June 4, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Sheree Renée Thomas's story collection Nine Bar Blues is an inventive and unforgettable debut.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"The lyrical gifts of Thomas, editor of the celebrated Dark Matter anthologies.... She invokes the rhythms of African-American ring shouts and the dense, humid atmosphere of the American South."
Hopefully you are safe and well and have emerged from these weeks of self-quarantine with a renewed appreciation for the power and importance of art. I don’t think I could shelter-in-place without books, movies, and the music that has helped make the world less frightening and more possible. Holed up with a few of my favorite things, the word and the sound and the creative magic that makes art live, I feel like a small child again.
The stories from my new fiction collection, Nine Bar Blues, represent a trip down the black velvet rabbit hole that is my mind—a space where stories live, nature roams wild and free, and music reigns like love, supreme. I call Nine Bar Blues “Stories from an Ancient Future” because these tales represent a synthesis of memory and imagination. Stories that counter erasure, a record of what is, what was, and what could be. In these stories my love for music and its many forms is braided with imperfect people shaped by geography, molded by memory, and guided by questions that their lives, like our own, can’t always answer. In Nine Bar Blues, magic rises up sometimes and speaks its name. The worlds it contains are born from my own questions, hopes, and fears, the humor and dreams, the nostalgia, my observations about our society today, and my unshakeable belief that no matter what time or place we find ourselves in, the desire and need for love, for community, will sing us back to ourselves, to a place we can call home. I listened to a great deal of music as I wrote these stories, but I will share some of the songs that left the greatest impression on me.
“Mothership Connection (Star Child) / Swing Low Sweet Chariot” by Parliament
One of my earliest memories is hearing this music. If there was a soundtrack for my early life, surely George Clinton and Parliament would be a significant part of it. I can still see my parents rocking their magnificent afros, bobbing their heads to this song that makes “you put a glide in your slide, a dip in your hip.” The music of Parliament is referenced in my short story, “Nightflight,” when the sun shines everywhere but in Memphis and in the novella, “Head Static,” which perhaps is a more literal interpretation of the song. Think alien appetites, a mysterious mission, and an uncommon take on the “Devil at the Crossroads” legends. I listened to the Mothership Connection album almost daily as I explored what it means to truly live off music, to be exiled and try to return to some semblance of home. Is there a point when we become so alone with others that we are alien, even to ourselves? Clinton’s glittering stacked boots climbing out of the mothership is an image that so artfully captures what it means to be black in America, in a place that you consider home but often spends a lot energy making you feel like an exile within that home. By remixing the old Negro Spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Parliament helped listeners navigate the complex spaces between freedom and bondage, the American dream and second-class citizenship. When the trumpets played in this version of the song, I didn’t dream of heaven, a life finally free of toil, but of being a Starchild, citizen of the universe, free to party on the ultimate mothership. It is this sense of joy, the badass rhythms, the pageantry and playfulness even in the face of darker realities that places this one in constant rotation.
“Old Flame” by Alabama
In my short story, “Thirteen Year Long Song,” Alabama’s country music classic suddenly starts playing on Doc’s old radio right before everything in his life goes decidedly left. “There’s an old flame, burning in your eyes … that tears can’t drown, and make-up can’t disguise …” For Doc, that old flame is more than a lost lover. It is a life, the kind of loss that he thought he might forever grieve, until an unlikely ally reveals itself. Growing up in Memphis, home of the blues and birthplace to so many of America’s iconic musical artforms, I was accustomed to hearing all kinds of music on the radio. I remember my grandmother waking up before the sun rose, beginning her morning chores while my brother and I tried to bury our heads under her chenille blankets. If it wasn’t Kenny Rodgers, Crystal Gayle who looked like the Wonder Woman doll to me, or Charlie Pride, there would be a song from Alabama waking us from sleep. Grandmama knew all the words and had us watching the Grand Ole Opry show, which she sometimes narrated with her own stories and trivia about the performers. She let us know right from the jump that country music was our music, too. Because of my grandmother’s love, I grew to appreciate the special storytelling that is intrinsic in the best of the genre. And let’s be real, some of the lyrics are funny as hell.
