Gospel and blues feature prominently in each novel of Gloria Naylor’s quartet, and this playlist gathers many of the songs and performers that make up the soundscapes of Brewster Place, Linden Hills, Willow Springs, and Bailey’s Cafe.
In The Women of Brewster Place, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” “Billie’s Blues,” “God Bless the Child,” “Detour Ahead,” and Bessie Smith’s “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” are the soundtrack for Etta Mae Johnson’s story, as she makes her way from Rock Vale, Tennessee to Brewster Place. At Canaan Baptist Church, she and her lifelong friend Mattie Michael listen to the spiritual “Let My People Go,” sung by the choir “with the frantic determination of a people who realized that the world was swiftly changing but for some mystic, complex reason their burden had not” (Women of Brewster Place, 60-1). Unlike Mattie, however, Etta does not find freedom in this song of the faithful. In one of the novel’s most moving scenes, Etta Mae returns to Brewster Place, dejected after a disappointing encounter with Reverend Moreland Woods, and Mattie Michael plays these records to lift her spirits.
Naylor’s second novel Linden Hills also portrays blues performances as a way to connect with Black history and community. Laurel Dumont, who faces divorce and eviction from Linden Hills, falls into a deep depression, listening to classical music by Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Chopin. In order to reconnect Laurel with her own history and thereby restore a sense of self separate from middle-class achievement culture, her grandmother Roberta prescribes music by Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, and Muddy Waters. She says, “You can hear the hurt in Bessie or Billie and I just kinda wish that I’d come here and found you playing their stuff, ’cause that man you seem to like so much—that Mahler—his music says that he ain’t made peace with his pain, child. And if you gonna go on, that’s what you gotta do” (Linden Hills, 235). In Naylor’s third novel Mama Day, the young people of Willow Springs, who remain more connected to Afrocentric traditions and culture than Laurel, cross the bridge to go hear Muddy Waters. Because none of the passages from the novels mention particular songs or performances by these artists, the playlist includes some representative works.
Even though Brewster Place’s Etta Mae finds little comfort in “Let My People Go,” Naylor’s characters often experience gospel music as a powerful spiritual resource. In Linden Hills, Reverend Michael Hollis temporarily reconnects with the electric power of ministry when he hears Sister Wilson’s heartfelt rendition of “Amazing Grace” at Lycentia Parker’s funeral. Yet, Luther Nedeed’s staid eulogy dampens this brief glimpse of community that might challenge the sharp class lines that set the wealthy members of Mt. Sinai Baptist apart from the residents of Putney Wayne. In Mama Day, Parris sings “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” accompanied by Dr. Buzzard’s clapping; this impromptu performance begins to attune George to the deep spiritual power of Willow Springs and within himself. The lyrics of this gospel classic point to the novel’s ending, when Mama Day invites George to join his hands with hers.
Jazz and blues musical conventions structure Naylor’s fourth novel, Bailey’s Cafe, as the women tell the stories of their lives as successive soloists introduced by a “maestro” and concluded with a “wrap.” In early notes about the novel, Naylor envisions a call-and-response structure: “Bailey the call, instruments the response; each instrument a unique voice.” The novel’s distinctive typesetting, without paragraph indentations, also reflects Naylor’s ambition for the paragraphs to be “musical stanzas—not words.” The archive also includes a glimpse of the music that Naylor was listening to as she worked on the novel. In a letter to Nikki Giovanni, Naylor wrote Nina Simone’s “Just Like a Woman” and Jevetta Steele’s “Calling You” inspired her when she “thought [she] was blocked on the novel.” In Naylor’s novels and her archive, blues and gospel traditions appear as key influences for her literary work and as a personal resource for facing challenging times.
With many thanks to Alexandria Wismer for her assistance compiling the playlist.