“Put another nickel in, in the nickelodeon, all I want is having you, and music, music, music.”
If you are of a certain age, like me, you’ve heard that song. You might even know what a nickelodeon is.
The song is called “Music, Music, Music.” It was recorded in 1950 by Teresa Brewer and the Dixieland All Stars. It was the B side of the recording. But the bouncy, effervescent tune, with 1950s written all over it, became a major hit.
What has this got to do with writing mysteries? Well, if you’re writing a historical novel, or even a contemporary one, music is a great way to define time period and setting. The Jill McLeod novels take place in the early Fifties, 1952 and 1953. One method of giving the readers the flavor of the times is to mention what music Jill and her friends and family are listening to.
In The Ghost in Roomette Four, Jill is having a conversation with her younger brother Drew. He’s a guitarist in a blues band and has an upcoming gig at a club in West Oakland. He disparages a popular song of the time, “How Much is that Doggie in the Window.” If there was ever a song that says early 1950s, it’s Patti Page singing about that dog.
And nothing says Bakersfield like country music. In Witness to Evil, my private eye Jeri Howard is heading south down the valley, listening to Patsy Cline. When she goes to New Orleans in The Devil Close Behind, well, New Orleans! In the first chapter, Jeri goes to Preservation Hall with her father. Hey, second-line parades and musicians on the corner, playing traditional jazz, with Jeri dancing on the sidewalk.
I’m writing another Jeri Howard case, this one called The Things We Keep. I keep running into the Sixties, with plot, characters, and setting. One character, Gloria, lived in San Francisco’s Haight district during the 1960s. She was the lead singer for her boyfriend’s band and proudly claims she knew Janis Joplin. And by the way, she was at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Talk about the flavor of the times. Picture Janis on some stage in the Haight, singing “Piece of My Heart.” Or Jefferson Airplane, with Grace Slick vocalizing “White Rabbit.”
Bring on the bell bottoms.
Yes, music is an effective, even essential addition to the writer’s toolbox.
And just what is a nickelodeon?
It’s a coin-operated machine that plays music. Could be a jukebox or a player piano. The original meaning, however, was a movie theater or cinema that cost five cents.