Monday, March 31, 2014
Or, a brief musical interlude? I am still reading books by John and Alan Lomax, and others, from my music shelves here at home, but I took a little break last night after picking up a secondhand copy of Counting My Chickens... and Other Home Thoughts by then-Deborah Devonshire (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2001) at a thrift shop yesterday. It's a diminutive book made up of short diary entries and deadpan funny essays on all sorts of topics and people. When I opened it right up to the delicious little section entitled Stolen Books, about the books she keeps in her own room so houseguests won't steal them, I had to smile when she told me that of her "unstealables" (p.167), "Most precious is The Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley." (p. 168) Which is of course Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown 1994). I also had to smile that she added a The to the title, since she was famous for not reading books. But loved this one, being an Elvis fan! She says of the book, "If that goes, I give up." (ibid) I love small coincidences such as this that somehow knit the disparate threads of one's reading together. Okay, back to the books...
Friday, March 28, 2014
"...an underlying emotional concern."
Before I get into several books by famous song hunters John and Alan Lomax, I want to first mention this little gem, just-read, from my own collection:
The Bluesmen by Samuel Charters (Oak Publications 1967). I bought this slightly shabby softcover copy a few years ago at a local book barn for five bucks. The aforementioned Peter Guralnick cites the work of Samuel Charters as influential when he himself first became fascinated with singers of the blues (and when old, still-living blues singers from the earliest days of recorded music were being rediscovered during the folk music revivals of the sixties). Reading this book I can see why. Charters spent the fifties and sixties recording blues and jazz artists and talking with and writing about them. I don't have any of his other books, but this one is pretty darn great. It has chapters on the blues of Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas, with sections on Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and others, with lots of lyrics and musical notation, as well as first-person narratives from the singers or those who knew them or knew of them. Great information throughout, and I appreciate Charters's writing style, although it's not as accessible as Guralnick's (being more impartial in a scholarly way). I particularly like his straightforward description of what, exactly, constitutes the blues (pp.90-91):
"The usual pattern for a blues is a group of verses loosely held together by an underlying emotional concern. Most of the verses are standard textual material, usually general comments tied to the particular situation that the singer has described."
Isn't that cogent? When listening to blues singers (simplifying wildly here), sometimes it's hard to figure out why they are so good - with these repetitive lyrics that seem simple or pat - and yes, it's that underlying emotion that sweeps through the song like a river in flood and carries you along with it. If the singer is really good, the emotion is often so strong that it almost doesn't matter what the lyrics are. I've had a boxed set of the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music for a number of years now, and in some of my favorite tracks (blues, country, folk, gospel) the emotion carries everything. I mean, they are so hair-raisingly good that your flesh creeps.
But back to Charters. In the introduction (p.10), he says that by the time he and others got serious with their research into the blues, "...it was too late to do much more than trace the earliest sources and forms of the blues, but it was possible to learn some of the patterns of change and emphasis as the blues has moved - in less than sixty years - from rough field singing to the contemporary Chicago blues band style." That's what he goes on to do in this book. The results are fascinating and again had me making notes of songs to find later. The book also has some wonderful photographs by Samuel Charters's wife, famous beat scholar Ann Charters, and illustrations of early record company advertisements (for what were called at the time "race records") and sheet music.
After all that shall I leave you with a song? Even though Charters barely mentions him, how about Mississippi John Hurt's smooth rolling version of the ballad of Frankie and Albert, recorded in 1928, and anthologized in 1952 by Harry Smith in his Volume I, Ballads. It purls along like a gentle stream, not a raging river, and I do love it so.
