March 30, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
In Maud Newton's smart and readable memoir Ancestor Trouble, she researches her family tree to expose universal truths.
The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:
"Newton is a logical thinker and a hyperacute observer, with a prodigious memory and a lacerating honesty. She’s a transparent and at times lyrical writer."
Ancestor Trouble is about my own ancestors, and about the significance of ancestors more broadly, from our times back through the millennia. I'd always been fascinated around the edges of the book, but the idea of writing about my people was slow to take hold. For years I'd resisted writing a memoir. Being intimately familiar with the dysfunction of my immediate family, having lived through those experiences, I imagined that writing about my family would feel like being locked in a tiny room with the problems of my upbringing. At the same time, though, I'd always puzzled and sometimes agonized over the ways traits and tendencies seemed to repeat in families, over the ways unacknowledged trauma tended to beget more trauma. From my youngest years as a serious reader, I loved books on these themes. I carried other people's stories with me to feel less alone with my own questions.
I got excited about writing the book when I realized I wanted to delve deeply not only into my own family history but also questions around ancestors writ large: genealogy; genetics, epigenetics, and nature and nurture; the body; temperament and mental illness; intergenerational trauma; slavery and systemic racism; generational wealth; spirituality; creativity; and acknowledgement.
I'm intensely drawn to music and I'm also one of those writers who can't listen to songs with lyrics I love when I'm writing. My brain catches on the words to the exclusion of everything else. But many songs fed into Ancestor Trouble in one way or another, and here are a few of them.
Moonshiner — Uncle Tupelo
This is an old song of disputed origin that goes back at least as far as 1927 Kentucky and may or may not have come from Ireland, but I first heard it in the Uncle Tupelo rendition. The moonshiner narrator of the song is deep in the bottle, scraping out a living from his still and spending what he earns in bars. "The whole world is a bottle / and life is but a dram" conveys both the hopelessness and the self-mythologizing poetry of alcoholism that I associate with someone like my mom's father, who was said to have married thirteen times and been shot by one of his wives.
Crazy, Classic Life — Janelle Monae
To me this song conjures the intense fun energy of reckless teenage nights, with their attendant adolescent dreams of what life might become, curtailed by the handcuff-slap of systemic racism. Pondering the legacies of my ancestors who enslaved Black people, I've often thought of this song. The whole Dirty Computer album, really.
Shipbuilding — Elvis Costello
In this song, written during the Falklands war, the men are gearing up to build ships and make money from a conflict that will allow them to buy "a new winter coat and shoes for the wife" but will also result in "notifying the next of kin," when some of their sons eventually die in combat. The mournfulness of Chet Baker's trumpet (this is believed to have been his final recording) and the final line -- "diving for dear life / when we could be diving for pearls" -- underscore the tragedy and folly of manufactured war and the grind more broadly while also extending deep sympathy to the men living this way.
What's Going On — Marvin Gaye
Heeding this call to see, intimately, what's really going on long after emancipation is something I would have wished for my ancestors, and that I wanted for myself as I wrote.
I'll Fly Away — Gillian Welch & Alison Krauss
Beautiful though this song is, and despite how easily it lodges in my head, the melody always makes me a little queasy. My first associations with "I'll Fly Away," long before this particular duet rendition came into being, were of tambourines and off-key voices singing along at the church my mom started in our living room, where she preached about hellfire and the rapture and spoke in tongues and cast out demons. Some of the people who spend their lives hallelujah-ing about their spirits flying off to heaven treat this world as a waiting room they can't wait to escape. That lack of awareness of our interdependence with this planet and our beyond-human kin is one of the central problems I wanted to explore in Ancestor Trouble.
It's a Sin — Pet Shop Boys
My Gen X is showing. This is a favorite anthem, composed with queer shame in mind and resonant much more broadly for those of us who grew up in sin-obsessed families and churches.
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road — Lucinda Williams
"A little bit of dirt, mixed with tears" -- every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way, but I'd bet most people from contentious families can relate to parents' scolding and the sound of doors slamming and cars speeding away. The refrain's slight monotony pleases me, in that it seems to capture how these scenes can play out again and again with slight variations.
When Doves Cry — by Prince & the Revolution
This Prince song is the best I know about someone's difficult parental dynamics getting dragged into their own relationship in a way they're aware of but can't seem to stop reenacting.
Florida — Patty Griffin
I grew up in Florida. My life was nothing like this aching song about a young woman "traveling down A1A, to the arms of Florida," into a life where her paychecks are signed every week by someone she'll never meet, and the night and the landscape are her only solace and companion. Still, if I squint I can see themes from my Texan granny's life and my own life blending together here.
Marjorie — Taylor Swift
"All your closets of backlogged dreams"--I wasn't a Swiftie when COVID began but I couldn't stop listening to the two albums Taylor Swift put out in the midst of the pandemic. This song about the presence of her grandmother Marjorie long after her death connects deeply to preoccupations of mine that grew over the years I worked on the book.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen — Annie Lennox
I can't listen to this song without thinking of the video Lennox released with it, a series of otherworldly images that aren't just magical but often slightly menacing. The video confirmed my sense that she wasn't engaging this song primarily as a Christmas classic but emphasizing something much older and wilder, calling back to the pagan origins of yuletide. These kinds of histories are a major interest of mine and a preoccupation toward the end of Ancestor Trouble.
Maud Newton has written for The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, The New York Times Book Review, and Oxford American. She grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in English and law.