Posts Tagged Billie Holiday

The Undercover Soundtrack – Tanya Landman

for logo‘A horse, a hat and a fight for freedom’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by Carnegie Medal nominee Tanya Landman

Soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein, Ennio Morricone, Max Steiner, Bob Marley, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, Etta James, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday

I don’t listen to music while I’m writing – I need total silence to concentrate – and I rarely play music in the house. It’s only when I’m driving that I stick on a CD (yes, I’m that old fashioned), and even then I often prefer silence. So why am I writing this blog? Because, when I was invited to, I realised how much music had contributed to the making of Buffalo Soldier.

Some books have a very long evolution. Strands of music, images and ideas that have been knocking around in your head for years eventually come together and form something new. Buffalo Soldier started with the Westerns that were constantly on TV and in the cinema when I was a child. I grew up wanting to be a cowboy. There were two particularly memorable movie themes that made me long for a horse, a hat, and the wide open range – Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven, and Ennio Morricone’s The Good the Bad and the Ugly. 2012pidred-j.peg (1)

Gone girl

Then there was Gone With the Wind. I was taken to see it for the first time when I was about 11 or 12 and was captivated by its epic scale and sweep. It was the first time I’d seen a heroine take charge of her own fate. I still find Tara’s theme by Max Steiner stirring, particularly when Scarlett vows never to be hungry again.

When I was growing up, the Wild West and the Deep South seemed worlds apart. I had no idea how closely connected they were until I was doing background reading for my book Apache and came across references to black soldiers. It was after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation – who were these guys and what were they doing in the west?

Further research led me to the buffalo soldiers. The Bob Marley song suddenly made sense. That lyric took on fresh importance.

Bitter irony

Many of the men of the 9th and 10th US Cavalry were freed slaves in a world that had been turned on its head. They signed up and were sent to fight the Indian Wars. Freed men, fighting Native Americans? I was struck by the bitter irony of the situation and started reading everything I could get my hands on about slavery and the aftermath of the Civil War. In the car I started listening Nina Simone and Etta James, Paul Robeson and Louis Armstrong. Gospel music. Spirituals. And then I went back to Gone With the Wind. Gone With the Wind is a hugely problematic film, depicting a wildly romantic Old South where slavery is a benign institution, where field hands contentedly pick cotton and sing from pure happiness.

When I re-read the novel, the scene in which Big Sam starts singing Go Down Moses as he’s sent off to help fortify Atlanta against the advancing Yankee army snagged in my head. He’s clearly meant to be a faintly comic character and Scarlett fondly watches him go. Now, Margaret Mitchell was a gifted writer and she knew her Civil War history inside out yet she appears to have no idea about the significance of that particular song. A spiritual about the enslavement of God’s Chosen People. Didn’t she ever listen to the lyrics? Go Down Moses is linked to Nat Turner – organiser of one of the bloodiest slave revolts in US history. It was used as a rallying cry by Denmark Vesey when slaves rebelled in Charleston. Harriet Tubman used it as a code song when helping fellow slaves escape along the Underground Railroad. How could Margaret Mitchell not know this? Go Down Moses gave me an insight into a very blinkered view of history in which whites chose not to see what was happening under their noses. It also gave me a burning desire to tell the story of the Civil War from the other side.

Swing Low Sweet Chariot (sung here by Paul Robeson) was another song I listened to repeatedly and in fact it features in the book – the longing for a better place, to be taken from a world of misery and suffering and carried ‘home’ speaks volumes. It stirred my emotions and helped create mood and atmosphere. The Undercover Soundtrack Buffalo Soldier by Tanya LandmanWay back in school when I was in the sixth form I was in a play, which featured I Shall Be Released (sung here by Nina Simone) and Change Gonna Come (Sam Cooke’s version here). The yearning, the terrible weariness you can feel in both songs, informed various characters’ emotional development and fed my writing. There’s one particular scene in Buffalo Soldier in which Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit was in my mind. So quiet, so passionate, so powerful – I can’t listen to it without feeling a chilling sense of horror. It makes me weep.