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
books and music, home and away
Still here, still winter (still well below freezing and snowing hard right this very minute in fact but let's not talk about it), still searching for good books to read. I found myself recently staring at our bookshelves in search of the latter. I often stand in the book room and look around and everything feels so familiar that I forget how many of the worthy books right in front of me remain unread. I've been craving something else really American after reading so much Samuel Clemens, and my search brought me up short in front of a few shelves of music books. I don't know if I've ever mentioned that I have a small collection of books about American music, particularly folk and roots, with some divergencies here and there into other genres. Well, I grew up listening to the vinyl records my liberal leftie parents had on hand - among them the Weavers, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Harry Belafonte, the Beatles, Elvis, and Hank Williams, not to mention copious soundtracks to Broadway musicals and the works of various classical composers. In fact I still own some of those vinyl records, as well as many I bought in high school, and then in college too, when I had a radio show with my two best friends. After college when I began seeking out secondhand books I started to find - and tuck away - books about the music I grew up with and still love. Over time I amassed a lot of these books, but in our various moves over the years I've let go of many of them, and as with all the other subjects I keep an eye out for, I've come to consider the books I've actually kept as essential, whatever that might mean. To me it means standing in front of a bookcase so full that not one more book can fit in it, with an empty box at my feet, destined to be filled with outgoing books. I look and look and look some more and finally choose a few books to go into the box. The shelves breathe easier. And at some point I am left standing there, still looking, with the realization that I've done all I can do that day in the letting go department. I love what's left too much. Some of what remains I've actually read and want to read again, and right now I find myself reading through the rest.
So, over the next week or two I thought I'd share with you some of my favorites. I want to start with the first one I pulled off the shelf a week ago, when I was between books and went on that quest we all share, for something really good to read. I took this into the other room and sat and read half of it, and finished it the next day. It's simply great. Peter Guralnick's Lost Highway: Journeys & Arrivals of American Musicians (Godine 1979). I see from my secret bookseller code pencilled inside the back cover that I bought this hardcover first edition fourteen years ago for five bucks. And I'd still rather have the book on my shelf than the five bucks in my wallet (story of my life).
Over 350 pages about legendary American musicians and their grueling and fascinating lives both on the road and in the recording studio. Sections include Honky Tonk Heroes (Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Rufus Thomas, etc), Hillbilly Boogie (Charlie Feathers, Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, Mickey Gilley, etc), Honky Tonk Masquerade (Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Jr., etc), and The Blues Roll On (Howlin' Wolf, Otis Span, etc), with an epilogue about the legacy of Sam Phillips and his Sun label. (The last is just a taste of what is to come, since Guralnick is currently working on a biography of Sam Phillips. Can't wait.)
I loved this book. It is written in a scholarly way, with a very high level of care and detail, but with the unmistakable tone of the obsessed fanatic, the lover. This is not music that should be written about in a dry academic form, and his style is such that I can't wait to read his first book, the precursor to this one, called Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock 'n' Roll (originally printed in 1971 but revised and still in print). I want to find a copy, and have looked locally with no success, so I guess I'll have to break down and get one online. (Whatever.) I also want his award-winning two-volume biography of Elvis and his biography of Sam Cooke. When I had my bookshop I had both of the Elvis volumes at different times, and sold them both. Kicking myself now, but in my own defense I hadn't read anything by Guralnick yet. Now I have. All his books are listed here.
Almost all his books, I should say. I have one that he doesn't list on his website, perhaps because it is dated, referring as it does to the aforementioned world of vinyl records. It's The Listener's Guide to the Blues (Facts on File 1982). Found it in 2002 at a library book sale for two dollars. I read it a few days ago and it's like sitting quietly and listening to your best friend go on and on and on and on about the intricacies of whatever musical obsession he or she happens to be in complete thrall to at a given time (if you've ever had a friend who, say, followed the Grateful Dead, this may be a familiar state). This, in my view, is not a fault. Quite the contrary. So many great music recommendations within - I found myself making a list as I read along, of people to seek out on youtube or on cd or even vinyl or really any old way, he is that persuasive.
The only other Guralnick book I have is a hardcover copy of his long essay Searching for Robert Johnson (Dutton 1989).
