A.D. Nauman’s Down the Steep is a thought-provoking and unforgettable novel.
Rebecca Makkai wrote of the book:
“An engaging novel and a beautiful coming-of-age story.”
My novel, Down the Steep, is set during the Civil Rights era in southeast Virginia, “Tidewater,” where I mostly grew up. The protagonist, Willa McCoy, is the strong-minded daughter of a Klansman. Initially she idolizes her important father and longs to be just like him, but Dick McCoy wants everyone, including girls, to keep in their place. The events of the story cause Willa to reexamine and finally reject the racist and misogynistic culture she’s been born into.
All but one of the songs listed below would have been heard on the radio in Tidewater in 1963-1964. Although choosing music from that era wasn’t a requirement for this column, music is obviously an essential part of any culture, and Down the Steep explores how a particular cultural context shapes the individuals in it. Music deeply affects how we feel and what we think. Lyrics stream through our heads every day. What assumptions and priorities are being imparted? Which cultural beliefs are being reinforced, and which are being challenged? What feelings are evoked as we drive along a winding street on a Saturday morning listening to the AM radio in our Oldsmobile Super 88?
“Take Good Care of My Baby,” Bobby Vee
Bobby Vee was a great heart-throb in the early 1960s, though I admit I don’t quite see it. In the old performances I watched on Youtube, Bobby Vee appears in a suit and tie, with no microphone, just standing there singing, sometimes snapping his fingers. But this song is an example of the late 1950s/early ‘60s sound that would have been ubiquitous at the time, a somewhat warbly, whiny male plea for love. Soon this sound would be displaced by the edgier legacies of Buddy Holly, British bands, and Motown.
In an early scene in Down the Steep, Willa’s older brother and sister are entertaining friends in their living room as friend Patsy spins forty-fives. Bobby Vee’s tune is one of them. The boys begin to make fun of the girls’ taste in music, and a struggle ensues over who gets to choose the records. This is not about whose taste is better—this is about claiming power. Ultimately the power to choose what is heard lands with the wealthiest white boy in the group.
“It’s My Party (and I’ll Cry if a I want to),” Lesley Gore
This is another record Patsy wants to play at the McCoys’ party, and when the boys ridicule it, Patsy defends it. Like singer Lesley Gore, Patsy is a budding feminist without quite realizing it. Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique had just been released in 1963, and an earnest conversation about what our culture was doing to women had not quite begun. Yet while other female vocalists sang longingly about finding a man, Lesley Gore was defiantly singing, “You don’t own me.”
On the surface, “It’s My Party” seems like a teeny-bopper tale about a girl who’s upset when another girl steals her boyfriend at her birthday party. Indeed, that is the premise. But think about Gore’s unflinching proclamation: “I’ll cry if I want to.” This is a response to someone telling her not to cry—and why would someone be telling her that? So she doesn’t make other people feel uncomfortable? So as not to be unladylike? Crying in front of party guests would be an unacceptably open expression of emotion, and emotion was considered a female trait. Gore is not going to suppress her feelings just because they might make others feel uncomfortable: she will not be told what she can and can’t do.
“That’ll Be the Day,” Buddy Holly
In the 1960s, musical preferences divided the generations, with teens’ predilection for rock-and-roll being a form of rebellion. In Down the Steep, Dick McCoy refers to rock-and-roll as “jungle music.” I learned this offensive phrase from an older friend of mine, whose father—a Chicago-born businessman—used it to disparage rock-and-roll in the 1950s and ‘60s.
This Buddy Holly song plays on the McCoys’ AM car radio the morning they drive into town for school supplies. To Willa’s surprise, her father does not angrily turn it off, and her mother begins to sing along: everyone in the family is relaxed and cheerful that morning, a rare occurrence, and Willa begins to feel a sense of belonging, which she constantly craves. The theme of belonging is critical in Down the Steep.
“Autumn Leaves,” Roger Williams
“Autumn Leaves,” an instrumental piece, is the type of music Dick McCoy and his friends would have liked in the early ‘60s. Performed live by Roger Williams on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, the trilling tune often aired on the radio thereafter. Ironically, “Autumn Leaves” was popular among beginning jazz musicians because of its chord progressions.
