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June 1, 2021

Lee Zacharias's Playlist for Her Novel "What a Wonderful World This Could Be"

What a Wonderful World This Could Be by Lee Zacharias

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Lee Zacharias's What a Wonderful World This Could Be is a compelling novel of family, protest, and identity.

In her words, here is Lee Zacharias's Book Notes music playlist for her novel What a Wonderful World This Could Be:

Much of What a Wonderful World This Could Be covers the years 1960-1971. In 1960 the main character, Alex, is the illegitimate fifteen-year-old daughter of an artist who teaches at a private university in the lower Midwest. That summer she begins to model for one of her mother's colleagues, the photographer Steve Kendrick, and falls in love. Together they move to New York, where she will leave him for a privileged and charismatic white Civil Rights activist named Ted Neal. With Ted she moves back to the Midwest and joins a collective dedicated to grass roots organization in a poor white community on the outskirts of the town where she grew up. After the collective turns from Civil Rights to the antiwar movement and ultimately becomes more radical, she and her husband Ted will also move to New York, tailed by the FBI, which is interested in former members of the collective, many now part of the Weather Underground. In 1971, without warning, Ted disappears. Whether he too has gone underground or is dead, Alex doesn't know and won't until he surfaces in 1982, but in 1982 she cannot bear to listen to the soundtrack of her youth. Only at the end of the novel will she be able to break from the paralyzed silence that the shock of Ted's reappearance has caused, into the soundtrack of her future, which is a lullaby.

Sam Cooke, "Wonderful World"

I borrowed my title from this song, which has been covered many times, but the version in my soundtrack is the original by the great soul singer Sam Cooke. I changed the verb from "would" to "could" because "would" seemed to offer a little more promise than I intended. Though the novel had a number of earlier titles, none of those suggested the double meaning that I wanted: the romantic and the political. The novel is a love story, but the tension between the personal and the political is at its core, and I was looking for a title that could summon both. The romantic is obvious: "But I do know that I love you/And I know that if you loved me too/What a wonderful world this would be." But the notion of a wonderful world created by love is also reminiscent of the politics of young '60s idealists like Ted Neal who imagined, at least through the first half of the decade, that their good intentions and desire for universal brotherhood were enough to beget a world of peace and racial justice. Of course when I was first listening to this song as a girl, I thought of it only as a love song with the happily-ever-after promise common to the smooth soul songs of the era, contradictory to the done-wrong themes of blues and country lyrics. And even though by the end of college and on I was a blues fan, I still love this song. It came as a surprise to discover that Sam Cooke intended its political dimension. He revised the Lou Adler and Herb Alpert composition to emphasize that love, not education, was the force that could transform the world, and in his brief life he used his influence as a hit crossover artist to champion Civil Rights. His protest song "A Change Is Gonna Come" was released eleven days after he died in December,1964, and though the smoothness of his voice and soaring orchestral arrangement make it sound less like a protest than many folk songs from that era, it was provoked by his fury over having been refused accommodation at a Holiday Inn. Moreover, he had heard Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and declared that he wanted to write songs like that.

Ben E. King, "Stand by Me"

This is the one song on my novel's playlist that I actually listened to while I wrote, for I rarely write to music. But I had a little tape player in the library studio at the university where I taught, and I played Ben E. King and Percy Sledge over and over. Many of the great love songs of soul have origins in gospel. The eternal love they express was initially dedicated to the Lord, and much of the resonance—and promise—in these songs depends upon gospel's unwavering faith. "Stand by Me" was written by Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller, but according to King it was inspired by a spiritual written by Sam Cooke and J.W. Alexander for the Soul Stirrers called "Stand by Me Father." The lines "If the sky we look upon/Should tumble and fall/Or the mountain should crumble to the sea" are adapted from Psalm 46. At one time I wanted to title the novel Stand by Me, in reference to Kendrick's abiding loyalty to Alex, but the Rob Reiner film based on a Stephen King novella and the song's use in its soundtrack nixed that. Still, it's the good luck song from my playlist, my mantra. Writing a novel is a long, intimidating business, but I had Ben E. King by my side to promise, "No I won't be afraid/Oh, I won't be afraid/Just as long as you stand by me."

These two songs are on my playlist for the novel, but by the time some of the characters in the novel would have been dancing to Sam Cooke, Ben E. King, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, and the Isley Brothers in their high school/early college years, Alex was living with Kendrick in an art world that assembled in coffee houses rather than high school gyms and fraternity basements. In the early '60s my major characters would have been listening to folk music, especially Bob Dylan. Later, as the decade progressed and Dylan went electric, they tuned into rock.

"We Shall Overcome"

The version of this song that became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement was the one Zipthra Horton adapted for use on the picket line during the 1945 strike by Negro Food and Tobacco Union workers in Charleston, South Carolina, which Pete Seeger learned from her and Guy Carawan taught at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Its origins are most likely from a hymn by Charles Albert Tindley published in 1901. But I hear it not in the voices of Carawan, Seeger, or Joan Baez, who sang it at the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his "I have a dream" speech, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar and encouraging the audience to sing along by announcing the verses. The way I hear it, the way my characters would have sung it, is in an a capella chorus spontaneously arising from protestors, crossing arms across their bodies to hold hands in an expression of unity and nonviolent resistance to racial injustice.

Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a Changin'

Every word and note of this album are on my playlist, the one that most identifies Dylan as a protest artist, though he disdained the term even in 1964, the year it was released, the same year Sam Cooke was killed, the same year my heroine Alex leaves Steve Kendrick for Ted Neal. But three cuts I would single out are the title song, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," and "Only a Pawn in Their Game." In the novel Alex listens to Dylan "Talkin' New York" from his first album because she is anticipating her move to New York with Kendrick, but this is the album she, Ted, and the friends with whom they form a collective, would have played until it wore out. Though Dylan denied any intention of speaking to the generation gap, he did acknowledge writing "The Times They Are a Changin'" as a deliberate attempt to create an anthem for change, one influenced by Irish and Scottish ballads and drawing on Biblical allusion. "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," is a narrative set to a tune similar to the traditional folk song "Mary Hamilton," which Joan Baez recorded on her first album, an album that deeply impressed Dylan. Early in his career, he was reading newspapers in search of material for what he called "topical songs." This one is based on the death of a Black barmaid hit by a toy cane slung by a white tobacco farmer named William Zantzinger in segregated Maryland because he considered her slow to bring the bourbon he'd ordered. It is not the crime itself, but the six-month sentence that Dylan mourns when he tells "you who philosophize, disgrace, and criticize all/Fears/Bury the rag deep in your face, for now's the time for your/Tears." Dylan makes a point of naming Zantzinger (spelled Zansinger in his lyris), but refuses to name Byron De La Beckwith in the song written shortly after the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963 and performed that summer at a Civil Rights rally in Greenwood, Mississippi, as well as at the March on Washington later that year. "Today Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught/They lowered him down as a king." But his assassin is "Only a Pawn in Their Game." Both of these songs are prophetic in their indictment of systemic racism, though Dylan's refusal to name De La Beckwith in his insistence upon the politician's manipulation of poor whites to maintain white supremacy was controversial in the Movement, particularly since De La Beckwith was twice freed when the all-white juries could not reach a verdict. Not until 1994was he convicted of the murder. And many of the fans who took issue with "Only a Pawn in Their Game" would feel even more betrayed when Dylan went electric and appeared to abandon protest music the following year. But the raw edge that was present even in the young Dylan's voice has a commanding power much better voices lack, and these songs still make me cry.

The Beatles, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

My activist characters, who enter the novel near the end of "Freedom Summer," the summer of 1964, when Ted Neal goes to Mississippi to help SNCC and CORE register Black voters, the summer in which three Civil Rights workers went missing and were ultimately found buried in an earthen dam, had a record collection that contained some blues albums—Leadbelly is mentioned, and John Lee Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins would certainly be among them—and some early rock and roll albums featuring white artists like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis who began their careers with moves they learned from Black artists. But as my characters turn from Civil Rights to antiwar protests, the use of drugs, and increasing talk of violence, they also turn from folk music and blues to the psychedelic and hard rock of the late '60s, the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, The Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Cream, the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin. Weatherman, the radical offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society that takes over the collective, famously took its name from a line in Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" on Bringing It All Back Home: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." Sergeant Pepper and Dylan are pouring out the open windows of the houses lining the street where they cavort to celebrate Lyndon B. Johnson's announcement that he would not run for re-election in 1968. Because I'm a fanatic Dylan fan, nearly any of Dylan's songs from the mid-sixties: "Like a Rolling Stone," "Rainy Day Women," "Hey, Mister Tambourine Man," "Just Like a Woman," or "I Want You" might be playing—I love them all. From Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band I hear "Sergeant Pepper" or "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" coming though those windows. In retrospect it's interesting to note how much homage to the passage of time the Beatles pay on that album, despite its appeal to a culture of youth that adopted the slogan, "Never trust anyone over thirty." This seems especially appropriate for a novel that covers so much time, and though I couldn't know it while I was writing, the line "It was twenty years ago today" would prove disastrous for this novel, for I didn't finish a draft of it until January 1990, and there was such a media blitz of coverage on the 1960s in 1988 and 1989, the twenty-year anniversaries of the watershed years of 1968 and 1969, that trying to sell a book on this subject in the early '90s was like trying to sell last year's pet rock.

Eric Clapton, "Layla"

This is the title song from Clapton's Derek and the Dominos album, named for a seventh century Arabian story, the song that Alex listens to as she waits in vain for her husband to return to their East Village apartment from hanging signs about a project to address substandard housing in Harlem. It's a wail, the song of unrequited love and unabashed begging Clapton wrote for Pattie Boyd, George Harrison's wife, and it ends with a memorable little chirp of Duane Allman's guitar. In my novel the lyrics and the long piano and guitar riffs are punctuated by the drum of Alex's boot heels on the floor as she moves back and forth from the steamy kitchen where she is cooking gumbo to the lobby, to see if the FBI's gold Plymouth is still across the street. "Go away," she whispers to the car, as Clapton begs Pattie Boyd to ease his worried mind and Alex wills the husband who has already decided to run to come home. I still turn the radio up every time I hear the song, for the music itself, and all the other sounds I wove into the music to make it mine, though in truth I rushed it a bit. The song as first played on American airwaves was truncated, and the album wasn't released until March, 1971, though Ted disappears in January. But in the novel Alex listens to it anyway. Oops!

But then isn't music eternal? It begins before it starts and never, ever ends. And if I could go on and on, I would list so many of the great songs from the late 1960s; they're all there if you listen, playing in the background. What soundtrack could be more fun?

Lee Zacharias has received two silver medals from the Independent Book Publisher Awards, won North Carolina's Sir Walter Raleigh Award, and held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council. Her work has been reprinted and frequently cited in the annual volumes of The Best American Essays. You can read more about her at

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