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.

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