And finally – there’s one piece of music that runs all the way through Buffalo Soldier – Sam Hall. I was looking for something with a traditional feel and upbeat but also with a dark, violent undercurrent and a real sense of menace. Appropriately enough I heard the song first watching the 2011 Western Blackthorn with my children and tracked down the Johnny Cash version because the lyrics suited my purpose perfectly.

Tanya Landman is the award winning author of more than 30 books for children and young adults. Buffalo Soldier has been shortlisted for this year’s Carnegie Medal. Her website is here and you can find her on Facebook.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Kim Cleary

for logo‘I write about love and hope’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold  a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is urban fantasy author Kim Cleary @KimClearyWriter

Soundtrack by Choir of Hard Knocks, Joni Mitchell, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Leonard Cohen, Linkin Park

I love jazz, rock and soulful ballads. I enjoy a scratchy recording of Billie Holiday singing Fine and Mellow, as much as a glossy Youtube of Linkin Park performing From the Inside.

authorheadshot2Music is an essential component of my creative environment, but I prefer to write in silence, or in such a busy place it’s easy to shut out the noise. I find myself listening to the story in the music rather than the story in my head and it’s too easy to get distracted.

Back to age 18

In preparation for this post for Roz Morris’s marvellous blog, I’ve thought about the music that sustained me while I wrote, and rewrote, my debut novel Path Unchosen. Remembering the music has helped me to relive the writing of the book. It’s written in the first person so I often found myself falling into the head of my 18-year-old heroine. When Judy first discovers she’s a necromancer she wants to deny who she is.

Playing the music again has brought back so many emotions. The sense of awe as Judy discovers what she can do. The fear of losing everything she’s gained. The pain of an intimate betrayal. Music reaches into my soul, finds the memories I’ve hidden away, and yanks the emotions to the surface.

I write about love and hope, so it’s no surprise most of the music that has affected my writing is about finding or losing love! In Path Unchosen, I write about the love between a daughter and a father; between friends as close as sisters; the naïve love between a student and her teacher; the first stirrings of desire; and a deep compassion for all creatures that feel pain, hope, and fear. Love and hope.

Sometimes I hear a snatch of lyrics and a scene immediately starts playing in my head. From Otherside, by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers I knew Judy would face the chilling realisation that she can’t go back, she can’t stop being a necromancer. I saw the scene play out between Judy and her spirit guide, in a forest dulled grey and soundless.

A whole relationship

With Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You, the mesmerising chorus triggered not just one scene, but the whole bitter and sweet relationship between Judy and her father. We played the song at my own father’s funeral not many years ago. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that Judy finds the spirit of her father in a workshop and smithy not unlike my father’s.

Leonard Cohen sings Anthem like a man who has been on his knees in despair. Judy despairs too, but she never gives up hope. Not even in a specially created dark, cold, and silent prison, designed to cut her off from the dead who sustain her.

At other times, I use music to trigger emotion to get into Judy’s head. Linkin Park’s From the Inside is a powerful way to stir emotions of lost love and betrayal, especially when sung very loud in an empty house.

dfw-kc-pu-cover-largeWhen I am very lucky, sometimes while listening to my favourite music, I become Judy. I dance my way across the soundtrack to her life, and ideas for the scene percolate like notes from a symphony. I fight for my life to pounding rock music like Chicgao’s 25 or 6 to 4, Deep Purple’s Black Night, The Red Hot Chili Peppers By the Way, and anything by Led Zeppelin!

I had to stop writing this blog post to sing along to the Choir of Hard Knocks’s version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The arrangement showcases untrained voices, marred by poverty, substance abuse and illness. I was lucky enough to see them perform live and stood with everyone else in an ovation of several minutes. It was as if strength, integrity and hope, somehow transferred themselves from the singers to the audience. Just like it does in the best stories. The ones we love to read, and hope to write.