“Talking In Your Sleep” by The Romantics
When you close your eyes and go to sleep
And it's down to the sound of a heartbeat
I can hear the things that you're dreaming about
When you open up your heart
And the truth comes out
Some dreams burn upon entry. The moment we wake they’re gone. Others haunt us beyond sleep and some of them leave scars. It is this last kind that inspired my novelette, “Aunt Dissy’s Policy Dream Book.” One autumn I found myself isolated in the mountains, living in a straight up haunted barn, working on what I hoped would be an entirely different project. Everything was going well. I was adjusting to my roomies’ different schedules and the creaking of the offices upstairs, even when we were all in our rooms downstairs, when I heard a blood-curdling scream from the woods. It was pitch black outside my window and I had watched far too many horror movies. My mind shifted through every woman-falling-down-running-in-the-woods scene you can think of. I was at the Millay Colony of the Arts, a beautiful, peaceful place in upstate New York with some intriguing energy on the grounds. But that night you could not tell me that there wasn’t someone being murdered in the darkness. The shrill cries repeated every single night and I started sleeping with my earbuds. Sadly, my own music, even my dopest jams, didn’t stop the dreams. I had such vivid ones I jotted them down. One that struck me the most was of a house I entered that had a mission of its own. The house kept rebuilding itself around me as I walked through each room. As I walked, the portraits on the wall—all women—stared down at me. This powerful image fueled what would become the legacy of the Dissys and the last remaining, reluctant one, Cassie Bannister. Cassie resists her abilities and it is her resistance that helps her alter her own fate somewhat. The hit song by British band, The Romantics, captures the creepiness of somniloquy, talking in one’s sleep, and the secrets that one’s subconscious could reveal. Of course it wasn’t until later that I learned that the murderous cries that started it all were coming from a tiny fisher cat!
“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin
Whenever I hear Aretha’s voice I feel awestruck, humbled, lifted. From her birth in my hometown of Memphis and her stardom in Detroit and beyond, she was a prodigy, walking among us mere mortals, a certified musical genius. Acclaimed as the legendary Queen of Soul, to hear her is a healing, an act of self-care that bears witness to her mastery. Her marvelous arrangement of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s iconic song leads us to a place where we are not just appreciative of what good love—being loved and loving—can do for you, but we are also brought full circle to what that says about self-love, true acceptance of your whole self. In the song she skillfully takes us from pain and sadness to a place of confidence and radiance. Aretha transforms the lyrics to invite us to consider what it means to be a “natural woman,” to feel whole and to hold space for loving yourself. When I wrote “River Clap Your Hands,” I knew I had to have a little of Aretha Franklin’s voice in it. Set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, around two river cities, it is a story of magic, myth, and transformation. It begins as it ends, with water, the most powerful element of change.
“Da Butt” by E.U.
