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  • Maya Sinha

5 Songs That Inspired The City Mother

In late 2018, when I had a complete draft of The City Mother, I sent it to a novelist who worked as a fiction editor on the side. For a fee, she read the draft and gave me numerous suggestions. Some were helpful; others, not so much. To me, the novel’s unusual qualities were features, not bugs.

I did get one important takeaway, however: Never quote pop music lyrics in a novel. To do so was the road to bankruptcy and ruin. A gray-faced team of lawyers would swarm you, waving certificates of copyright, and when they dispersed, nothing would be left but your dessicated carcass. Only one novelist alive could afford the rights to pop song lyrics, and his name rhymed with Deevin Ding. He lived in a mansion in Maine and roasted hot dogs over fires made from $100 bills. You were not him.

Alarmed, I went back through the novel, deleting all the lyrics I had naively and dangerously quoted. I replaced them with vague descriptions of the songs I had in mind (“a plaintive male voice sang words over the sound of a guitar”), hoping to fly under the radar of, say, Mick Jagger’s attorneys.

However, several real songs inspired scenes in the novel, and I believe I can mention their names without being imprisoned:

1. Thula Mama by Sibongile Khumalo. Home with my newborn son in our city apartment, I often played the album Dreamland: World Lullabies and Soothing Songs from Putumayo Records. For the next two or three years, my children and I listened to this enchanting song daily. Its honey-sweet chorus, repeated over and over, is calming to babies and mothers alike. Link:

In the novel, Cara describes her first weeks with the baby: Music was playing all the time: African lullabies; Celtic instrumentals; . . . so that the apartment seemed to thrum with its own pulse, keeping time with some universal human rhythm.

2. Lord, Protect My Child by Bob Dylan. This song reduced me to a sniveling wreck when I was home with my new baby, and to this day, it has a powerful effect on me. More than any other song, this Dylan outtake paved the way to my conversion, because it is simply unanswerable. It cannot be debated away, only felt and acknowledged on a deep level. Link:

From the novel: Out of nowhere, a stealth wave of feeling crashed over me. The chair stopped rocking. Tears sprang to my eyes.

3. Tear it Down by Old Crow Medicine Show. This Nashville band’s 2004 album, featuring a sort of hillbilly punk, is one of my all-time favorites. Caring for a baby and toddler, I needed high-energy music to wake me up and lift my spirits, and these frenetic bluegrass tunes, with their dark themes and frequent references to cocaine, fit the bill. I associate this song with Cara’s fractious domestic life. Link:

From the novel: After months of sleep deprivation, our brains were fried, zapped by every crackling jolt of feeling. We could not quite control our words or actions anymore.

4. Born at the Right Time by Paul Simon. My siblings and I grew up to Paul Simon’s album Graceland, played on endless repeat on every road trip. No one ever got tired of it, as we could never fully penetrate its mysteries but simply ponder them in our hearts. Simon was a brilliant lyricist: a nonlinear thinker who jumped from one striking image to the next, illuminating hidden connections. As in this song, religious themes frequently show up in his work. Link:

From the novel: Sometime later, I was conscious of a new song on the stereo… The song was about an infant girl found in a basket among the reeds of a riverbank, both like and unlike some ancient story I couldn’t place.

5. Stay A Little Longer by Willie Nelson. As we head into 2022, watching concert footage of Nelson and his band performing this song in 1983 fills me with joy. It’s the America I recognize and love. Does it get any better than this, the happy marriage of creativity and freedom? No. As Cara spirals into crisis, her Willie Nelson t-shirt serves as a reminder of the indominable human spirit. Link:

From the novel: We loved all Willie’s songs, but our favorite was an upbeat Western swing number recorded live with Nelson’s band called ‘Stay a Little Longer.’

Here's hoping for good music and good times in 2022.

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