A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Guest reviewer Brad Bigelow from The Neglected Books Page gives us a joyous blast of musical literary Americana.
When Kate asked me to step in and provide a piece this week, I immediately fell victim to the tyranny of choices: what to cover that would give just recognition to America’s 240th birthday? I was tempted to reach back to Mrs. Welgan’s 10th grade English class, a year-long survey of American literature–throughout which she would repeatedly ask us to identify what was “uniquely American” about whatever we’d just read, whether it was Poe, Twain, or Eudora Welty. So none of us was surprised that the final exam turned out to be a set essay on the topic of -you guessed it – “What is uniquely American about American literature?”
But then I realized that the best way to celebrate the American-ness of American writing is to focus on the intersection between writing and America’s greatest cultural creation. Or, as the Blasters put it in their 1981 song:
We got the Louisiana boogie and the delta blues
We got country, swing and rockabilly, too
We got jazz, country-western and Chicago blues
It’s the greatest music that you ever knew
It’s American music, it’s American music, it’s American music
It’s the greatest sound right from the U.S.A.
Unfortunately, as I started to jot down the titles of some of my favorite books on American music, I quickly came up with dozens. The various collections from the two great jazz essayists, Whitney Balliett and Gene Lees. Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces. The surveys of R&B, soul, jazz, blues, and other genres such as Arnold Shaw’s Honkers and Shouters, Gerri Hirshey’s Nowhere to Run, and Ted Gioia’s West Coast Jazz. The soul-bearing autobiographies like Art Pepper’s Straight Life and Charles Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog, which made Rousseau’s Confessions look discreet. And the absorbing biographies like Nick Tosches’ Hellfire, which would make you think that Jerry Lee Lewis’s penchant for pills, booze, lighter fluid, and marriage to underage cousins a surprisingly effective anti-ageing program, or James McBride’s just-out Kill ‘Em and Leave, which shows that James Brown was not only a ground-breaking musical artist but also–simultaneously–one of the best and worst role models for black men of his time.
Since the folks here at Vulpes Libris didn’t sign up for a month’s worth of posts, however, I’ll focus on just three books on American music that I’ve kept with me through fourteen moves and thirty-plus years.
Bodies and Soul (1981), by Al Young. Not long after I moved to the Bay Area in 1981, I bought this collection of short, lyrical, comic, and cool essays – riffs, really – on different jazz, soul, and blues tunes and their links to experiences and memories from poet and novelist Young’s life, and I devoured it. At the time, my ears were just getting opened up to an amazing range of music and every one of Young’s pieces made me want to run down to the record store and find a copy of the tune that inspired him.
And then, a few months later, while browsing with a friend at the local Tower Records store, I looked up and saw Al Young. I recognized him from the photo on the book by the distinctive broad strip of white that went up the front of his head of black hair. So I went over and spoke to him, telling him how much I enjoyed Bodies and Soul. He told me he was shopping with a friend himself, looking to spend a birthday gift certificate on a few albums. I remember he had something by Ivory Joe Hunter and some jazz new release. I had a Marvin Gaye Motown reissue. We talked about each other’s choices and moved along.
And of course, that was part of what made discovering music so exciting to me at the time. There was no Internet or iTunes to offer instant access to a dozen different copies of whatever recording you might read about. You had to go to record stores and finger through hundreds, thousands of albums, with no reason to believe that you would actually find a copy of whatever you were looking for. Some tracks took years to find. It took me three or four years to locate a copy of Ray Charles’ steamroller of a number, ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor’, a rare 45 RPM single, after reading about it in Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. Some tracks you never found.
But when you did, you had a multi-dimensional experience: not just the sound of the music but the feel of the record in your hands, the sight of the cover art, the reading of the liner notes – sometimes even the faint smell of mildew from the ageing cardboard sleeve. And you sat in your living room or friends’ living rooms, drinking and listening and talking and sparking desires to hear yet more acts and find yet more records. So also being able to read books full of references to musicians and songs you knew or had never heard, full of passion for their rhythms, their joys, their sadness, their craziness, just enriched the experience.
Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians (1979). I found this when I’d gone to my university’s music library in search of a book about the Texas swing great, Bob Wills. This superb collection of portraits of blues and country musicians such as Howlin’ Wolf, Sleepy LaBeef, and Bobby Bland is still one of my favorite books on American music, even though every one of Guralnick’s subsequent books has been a classic. For his account of Charlie Rich, a complex and troubled man – never quite fully at home in country music, too country for jazz fans, too white to make it was an R&B artist, nurtured and saved by the love of a good woman – led me to overcome my distaste for Rich’s dreadful 1970s chart-topper, ‘Behind Closed Doors’, and seek out his earlier album The Fabulous Charlie Rich, featuring ‘Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs’, written by his wife, Margaret Ann, and clearly sung by Rich in recognition of what his own alcoholism and erratic career path had demanded of her. And while I still can’t stand ‘Behind Closed Doors’ or ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’, I now think of Rich as one of more unappreciated artists of his time.
Country: The Biggest Music in America, by Nick Tosches (1977). Guralnick led me on to Tosches’ high-speed careen down the backroads and dark alleys of country music, a book that’s subsequently been reissued as Country: Living Legends and Dying Metaphors in America’s Biggest Music and Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Whatever its name, it’s still the best illustration of the deeply contradictory aspects of country music: its Sunday morning propriety and reverence and its Saturday night drinking, gambling and womanizing; its lily-white uniformity and its complex interdependencies with the Blues and other black music. In the course of his account, Tosches delves into everything from Elizabethan ballads to blackface minstrel acts to high-powered Mexican border radio stations to tabloid stories like George Jones’ drunken drive into Beaumont, Texas on a riding lawnmower.
Thanks to Tosches, when I was living in southern Mississippi in the early 1980s and saw a poster announcing that Ernest Tubb would be performing a show in nearby Gulfport, I recognized it as a chance to witness a phenomenon that was already a thing of the past: the old-fashioned country and western road show. I will always consider myself lucky to have seen the master, just a few years before his death and obviously already suffering greatly from emphysema. Looking as mottled, twisted, and wrinkled as an old piece of rope, Ernest still managed to clamber on stage for perhaps the 10,000th time, still wore his suit from Nudie, with its razor-sharp creases, still sang everyone’s favorites, still gave each one of his instrumentalists a solo spotlight number, still conducted himself with an effortless nobility that made us all feel better human beings, still stuck around afterward to greet fans and sign photos and records, and still hauled himself back into his bus with the rest of his crew and headed out for yet another town.
My mother used to cringe whenever she heard an Ernest Tubb record. ‘There he goes singing through his nose again’, she would say. And I would probably have taken the same view ever after had I not read Nick Tosches’ Country, just as I would have detested Charlie Rich as a leisure-suited low-life had I not read Peter Guralnick. But that’s why good writing on music is so invaluable: it not only opens up our ears, but it helps us hear what we’ve heard dozens or hundreds of times before and begin to truly appreciate it – and the people who created it – for the first time.
Read more of Brad’s excellent writing on truly obscure novels and authors at The Neglected Books Page.