It’s a broken hallelujah. But it’s still a hallelujah.

Kim Cleary grew up in Birmingham, UK, studied medieval history and psychology at Adelaide University in South Australia and has worked all over Australia and in London. She now lives with her husband and a cocker spaniel in Melbourne, Australia. Find her on Facebook, Twitter (@KimClearyWriter), her blog and Amazon.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Dave Malone

for logo‘Music dark and soulful. Rural and tough’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is poet-turned novelist Dave Malone @dzmalone

Soundtrack by The Hank Dogs, Hound Dog Taylor and the Rockers, Cowboy Junkies, Billie Holiday

As a boy, I stayed up late without my parents’ knowledge, my ear chaffing against stainless steel of transistor radio. Huddled in my bed, I kept my 10-year-old attention alert for the opening to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, hosted by EG Marshall.

In the country dark of the Midwest, my radio crackled until the bliss of hearing that creaking, almost screeching, door open the show. Then, ominous string and percussion, followed by EG Marshall’s distinct, authoritative voice. And lastly, words coming to life and bringing mystery stories into my bedroom. My imagination soared with dirty dealings, the macabre, and shadow.

DaveMaloneWhile I’ve spent most of my writing life as a poet, I have never lost my love for mystery and detective stories. Living in the Ozarks provides quick and easy access to inspirational characters. Most Ozarkers are no-nonsense and a welcoming bunch — to a point. It was this kind of straightforward man I wanted in my private detective, Walt Records. In my novelet, Not Forgiven, Not Forgotten, I wanted him educated at college for a couple of years, before he considered it useless. And I wanted him a smart-ass, but wise. Tough, but tender.

Diving down

Music is almost always essential for me to getting started, to diving down into the moment. Whiskey has a similar effect, of course. I like to write in the early afternoons. With a bourbon. Everything else fades away, except the characters, the moments.

My private detective keeps shop on the downtown square of a small Ozark town. About the only other private dick in the county, Records comments:

Jones ain’t as good as me. He’ll charge you double, and he’ll find the same shit I did.

For Records, I needed music dark and soulful. Something rural and tough. Something lean. And I found it, in The Hank Dogs. The British band’s eponymous album played throughout not only just the composition but the revision as well.

Mostly, I’m interested in the sounds of The Hank Dogs. The female vocals, the harmonies, the trailing guitar. However, I’m an Angel could well have been written by Walt Records himself who narrates the stories. The song’s sentiment is that we are being judged — not necessarily by Records — but actions have consequences on a person, and this is very much this private detective’s belief. Records is a dark, sarcastic anti-hero, yet he acts with integrity. Despite his fuck-ups and misgivings, he knows he’s ‘an angel by comparison’ to others, including a town preacher and the community’s leading philanthropist — who both are leaders in the town’s dark underbelly of drugs and scams.

Action scenes

There wasn’t anything better to get me started with the action of Not Forgiven than a pleasant three fingers of Wild Turkey and some Hound Dog Taylor and the Rockers. Upbeat, tough, mean, spirited, tender, poetic describes this powerhouse of an album. She’s Gone, Walking the Ceiling and Give Me Back My Wig are three winners. I played this CD while Records chased down leads: crashing Adam’s Rib bar, getting pistol-whipped by the corrupt preacher man, and flying through the night in his old Chevy Cav for the next clue.

Love interest

The love interest, Madeline (Mads), is a lanky, tough, strawberry blonde, and according to Records

That girl is all fire and no rain.

Mads is strong and independent, and the Cowboy Junkies’s Witches set the mood I needed for Records’s arrival at her place when he wasn’t sure she’d be interested:

I wouldn’t say it. Cuz a man only says certain things to a woman. Madeline might have known I’d been clobbered in the face by the butt of a .357, but she didn’t say nothing about it when she answered her door at 10:14 that night. She hadn’t gotten a text from me, and she was a free woman, but I played the odds that on a weeknight, another rooster weren’t in the chicken house.

