Macon, Georgia, in the 1960s seems an unlikely place for a harmonic convergence of intersectionality, but Peter McDade brings together the right players to explore racism, sexism and cultural appropriation, in a haze of cannabis.
Can hippies be racist? It turns out they can.
McDade’s novel Songs by Honeybird creates the first integrated rock band, predating the Allman Brothers, and he ups the ante by giving the group a female bassist. The young act succumbs to a fire that kills front-man Harlan Honeybird and raises questions about the possible disappearance of Black drummer Nate Williams.
Investigating this distinctly Southern mystery 50 years later is grad student Ben Davies, fresh off a breakup with his piano-playing girlfriend, Nina. She salves her broken heart with the help of a talking dog who is the reincarnation of Siddartha Gautama, or the Buddha, called “Sid” for short. Yes, the dog literally speaks like a human. So, many strands — some of them head-scratching in a professorial sense — are braided into the plot. Sid gets the best ironic, koan-like lines, but the long-held secrets of the groundbreaking band prove more compelling.
“I think it’s a relationship story between Ben and Nina,” the novelist says, “but most of the characters have relationships with each other and with music, if that makes sense.”
Songs by Honeybird is the sophomore effort of McDade, a drummer and historian who teaches at Clark Atlanta University. He won a Georgia Author of the Year Award with his 2018 debut, The Weight of Soundwhich included a soundtrack, as does the new release.
We caught up with McDade between drum licks and lectures in history to discuss this rhythmic work of imagination.
ArtsATL: Let’s right away address the animal in the room, the canine philosopher. He clearly draws more inspiration from Terry Kay’s To Dance with the White Dog than from Son of Sam. Still, why a dog? Why Buddha?
McDade: I think that Sid is a way that Nina processes her life, her thoughts. The same way the band did that for its members — and then does the same for its listeners, like Ben. Also, the band was a place for secrets. And Nina can share those with Sid. The shared sensibility could be Buddhist-esque in the notion of living in the moment? That is, everyone here has a lot of past stuff to deal with, but needs to deal with it and then move on.
ArtsATL: A native of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, you were a founding member of Uncle Green, with your high school friends. All of you moved to Atlanta in the mid-1980s, recorded seven albums, and toured nationally. How did your experiences as a musician inform this novel?
McDade: Highs of life as a musician were for sure the travel, and the actual making of records: being in the studio, shaping sound. Lows included the business side of it all. Watching your creativity boiled down to numbers of charts (how many times did that song get played in Pittsburgh last week?). I feel like I draw on my life as a musician on a daily basis, like giving a lecture, for a recent example. For this book, I tapped into my experiences in a band and the relationships that get created. I also tap into that record-making aspect, when shaping a book.
ArtsATL: To what extent did you draw on research into the Allman Brothers, who also famously had a Black drummer and also suffered transfiguring tragedies early on?
McDade: I was not super-inspired by the Allman Brothers. I wanted the band in a town south of Atlanta, and was drawn to Macon more by Otis Redding than the Allmans. But it did work well, to have an integrated band that pre-dates the Allmans, for Ben’s story.
ArtsATL: The plot is framed around Ben’s dissertation; that is his reason for digging into the past. What was your personal area of interest in your academic career?
McDade: My own topic focused on Atlanta in the late 1960s and early ’70s. I just got the MA. I did a little research on the Great Speckled Bird (an alternative publication from the era).
ArtsATL: Music is always touted as one of the great unifiers, even in a place divided by segregation. Talk a bit about its healing properties.
McDade: I think all art has the ability to heal, if fully engaged with. There are so many possible messages in a good piece of music or piece of art that an active listener can and should be able to find what they need to hear. For me, personally, music works especially well for this. There are so many layers to music — from the performances to the sounds to melodies. It’s one of the ways I try and cope and interact with the world, for sure, which is probably why so many of my characters do the same. So maybe it’s that there is a huge amount of potential for music to heal, if the listener is fully engaged, and open. I think Nina and Ben are both changed by music — Nina through performing, Ben more through analyzing. Which also says a lot about the way each of them engages with the world around them.
Candice Dyer’s work has appeared in Atlanta magazine, Garden and Gun, Georgia Trend and other publications. She is the author of Street Singers, Soul Shakers, Rebels with a Cause: Music from Macon.
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