“Little Deuce Coupe,” Beach Boys
The Beach Boys would have played regularly on Tidewater radio in that era. Virginia Beach is only an hour’s drive from Willa’s fictitious town of Kingsfield. “Little Deuce Coupe,” on the B side of “Surfer Girl,” is meaningful because of Willa’s love of cars, which is both an expression of her non-gender conformity and a plot point—Willa can recognize the Klansmen’s vehicles from a distance.
“Only in America,” Jay and the Americans
This bouncy tune, topping the charts in Tidewater in 1962, expresses a young man’s amazement that a “classy girl like you” could fall for “a poor boy” like him. His claim that this could happen only in America is amplified by the rest of the lyrics: “Only in America/Can a guy from anywhere/Go to sleep a pauper and wake up a millionaire… Only in America/Can a kid without a cent/Get a break and maybe grow up to be President.” The idea of America as a land of opportunity, where anyone can grow up to be president—regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender—is still overly optimistic. Nevertheless, that cultural belief persists.
“She Loves You,” the Beatles
WGH in Tidewater was among the first to play the Beatles in the US. Although Dick Biondi at Chicago’s WGN is credited with the very first airing of a Beatles song in the US, in March, 1963, Gene Loving on WGH was playing the Beatles by late 1963. The arrival of the Beatles heralded more change, with more unsettling of the old order.
“Heatwave,” Martha & the Vandellas
The unsettling continued with the emergence of Motown, the now legendary independent record company founded by a Black man in Detroit in 1959. “Heatwave” hit Tidewater’s WGH charts in September of 1963, roughly corresponding to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Martha & the Vandellas, a soul-pop vocal trio, rivaled the Supremes as Motown’s premier female group after the company’s founding.
Dick McCoy and his friends would have enjoyed watching Martha & the Vandellas perform—three beautiful women in shiny, tight dresses shimmying and singing. The men would have been intrigued by the song’s heart-felt articulation of female desire. They would not have felt threatened by the girl group, as they did by Black men, and they would not have made a connection between these dark-skinned singers and their own white daughters, who were undoubtedly pure and free of such desire. Willa, on the brink of that desire, would have let the song arouse those feelings and reveled in them. “Heatwave” is also pertinent for this list because it’s really, really hot in southeast Virginia.
“He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” the Hollies
Recorded in 1969, this song is emblematic of how that decade ended. The ballad expresses a degree of generosity that sounds almost shocking to 21st-century American ears. The singer proclaims that carrying someone heavy with need down a long, treacherous road is not a burden, because his heart is so full of love for this person. The title derives from a story told by a 19th-century Scottish minister: a tiny girl is seen struggling up a hill carrying a large baby boy, and when someone asks her if she isn’t tired, she answers with surprise, “He’s not heavy; he’s my brother.”
In the early 1960s, several white ministers in Tidewater supported school integration, arguing for it in letters to newspaper editors. A willingness to help a person in need because we are all brothers (and sisters) was, in that era, considered “Christian.” It wasn’t until the 1970s that evangelicals appropriated the term for their anti-woman, anti-gay political movement. “His welfare is my concern” is a sentiment straight out the Gospels, which really do not contain parables admonishing us to oppress women and LGBTQ people.
“He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” was an international hit for the Hollies, and lead vocalist Allan Clarke presents an interesting contrast to the singer we began this list with, early ‘60s heart-throb Bobby Vee. Shiny-faced, petit-framed Bobby Vee is the kind of boy you’d introduce to your daddy at the country club; wild-haired Allan Clarke, tall and shirtless and oozing sexuality, is the kind of guy you want to ride off on a motorcycle with. By the end of the 1960s, “Women’s Lib” had sanctioned female desire. By the end of that decade, social justice genuinely felt within reach.
“A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke
American singer-songwriter Sam Cooke wrote this song in 1963, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and tired of the discrimination he and his family and friends repeatedly faced. Cooke and his group had been turned away from a whites-only motel in Shreveport, Louisiana, where they were to perform. When they complained loudly, they were arrested for disturbing the peace.
It’s been 60 years since Sam Cooke recorded this song. Hearing it now underscores how much change still is needed. Hearing it now pulls the heart out of your chest.
A.D. Nauman is an author and literacy educator in Chicago. Her second novel, Down the Steep, was recently released by Regal House Publishing. Visit A.D. at adnauman.com, and subscribe to her monthly newsletter, written for writers about the writing life.