The simple quiet, plucky acoustRecords_Coveric guitar and Margo Timmins’s ethereal invoice inspired.

To keep me from getting too romantic, I drafted their love scenes by also listening to Billie Holiday’s God Bless the Child. It has such greats as I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You, I Cover the Waterfront, Don’t Explain, and He’s Funny That Way. He’s Funny (lyrics here) plays into the spirit of both Records and Mads — tough Ozarkers, they ain’t beauty queens. But they’re real solid inside. And maybe despite town corruption and any personal insecurity, these two strong characters might find love in Not Forgiven, perhaps like a boy who found love so many years ago in an unexpected place — a storied voice on a transistor radio.

From the Missouri Ozarks, Dave Malone writes crime fiction and is also the author of five poetry collections, including Seasons in Love. His latest volume, View from the North Ten: Poems after Mark Rothko’s No. 15, is forthcoming from Mongrel Empire Press. His interests, bordering on obsessions, include Alan Watts, Ozark culture, crime fiction, gardening, and minor league baseball. He publishes a monthly e-newsletter, If I Had a Nickel, whose title derives from the sentiment of his rascally Ozark grandfather. For more, visit or find him on Twitter @dzMalone.

GIVEAWAY: 5 Kindle copies of Not Forgiven, Not Forgotten to be won! Dave is excited to give away a generous 5 copies of his novelet to commenters here – and as usual, extra entries if you report in your comment that you’ve spread the word on other media.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Erika Marks

The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by contemporary fiction author Erika Marks

Soundtrack by Billie Holiday

There’s no question music plays a big part in my writing process, and since my novel Little Gale Gumbo featured a woman from New Orleans who loves jazz, I knew I would have a grand time building a soundtrack for the manuscript.

There was one scene in particular where the element of music was especially crucial.

Upon leaving New Orleans with her two teenage daughters, determined to start over, Camille arrives on a small island off the coast of Maine and rents an in-law apartment above the attached barn of a divorced islander, Ben, and his teenage son. Shortly after, Ben learns the first snow of the season is forecast and comes to Camille’s apartment bearing extra blankets. She invites him in.

The scene that follows is an unabashedly romantic one. It’s late in the evening. Ben and Camille’s kids are asleep, and now they are alone together. In thanks for the blankets, Camille trims Ben’s hair while one of her jazz records plays in the background. There’s no question it’s a seduction scene. But Ben is being seduced by Camille through the senses, and it needed to be clear to the reader from the moment Ben steps into her apartment that he’s stepped into another world.

It had to be you

To make this transition convincing, I knew I had to reveal who Camille was to Ben—the reader already has a strong sense at this point in the story, but for Ben, this is really the first opportunity for him to see Camille truly in her element, alone with her passions, which are jazz music and her love of cooking. So as I wrote the scene, I wanted to have the same experience that Ben would have. The same slow appreciation for a piece of music in the background, not too loud, but so distinctive, so rich and full-bodied, and such a contrast to the stark, reserved landscape he knows, that I—and the reader—couldn’t help but be swept into Camille’s world in that moment too.

In the scene I mention how the record plays “the smoky wail of a trumpet, the pluck and purr of a standing bass” so I knew I wanted the soundtrack to be soft, moody, lulling. I also knew that Camille loved Billie Holiday best of all, so while I wrote the scene, I played only Billie, in particular It Had To Be You and I’ll Be Seeing You, which elicited every bit of the smoldering attraction that had been building between Ben and Camille from the moment she arrived on his doorstep.

So, did the music work its magic on my characters as well as it did on me as a writer?

Come now. It’s Billie Holiday. What do you think?

Erika Marks is a native New Englander who was raised in Maine and has worked as an illustrator, cake decorator, and carpenter. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, a native New Orleanian, their two daughters, and their dog. Find her on Twitter as @ErikaMarksAuthr

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