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May 27, 2009

Book Notes - Danzy Senna ("Where Did You Sleep Last Night?")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

In Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History Danzy Senna explores her family history and her own life growing up as a multi-racial child in an unexpectedly gripping and fascinating memoir.

The Miami Herald wrote of the book:

"Senna's spare style allows her to maintain control of this emotionally painful material. Although the narrative is jumpy and fragmented, its energy never flags. Her descriptive skills are precise, with humor and humanity shining through at unexpected moments. An impressive feat, packing so much into a short book."

In her own words, here is Danzy Senna's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History:

Huddie Leadbelly - "Where Did You Sleep Last Night (black girl)?"

I used this song for the title of my book. An old Blues favorite, later covered by rock bands like Nirvana, it is haunting and melancholy and is about a black woman who lies about where she slept last night. It made me think of my grandmother, who had children by two different men – one of whom abandoned her, and the other who wouldn’t acknowledge her as his mistress.

Erskine Hawkins - "Tuxedo Junction"

My grandmother was a gifted musician who in her youth at the historically black college, Alabama State Teachers College, was a classmate and member of Erskine Hawkins’ band. My grandmother, Anna Maria Senna, was one of the unacknowledged composers of this famous big band hit.

Pete Seeger - "We Shall Overcome"

My grandfather, Mark DeWolfe Howe, was a leftist lawyer who taught Constitutional Law at Harvard. He famously once played protest folk singer Pete Seeger to his Harvard law class in the 1950s. This song is of course the old Civil Rights Movement favorite.

Percy Sledge - "The Dark End of the Street"

This song was recorded in 1967, the year my parents – an interracial couple - first met. It is about an illicit affair – and reminds me of all the "taboo" relationships that have occurred to create my multiracial family – in particular my black grandmother’s long affair with a white Catholic priest.

Clifton Chenier - "Louisiana Two Step"

My father and I traveled to Louisiana, his birthplace, when I wrote this book. It was there that I first heard Zyedeco music and saw the land and culture – the South – which had formed my father and grandfather.

Aretha Franklin - "I’ve Been Loving You Too Long"

I kept listening to this song as I wrote my memoir. It is both a gospel song – deeply soulful – and a romantic ballad and reminds me of why Aretha Franklin’s voice still reigns supreme.

Al Green - "Jesus Is Waiting"

One of the most beautiful existential songs ever.

The Five Blind Boys of Alabama - "Motherless Child"

I like this version of the great Negro spiritual, it relates to my book directly in that my grandmother was an orphan who then orphaned her children (temporarily for some, permanently for others). The song is also of course a metaphor for black people in America – "a long way from home."

Fleetwood Mac - "Landslide"

A daughter speaking to her father, the fear of an avalanche falling on her head.

Lauren Hill - "For Zion"

A great song about being pregnant with a son. I was pregnant with my first son when I wrote this book.

Nas - "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)"

One of my favorite rap songs, speaks to my hope for my sons that they will grow in a world that does not limit them, in which everything is possible. "If I ruled the world, Imagine that, I'd free all my sons, I love em, love em baby…"

Danzy Senna and Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History links:

the author's book tour events
excerpt from the book

Miami Herald review
My American Meltingpot review
The Root review
Time Out New York review

Memoirville interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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