Tananarive Due’s The Reformatory is a gripping and haunting historical novel set in the Jim Crow south.
Joe Hill wrote of the book:
“The Reformatory is a masterpiece — a new American classic of the uncanny. I was gripped from the first lines to the catch-your-breath desperation of the final pages. Even in the tale’s grimmest moments, Tananarive Due insists on the almost supernatural power of simple kindness.”
On Sorrow & Joy: The Music of The Reformatory
It isn’t possible to separate music from the eras that created it – which is why I’m so enthralled with the notion that some of the most joyful music in American history was created by artists living under the ongoing tragedy of Jim Crow, with its deprivation, dehumanization and constant threat of violence to try to keep African Americans silenced. Regressed. Subservient. Afraid.
Music is a character in The Reformatory, though admittedly much of the music itself is not joyful. The songs mentioned by name are often sad or faith songs a character like Miz Lottie uses to gather her courage. But the role of music in The Reformatory isn’t sad at all – it’s one of uplift, escape and opportunity. Nat King Cole helps transport Robert Stephens away from his life’s most frightening moment in a stranger’s car when he’s on his way to the Reformatory, at least for a moment. Mrs. Hamilton’s band class is a refuge for scared boys living in a hellscape with music as a promise for a better future – as it proved to be for artists like Louis Armstrong, who in true life learned to play a cornet at a juvenile detention center. Even one of the haints is singing.
This playlist for The Reformatory includes songs that were mentioned in the novel as well as a separate list of songs implied by the themes in the novel. The second list is music that the Stephens family would have known – or music projecting the heady future awaiting them with the advent of the civil rights era and the birth of the next African American musical innovation that would sweep the world after blues and jazz: rock and roll.
It took me seven years to finish The Reformatory, in part, because the research into the Jim Crow era in Florida and the Dozier School was hard to stomach.
So much pain. But at the same time, the music of those eras can create so much joy.
One last note: The Reformatory, while historical horror, is also Afrofuturism, which is Black speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror). A key component of Afrofuturism is that the past, present and future often hold the same space – just as Miz Lottie carries memories from slavery at the same time Robert Stephens is pondering space travel, and Gloria touches her first television set. So some of the music on this playlist is also considered Afrofuturism, such as Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place.”
THE MUSIC IN THE REFORMATORY
“Mona Lisa” (May, 1950) – Nat King Cole – Nat King Cole was a major crossover performer who, by 1956, became the first Black man to host a network variety show, “The Nat (King) Cole Show.” In The Reformatory, when Robert Stephens hears “Mona Lisa” playing on the speakers of the social worker’s car, it’s almost like a family member is riding with him. He feels less alone. “Suddenly Mama was in the car with him, singing in his ear.”
“I Almost Lost My Mind” (1949) – Ivory Joe Hunter – The lyrics “When I lost my baby, I almost lost my mind” not only represents the message of a hit song Robert and his family would have heard, but it also reflects the family’s grief over the death of Robert and Gloria’s mother. (It also reflects Gloria’s pain at losing her brother to the system.)
“Sing, Sing, Sing” (1937) – Benny Goodman orchestra. This is one of my favorite swing orchestra pieces, so that’s why Gloria Stephens hears Benny Goodman playing on a car radio. The recording was released in 1937, which is significant because this is the year the true-life Robert Stephens died at the Dozier School for Boys.
“St. James Infirmary Blues” (1928) (Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom 5) – Robert Stephens learns that his music teacher, Marian Hamilton, played with Louis Armstrong, who was a titan in American musical history. Armstrong also got his first training in music while he was at a juvenile detention center.
“Walk With Me” (1949) (Mahalia Jackson) – The role of faith cannot be overstated in the African American experience. The Black Church played a large role in organizing communities against Jim Crow in the 1960s. Mahalia Jackson would later go on to counsel Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights Movement, even famously telling him “Tell ‘em about your dream, Martin” during his speech at the March on Washington.
“Amazing Grace” (1772) (John Newton) – This was the favorite hymn of my late mother, Patricia (Gloria) Stephens Due, so it was also a favorite hymn of Robert’s mother. I’m also fascinated by the backstory that composer John Newton was once a slave ship captain and later became an abolitionist, a history that most churchgoers do not know. I suggest the Aretha Franklin version, although she did not record it until 1972.
“Wade in the Water” (African American Spiritual) – This, to me, is an example of Afrofuturism: the ways enslaved people were forced to console themselves with dreams of a better future. But this song is also reputed to have been used by Harriet Tubman and other abolitionists on the Underground Railroad to advise people escaping slavery to use bodies of water to try to evade the scents of dogs.
“Taps” (United States Navy Band) – One of my most heartbreaking scenes to write in The Reformatory was when Robert played “Taps” for a boy who died.
“Dragnet Theme” (Walter Schumann) – This is one of the signature themes in old-time American radio and television…but “Dragnet” also helped usher in Hollywood’s depiction of policing as righteous and non-racist, a mindset that has been absorbed by much of the American public despite the Black Lives Matter movement and the killings of people like 12-year-old Tamir Rice. His experiences in The Reformatory help teach Robert the difference between “copaganda” and reality. “Now that he’d been arrested and seen the lie up close, he could never like Dragnet again.”
MORE MUSIC FOR THE REFORMATORY SOUNDTRACK
These next songs were not mentioned in The Reformatory, but they’re a good playlist to set the mood for reading.
“Take the A-Train” (1941) (Duke Ellington) – This was the signature song of Duke Ellington (1899-1974) and also loosely relates to events in the novel.
“Confession Blues” (1949) – Ray Charles – My 88-year-old father, John (Dorsey) Due, Jr., loves Ray Charles (1930-2004) and listens to him every day, so no playlist would be complete without him. And his first hit was released in 1949, so Robert would have known him.
“Hound Dog” (1952) (Big Mama Thornton) – Although most people know the Elvis Presley version, Big Mama Thornton (1926-1984) is the artist who put “Hound Dog” on the map – so it’s only fitting to honor her in this playlist as a precursor to rock and roll. She complained about Elvis ripping off her son for as long as she lived.
“Chain Gang” (1960) (Sam Cooke) – Sam Cooke (1931-1964) composed his hit song after seeing prisoners doing road work on the highway.
“Space is the Place” (1973) (Sun Ra) – Jazz artist Sun Ra (1914-1993) is considered a pioneer in Afrofuturism, both because of his use of keyboard technology and the Utopian message in his music (and film) Space is the Place, where space represents an escape for Black people from hardships on Earth. At one point in The Reformatory, Robert feels like he and Gloria are “like astronauts taking off for the moon.”
“Tightrope” (2010) (Janelle Monae) – Afrofuturist pop star and actress Janelle Monáe’s song captures how Robert and Gloria Stephens are “walking on a tightrope” throughout the novel.
“Whole World’s Gone Crazy” (2018) (Toshi Reagon – Parable of the Sower Opera) – This beautiful song was composed for the Parable of the Sower Opera, but it so perfectly captures our universal sorrow when life changes for the worst – and our determination when we are able to rise to the challenge.
Tananarive Due is an American Book Award and NAACP Image Award–winning author, who was an executive producer on Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror for Shudder and teaches Afrofuturism and Black Horror at UCLA. She and her husband, science fiction author Steven Barnes, cowrote the graphic novel The Keeper and an episode for Season 2 of The Twilight Zone for Paramount Plus and Monkeypaw Productions. Due is the author of several novels and two short story collections, Ghost Summer: Stories and The Wishing Pool and Other Stories. She is also coauthor of a civil rights memoir, Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights (with her late mother, Patricia Stephens Due). Learn more at TananariveDue.com.