March 10, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
darlene anita scott's poetry collection Marrow goes beyond the headlines and widely shared photographs of the Jonestown Massacre by portraying the lives and dreams of the Black people who experienced it.
Destiny O. Birdsong wrote of the book:
"'God is a chance we take,' writes darlene anita scott in this searing examination of the Jonestown Massacre as told through the lives of its most vulnerable victims: mid-twentieth-century African Americans. What they left, what they hoped for, and what they lost serve as the locus of poems that explore the limits of faith, love, and human suffering. Marrow is a remarkable debut, penned by a poet skilled in the art of interrogating belief."
I create “mixtapes” for everything from specific workouts to my Thursday commute to cooking. Yet I don’t make them for writing because I get distracted by music when I’m writing. Nonetheless, music (and food) often appear in my texts.
Part of the process of writing this text was to contextualize the era, so I studied the style, language, and of course, the music; seventies pop was a sort of white noise for that effort. Ultimately, I ended up referring to a good bit of music in Marrow to provide a cultural lens and locate readers not just in the time period but also in the climate that made space for a Peoples Temple and Jonestown, the Guyanese settlement founded by James "Jim" Jones and popularly known as Jonestown where they would die in a mass murder-suicide on November 18, 1978.
Besides that, music is an essential component of Peoples Temple. It’s a mechanism of access—a way for Jim Jones to attract Black congregants—he uses traditional Black gospel music in his religious services and as a means of control—congregational secular music events serve to pacify the congregation—especially its youth—and veil the day-to-day oppressions they suffer under his leadership.
Welcome – Peoples Temple Choir (1973)
would make sense as the first song. Nearly 300 of the over 900 people who die in Jonestown are children. In their only recorded album, Peoples Temple Choir includes some of their voices like in this song. The recording is at once haunting and uplifting; the children live, experience joy, and are more than the circumstance of their deaths.
I’m On My Way – Odetta (traditional)
is a traditional protest song of the Civil Rights Era from which Peoples Temple emerges and is referenced in the poem “Water.” When Jones incorporates his church in 1950s Indiana as Wings of Deliverance its interracial congregation, his charismatic preaching style, and gospel singing are social protests themselves given the midcentury midwestern landscape. Odetta, the vocalist, is one of the most well-known voices of the movement and influences folk artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez who also soundtrack the era.
Oh Happy Day – Edwin Hawkins Singers (1969)
is an example of Peoples Temple musical style. Jim Jones borrows heavily from traditional African American church traditions to attract his African American base including its charismatic preaching style, call and response, and its gospel music, a style of religious music that incorporates the secular blues tradition. This popular gospel rendering of an 18th century hymn is by the top gospel group of the time and is the first religious song to place on the secular charts. The group even performs on American Band Stand.
Something’s Got A Hold On Me – Peoples Temple Choir (1973)
is another single from the Peoples Temple Choir album, “He’s Able,” and similarly showcases the gospel arrangements of most of the Temple’s music.
Rich Girl – Hall and Oates (1977)
brings to mind the diversity of experiences in the Temple. Peoples Temple was not only interracial but also intergenerational and had a diversity of social classes. In other words, there were “rich girls” like the one described in this single. In “Bookish Girl Sweeps the Sanctuary” and other poems, I imagine her practicing the socialist lifestyle expected of Temple members and probably having some difficulties with it.
Fool’s Paradise – The Sylvers (1972)
predates the Temple’s move to their Guyanese “paradise” but the song choice is also contextual—no doubt a teenager in the seventies would’ve been jamming to the Sylvers siblings and their gravity defiant afros. If the Jackson Five had any competition, it was with this family group from the west coast where the Peoples Temple is headquartered before their exodus to Guyana.
Hot Child in the City – Nick Gilder (1978)
is another single that I thought about when I thought of the children, especially the teenagers, in the custody of Peoples Temple. Minors under state supervision were placed with members of Peoples Temple as an alternative to juvenile centers and foster care; many of the kids had struggled on the streets just like the subjects chronicled in the poem “Wild Child” and in Nick Gilder’s lyrics to this song.
Exodus – Bob Marley (1977)
has to be on the list because you cannot talk about a Caribbean experience without including the music of its most famous son. In the summer of 1977, the first boatload of Peoples Temple congregants left the United States to begin new lives in the Caribbean nation of Guyana where they hoped to live without the oppressions they experienced in the U.S. The Biblical story of Exodus, as referenced in this song, is invoked by Jones to encourage the move and is one often adopted by oppressed people fleeing their oppressors for a “promised land.”
Baby Come Back – Player (1977)
is a single that came to mind especially when writing “Disappearance.” When Peoples Temple members left the states, they were often encouraged not to reveal their departure and effectively disappeared themselves. This soft rock tune pleading for the return of a lost lover reaches number one on the Billboard charts that year.
You Know How To Make Me Feel – Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (1975)
is a groove. It’s not hard to know that after labor-intense days and despite all that was happening in around the Temple, love stories happened. I imagine the couple in “Wishing Tree” slow dragging to this cut.
Best Of My Love – The Emotions (1977)
is such a happy song. When I wrote “As For Dancing,” I was picturing Darlene Ramey but I didn’t yet know her by name. Later in the writing process, I would read a remembrance by her sister Reverend Glenda Bates. Bates’ description of her sister animates the image I’d had in my head: the brassy arrangements of that era’s jams, the bells of pant bottoms swinging in time, the joy. So little that is written about Jonestown and Peoples Temple discusses that part—the joy.
That’s The Way of the World – Earth, Wind, and Fire (1975)
Footage captured by NBC News on the night of November 17, 1978 shows Deanna “Diane” Kay Wilkinson, 28, singing this song in an evening celebration. Only hours later most of the people captured in the video, including Diane, will be dead in the mass murder-suicide. An abusive childhood first leads Diane to the streets and eventually to Jonestown, “the only place that I have found that freedom and opportunity to become somebody in my life.” I think knowing her story makes the lyrics all the more evocative: “Child is born with a heart of gold/Way of the world makes his heart so cold.”
96 Degrees in the Shade – Third World (1977)
describes Guyana—it’s hot and humid year-round. Several poems in Marrow reference the climate like “Bucket Brigade” as does this title of Third World’s tribute to Paul Bogle, one of Jamaica’s national heroes. Bogle, a church deacon and activist, is executed for leading a rebellion on behalf of enslaved African Jamaicans. Jim Jones, who also considers himself a man of faith, elevates himself to a similar status by claiming he is leading his congregants out of oppression and suggesting his sacrifices up to and including the mass murder suicide are martyrdom.
darlene anita scott is the co-editor of Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era. Her poetry appears most recently in Green Mountains Review, Pen + Brush, and Simple Machines and has been nominated for a Pushcart and Best of the Net.