June 20, 2014
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Anna Clark's writing has always impressed me, and she proves herself a talented editor as well with A Detroit Anthology. These essays, stories, poetry, and photographs from a diverse group of writers offer a mesmerizing portrait of the city's past, present, and future.
The Millions wrote of the book:
"... the book’s greatest strength is the various ways the contributors acknowledge that understanding Detroit’s history is the key to understanding its current condition and its possible ways forward."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
This is a city is steeped in music, and the whole world knows it. It was no surprise, then, to find the pieces that came to make up A Detroit Anthology are riven with songs and rhythm. The book is sorted as if it were a theatrical work—it opens with an overture, and moves through two acts and an intermission—and that arrangement didn't occur to me until after I had made the final selection. An utterly organic music emerged out of these pieces—their prose and poetry, their heat and candor. In editing this anthology, it was a joy to listen for it (and, implicitly, to offer a bit of my own song).
We are in a city where we are simplified into spectacle. Amidst the squalor of bankruptcy, emergency management, and deindustrialization, we are also unusually cinematic—those striking empty streets, the miles of empty buildings once called homes. But people live here. People invent music here. It is almost the same thing.
Here is the beginning, then, of our playlist:
"Never Grow Old" by Aretha Franklin
Joe Von Battle was the first to record the voice of Aretha, the young daughter of famed Detroit pastor C.L. Franklin. She sang in the church choir. Von Battle, who owned a record store in the city's historic Black Bottom neighborhood, produced her first record in the back Joe's Record Shop: she was fourteen years old when her rendition of the gospel song, "Never Grow Old" was pressed into vinyl. It wasn't her only recording with the charismatic record shop man: he produced many more gospel songs by the teenager who enjoyed playing around on the piano in his store, before she finally moved onto larger record labels. Von Battle also recorded John Lee Hooker, Willie John, Johnny Bassett, Jackie Wilson, Sonny Boy Williamson, and many others.
Marsha Music tells the story of Von Battle, her father, in her one-woman show: "Requiem for a Record Shop Man." In an essay called "The Kidnapped Children of Detroit"—Music's contribution to A Detroit Anthology—she writes another kind of requiem: what it feels like to grow up in a city that is emptying out. She writes:
I wonder if some worried that their daytime public neighborliness contrasted with their nighttime kitchen table planning, their plotting to get out of the neighborhood as soon as they could manage. … But one by one, the white families left their old homes, tree-lined streets—and us—behind.
One can't help but think back to the song that Aretha Franklin recorded with Music's father: "I have heard of a land on the far away strand…"
"It's Like That" by Run-DMC
"That's my jam!" In the funny and charming essay "Awakening," Maisha Hyman Sumbry writes about encountering the music of Run-DMC for the first time. She's waiting at a bus stop in Detroit on a hot summer day. The sixth grader is munching on Better Maid Hot Chips and drinking Pepsi. Lynara ("one of the cool girls – but not too cliquish to allow me") is waiting with her, loudly complaining about the heat. But then Lynara catches the sound of hip-hop coming out of a car parked at a nearby gas station. "It's the jam, right?" She promptly starts rocking side to side, doing the Errol Flynn, while Maisha is still trying to grasp the group's name and music: "That don't even sound right." And Maisha stands "in stark opposition to things that made no sense." Why does her father have nice things and her mother doesn't? Why can some coupons get you a discount food and other coupons can be used like money to pay for food?
It takes some time, and a persuasive Lynara, before Run-DMC's beats sink in: "I feel my neck become convinced."
"Misguided Faith" by Johnny Mercer
On a summer day, Karen Minard is sitting in her living room when she gets a phone call from a woman in New York. The woman is compiling a songbook of Johnny Mercer's work.
She says, I understand he collaborated with your husband.
"Ex-husband," I correct her, but she ignores my rebuff.
In her anthology essay, "Misguided Faith," Minard writes about how the questions of a music historian trigger emotional pain—her ex had been abusive and violent, to the point of making headline news at the Los Angeles Times. But the music historian does not know this. The music historian wants only to confirm dates, spellings, places of birth. Minard wants to scream at her—"Why the hell are you calling me? Call his sister! Call his family! Don't you know that man caused me more grief than you have the right to make resurface?" But instead, she says, "He was a bit of a character, you know."
"Won't Do" by J Dilla
One of the most acclaimed producers and rappers to emerge from 1990s Detroit, J Dilla died too young of a blood disease. But his influence is still felt not only throughout the music industry, but also in the next generation of Detroit hip-hop artists. In "Game Not Over," Veronica Grandison writes about the talent here that grew up in the shadow of J Dilla, Eminem, and renowned venues like The Shelter (of 8 Mile fame). Rather than skating by on the told and re-told stories of legends, Grandison details how Detroit hip-hop stays alive: venues and showcases that are more friendly to performers, giving them the creative freedom the freedom they need to thrive. Spaces are being created that, purposefully, creates room for people shut out of early-era hip-hop; The Foundation, for example is a regular showcase specifically for female hip-hop artists like Invincible, Miz Korona, and Piper Carter.
"Won't Do" is the closing track of The Shining, and it is the only song to feature J Dilla rapping by himself. But I actually love the instrumental version of the song best: its cool steady drive feels both soulful and hallucinatory.
"What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" by Jimmy Ruffin
In the summer of 1966, for Motown Records, Jimmy Ruffin recorded one of the greatest songs of heartbreak. Suitably, the lyrics are dark: "As I walk this land of broken dreams/I have visions of many things/But happiness is just an illusion/Filled with sadness and confusion…"
But the music, and most certainly, Ruffin's performance, sound bright, rousing … cheery, even. And it is the dissonance between lyrics and the rest that the song gains its power.
Talk about your classic Detroit song! This is a brokenhearted city. And yet, the driving swell of music and beauty buoys us up. It is both dissonant, and powerful.
In the anthology, Keith A. Owens writes that, "wherever Detroit goes from here, if Detroit music isn't helping to steer the wheel then we're bound to wind up lost." He's right. There is a wonderful documentary about the Motown house band called "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" (which features Joan Osborne's crushing cover of this song). It tells the story of how the unheralded musicians were mistreated even in what is often remembered as the "glory days" of Detroit music, despite playing on more number one hits than Elvis, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles combined. As with so many things: this time, let's do it better.
"God is Love" by Marvin Gaye / "O Mio Babbino Caro" by Maria Callas
Shaka Senghor remembers growing up next door to a "festive Italian family" at a time when his east side Detroit neighborhood was full of fruit trees, playing children, and diverse families. "We gave them collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and Marvin Gaye, and they gave us linguine, lasagna and opera."
"You Know How To Love Me" by Phyllis Hyman
In the anthology, francine j. harris chronicles the things buried under Detroit's Charles F. Kettering Sr. High School, her alma mater. There is blood. Lost retainers. Afro picks. Candle wax from a vigil for a football player who collapsed in his coach's arms. Brass knuckles. Phone lists for abortion clinics. Bus passes from the 1960s. And there is a Phyllis Hyman album cover.
"We Almost Lost Detroit" by Gil Scott-Heron
Because didn't we?
Anna Clark and A Detroit Anthology links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists