My Soundtrack | Novelist Deanna Raybourn on jazz, flappers and A Spear of Summer Grass

Josephine Baker

In the first of a series where awesome women tell us about the female musicians that inspired their latest project, author Deanna Raybourn talks to The Girls Are about the musical inspiration behind her latest novel, A Spear of Summer Grass.Josephinebaker

Before I write the first word of a novel, I compile a playlist—sometimes period music that is authentic, and sometimes music that simply evokes a mood. For my Victorian novels, there are few female contributors although Angele Dubeau’s spectacular violin pieces are always in rotation. But for A Spear of Summer Grass, my 1920s book with a flapper heroine, I was spoiled for choice. There are four albums that found their way to the top of the playlist, each of them featuring women who grabbed the dynamic energy of the 1920s by the throat and wouldn’t let go.

The most comprehensive of the albums was The Very Best of Josephine Baker, a compilation of the best known—and some of the lesser known—releases of the decade’s greatest entertainer. The album features everything from “Bye Bye Blackbird” to “La Petite Tonkinoise”, and while Baker’s voice seems a little thin by modern standards, there is no mistaking her star power. There is an innocent sensuality to much 1920s music, a joyful expression of the optimism that swept the world as it picked itself up from the aftereffects of the Great War, and Baker was the perfect woman to capture it. Born American, she was only fully accepted as a performer in the considerably more color-blind clubs of Paris. Decades before Madonna, Baker fashioned herself into a star by breaking down barriers and flouting conventions. She danced nude and walked her pet cheetah down the Champs Élysées and everything she did or said was written up in the newspapers. And she was divine.

The second album is a contemporary compilation of period performances—Speakeasy Times from Starbucks. My husband picked this up for me as an impulse buy when he was paying for his coffee, but it turned out to be one of the best albums I found, introducing me to Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters and Ruth Etting. From driving dance music to bluesy laments, speakeasy jazz was the love child of New Orleans cribs and the Harlem Renaissance, music born to reflect energy and emotion. A little darker than Josephine Baker’s music, Speakeasy Times—particularly Waters’ “Stormy Weather”—touches a bluesier note, adding a whisper of melancholy to Baker’s insouciant high spirits.

Two contemporary albums rounded out the quartet—Jessica Molaskey’s Pentimento and Janet Klein’s Scandals. Very different in style, Pentimento is a perfect showcase for Molaskey’s talents. It ranges from the frivolous to the romantic, fully capturing the essence of the period. In contrast to Molaskey’s mellower style, Janet Klein is full of energy, and her “How Could Little Red Riding Hood” did not just provide a peppy bit of background music; the lyrics–such as “Please let me ask it; who filled her basket?” and “How could Red Riding Hood have been so very good and still kept the wolf from the door”,  “She was out in the woods for no good”—raised some extremely important questions for my book about female sexuality and societal expectations. The song is whimsical, but it makes it clear that there is a saucier interpretation to Red Riding Hood’s story and comes down clearly on the side of Red being a seductive sort—exactly the same as my heroine, Delilah Drummond, a flapper so notorious her family sends her to Africa to wait out the latest scandal. Red’s pragmatism, her ability to take care of herself, and her willingness to use her sexuality all went into shaping Delilah’s character, meaning that for the first time, not only did music evoke a mood for me while working it actually gave me something upon which to work.

And if the words fail, there’s nothing like dancing to some speakeasy jazz to get the blood—and inspiration—moving.

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