprisoned by the Nazis in Denmark in 1941.

And thanks to the randomness that is Google search, I now know that Patience and Fortitude are also the names of the lions who flank the entrance to the New York Public Library at 42nd Street.

The Freedmen's Bureau Project

Most people don't rejoice to find out that 19th-century banking records have been preserved, but writers of historical fiction are notoriously weird, and I was more than delighted to discover that the Freedmen's Bureau project had 1) decided to help people use the records associated with organizations for newly-freed slaves for genealogical research and 2) was directing them to the bank records in particular.

The bankers collected information on all of their account holders, going beyond the expected data of gender, age, address, and occupation to ask their customers about their place of origin and their families, both the ones they had created through marriage as well as the ones they had lost during slavery. I have pored over the Atlanta records for 1870 and they are full of stories.

But the Freedmen's Bureau website has captivated me for another reason--the images they use to connect the present and the past. They meld the historic and the contemporary in a wonderful way--like this image of two young women, and this one, of two young men. I can't  remember when I have seen a better visual metaphor.

What I'm Reading: Sea View Secret

Sea View Secret Cover.jpg

Rather, what I recall reading. I read this book when I was in grade school and it popped into my mind a few weeks ago. It's a pitch-perfect mysetery story, set in a suburban neighborhood that has one old house remaining--the house that contains a secret.

It's still in print--but I suddenly had a yearning to see the cover of the edition I read. These days, I'm more inclined to read ebooks than print, and tell myself that I don't really care about the heft of a volume or the appearance of a cover. But that cover was more evocative than I realized.

Music To Write To: Jimmy Cliff, Sitting in Limbo

I've mentioned Jimmy Cliff's "You Can Get it if You Really Want" before, but this week, as I wait to hear from my editor about the direction my next book should take, I find myself inspired by "Sitting in Limbo." Cliff wrote it after the death of his long-time producer, Leslie Kong, as he searched his soul as to how he should proceed in his musical career. He began to produce his own work, and made a success of it. As an independent--and impatient!--author, it helps me to know how he felt before he did so.

Music To Write To: The Manhattan Brothers

As much as I like the music that grew from the song traditions of West Africa, South African music gives it a good run for the money. I especially like the moment in South African music when singers, musicians and producers discovered American musical forms that had been influenced by Africa in the first place--jazz and doowop.

Like one of my favorite groups, the Manhattan Brothers.


Hidden Figures: Genetic Surprises

As more people take DNA tests to reveal their ancestry, more people are learning that along with the ancestry they always knew about, there's some sub-Saharan Africa in there, too. One of the DNA testing services, 23andMe, has reported on a study that estimates that 4 percent of whites in the United States have at least 1 percent or more of African ancestry. That's a fair number of people to be surprised.

(I was not surprised by my own DNA test. It was the other way around.)

So the question that came to Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s on his website The Root, "A DNA Test Says I’m Part Black. How Do I Embrace That?" is a sign of the times. News that would have been devastating decades ago is now intriguing, and to be treated with respect.

Professor Gates' advice: ease into it.


What I'm Reading: Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Warrior

I'm glad to see fantasy rooted in the culture and the spirit of Africa--in this case, Nigeria, contemporary and mythical. I particularly enjoyed the way Okorafor intertwined a  portrayal of the life of well-to-do urban Nigerians with mythical elements, real and fantastical.

Also, as someone who pays attention to these things, the book has a wonderful cover.


Music To Write To: Curtis Harding

When I first heard this song I thought that Curtis Harding was a Motown great I'd somehow missed. I heard echoes of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Smokey Robinson in his voice. He is indeed from Michigan and steeped in the musical traditions of gospel and soul, but his latest album came out in 2017.

Here's the title song: "Face Your Fear."

Music To Write To: I Shall Not Be Moved

Most of us know this song as a civil rights anthem, in the form of "We Shall Not Be Moved." It began its life as an African-American spiritual, with its roots in slavery, but was first published as a hymn late in the 19th century, and has been sung both as a hymn and a song of protest ever since.

I like Johnny Cash's version, for the purity of the lyrics, and Mississippi John Hurt's, for the beauty of the arrangement. For anyone who wants to recall the Movement, there is also a 1964 cover by The Seekers.



What I'm Reading: Jo Walton

Even though I read a lot of historical fiction, I like science fiction and fantasy, especially books where the two genres collide. Jo Walton's book Among Others tells an unusual coming-of-age story. The narrator, a fifteen-year-old girl who is an outsider at her English private school, is entranced by science fiction. But she can also see fairies--dark and shadowy ones--and feel the effects of magic, also dark and shadowy.  I was entranced, too--I stayed up too late reading it.