I bought the Robert Johnson book on a remainder table for five bucks, in the year 2000, I think at Borders. I actually bought the only two copies on the remainder table, and I sold one at my shop. I kept the other because I wanted to read it someday. And because it was signed by the author on the half title page:
I read this one too, a few days ago. Very satisfying. More great prose about one seminal musician, his context, and his rippling legacies. I must say it's been wild to go from reading Huckleberry Finn to reading about race and music in the American south. In a word, it's been a trip. And it's been just what I've been looking for - something to take me away, while still being right at home. That's what a great book does and what great music does too - it sends you and it gets you right where you live. At the same time. I get chills thinking about the mysterious alchemy of it. That's all for now - I'll be back soon to continue in this vein, with John and Alan Lomax, among others.
Saturday, March 15, 2014
I ran into an acquaintance at a gallery a few weeks ago. She was bright and chipper and said, "I don't know why everyone's grumbling about winter! Winter's great, I love it! We're in Maine, what do people expect!" As she left I thought - most uncharitably I know, and I immediately chastised myself for it - Spoken like someone who has been able to afford to go away for a vacation... then I drove home slowly in the flying snow. Now, I do love winter. And lord knows I love Maine. And it's no one's fault that all our extra money this year was hoovered up by furnace repairs and heating oil bills and car repairs and family emergencies and on and on - that's what's happening all over. BUT. For the record. This year, due to what many are calling "global weirding," we here in Maine have experienced January weather not only in January where it belongs, and where it is bearable and expected and character-building and we can even be proud of its severity, but also in December, February, and now March. Zero at night, bitter days, lots of snow and ice. On it goes. We finally threw in the towel. Just gave up. There was no alternative. Ryan's been sick for two weeks and I've been sick for one week, with ridiculous lingering colds. So disheartening. Ryan went back to work after a few days at home, since everyone he works with has it too. Since I work at home, here I am anyway, with zero ambition. Thank god I can still read.
Although after getting sick my reading took a left turn at Albuquerque and it seems that I am finished with Samuel Clemens for the time being. When this cold first loomed I wanted nothing more to do with anything I didn't already know and love well in advance, so I curled up with a big stack of old favorites, among them China Court: The Hours of a Country House by Rumer Godden (Viking 1961) and Shine On, Bright & Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin (Viking 1975). Both novels have fantastic opening lines, and both begin - boom! - with the deaths of major characters.
"Old Mrs. Quin died in her sleep in the early hours of an August morning."
Shine On, Bright & Dangerous Object:
"My husband died sailing off the coast of Maine, leaving me a widow at the age of twenty-seven."
How can you not want to read on, in either case? You're right in the thick of the action, from the get-go. And despite their stark beginnings neither are about death, rather they are about life going on, relentlessly and passionately. Which it does do. To wit, last November, over the course of one of the last warm afternoons in living memory, I planted several hundred bulbs in a garden bed I'd dug out from the base of the low stone wall on the south side of our house. Crocuses, narcissus, daffodils - many colors and varieties - the dry bulbs got mixed together in a big paper bag then planted all along the wall and mulched with compost and dried leaves. The guy at the garden store said, when I bought them, "You'll be glad you did!" And now, oh I am. I know they're still there, under two feet of ice and snow at the moment, but soon - soon lord? - the sun will warm the granite wall and the wall will melt the ice and snow and the bulbs will send up their first green shoots. Those very first signs of spring are their own wonderful opening lines. You read them with delight and gratitude, and can't wait for the rest of the story.
Monday, March 03, 2014
in a word
Incorrigible? Is that the word I want? Let's see:
(of a person or their tendencies) not able to be corrected, improved, or reformed.
synonyms: inveterate, habitual, confirmed, hardened, dyed-in-the-wool, incurable, chronic, irredeemable, hopeless, beyond hope; impenitent, unrepentant, unapologetic, unashamed; (etc).
I see that yes, yes it is the word I want! We went back to the book sale this weekend, and everything was half price. Bought three more cartons of books for seventy bucks. Oh I found some lovelies... *sigh*