“I’ll House You” by Jungle Brothers
“You Used to Hold Me” by Ralphi Rosario
“Follow Me” by Aly-Us
“I Am the Black Gold of the Sun” by Rotary Connection
Told in nine movements, “Head Static” spans continents, time, and multiple musical genres. It was tough to pinpoint a single song that speaks to the work, so I am offering some bonus tracks that were the soundtrack for Claire E.T. and DJ Animus’s epic journey, with some lyrics sprinkled like bread crumbs along the way. When I hear E.U.’s “Da Butt,” I almost instinctively start doing the dance that was synonymous with DC’s go-go sound, summer fun, and foolishness. Listen, if you don’t have your “backfield in motion” you ain’t doing it right! Biker shorts and tank tops, cocoa-buttered down, this was the cut. Commissioned by Spike Lee for his movie, School Daze, bassist Marcus Miller co-wrote the song with Chaka Khan’s brother, Marcus Stevens. In my story, it’s one of those throwback songs that is guaranteed to move the crowd. Since Claire and Animus live beyond time, they actually were instrumental in helping create House music during the early club scene. And there is no house music scene, on or off the page without the trinity, the holy trifecta of deep house music. That is, “I’ll House You” by the Jungle Brothers, “You Used to Hold Me” by Ralphi Rosario, and “Follow Me” by Aly-Us. The Jungle Brothers anthem sets it all off. If a DJ plays this and you don’t start off dancing hard, you are already lost. It fused house music with hip hop and left us all breathless. Ralphi Rosario’s was when you broke out your sexy moves. I loved this one because it had an uncommon more serious tone than the jack yo body joints. You could flow and go with this song about a lover’s waning interest. If they were gone, it didn’t matter because you looked good! No house set was complete without the crowd-pleasing “Follow Me” created by Aly-Us, three friends from New Jersey. We all knew the words to this utopian gospel house classic and belted them as loudly as we could, as if our voices could make the lyrics so:
I'm hoping to see the day
When my people
Can all relate
Why don’t you follow me
To a place
Where we can be free
Minnie Riperton is one of the angelic voices in “I Am the Black Gold of The Sun,” a beautiful song by Rotary Connection, a seven-member '70s band that included Charles Stepney. Note this is the same Chess Records-formed band that backed Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and performed on his Electric Mud album. With its psychedelic soul and eco-conscious lyricism, this song plays an important part in Head Static’s ending. I listen to it whenever I need to feel a touch of the divine.
Sheree Renée Thomas is an award-winning fiction writer, poet, and editor. Her work is inspired by myth and folklore, natural science and conjure, her roots in Memphis, and in the genius culture created in the Mississippi Delta. Sheree's stories and poetry explore ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances. She is the author of Sleeping Under the Tree of Life (Aqueduct Press), honored with a Publishers Weekly Starred Review and longlisted for the 2016 James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and of Shotgun Lullabies (2011), described as "a revelatory work like Jean Toomer's Cane." Thomas edited the two Dark Matter (Hachette) black speculative fiction volumes that first introduced W. E. B. Du Bois's work as science fiction, winning two World Fantasy Awards (2001, 2005). Her work appears in numerous anthologies and literary journals, including The Big Book of Modern Fantasy, Sycorax's Daughters, Do Not Go Quietly, So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy, Memphis Noir, Revise the Psalm: Work Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks, Afrofuturo(s), Ghost Fishing: Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology, The Ringing Ear, Apex Magazine, FIYAH Magazine, Callaloo, Fireside Quarterly, African Voices, Jalada, Strange Horizons, Blacktasticon, Mojo Rising: Contemporary Writers, Mojo: Conjure Stories, Stories for Chip: Tribute to Samuel R. Delany, 80! Memories and Reflections On Ursula K. Le Guin, and Harvard's Transition. She is the Associate Editor of Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora (Illinois State University, Normal), the Founding Editor of MOJO: Journal of the Black Speculative Arts Movement, and the co-editor of Trouble the Waters: Tales of the Deep Blue (Rosarium). Honored with fellowships from Bread Loaf Environmental, the Millay Colony of Arts, Smith College as The Lucille Geier-Lakes Writer in Residence, the New York Foundation of the Arts, VCCA, Cave Canem Foundation, and the Tennessee Arts Commission among others, Thomas's multigenre writing explores the hidden wonders in the invisible. Her stories have received Notable Mention in the Year's Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy and Honorable Mention in several volumes of the Year's Best Fantasy & Horror. Her editorial work uncovered a legacy of over a century of black science fiction writing and helped launch the careers of some of the most exciting new voices in the field. Nine Bar Blues from Third Man Books is Sheree's debut, all fiction collection. The stories encompass the heart, spirit, and music of the Mississippi Delta and of Memphis, Tennessee, where she was born and currently lives. Visit her on Facebook/Instagram @shereereneethomas Twitter @blackpotmojo
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2018 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2015 - 2017) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Flash Dancers (authors pair original flash fiction with a song
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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