As I write this, I’m listening to the 10th anniversary edition of the Oxford American’s Southern music CD. As one groove leads into the next – or would have if this were a vinyl album and not a CD – Lucinda Williams’ gravely, sultry voice fades into the high-flying soul and gospel wails of the Staple Singers. They fade into the sexy sounds of Eartha Kitt, which fades into Charlie Rich’s demo of an old gospel standard, “Feel Like Going Home.” Music enriches life in a way that no other art can possibly, and in tumultuous times like these, where we hang on tenaciously to our jobs while the pink slips fly around us, music soothes the frazzled soul like nothing else.
Of course there are also numerous recent books about music, musicians, and the nature of music that provide great companions to our journey through these times. When I started writing this column, one of the hopes I had was that I would be able to revisit older music books, and I plan to do that at least once a month here. I’ve listed the bibliographic information for each title for what I hope will be ease of reference when you order from your local independent bookstore or directly from the publisher.
SING ME BACK HOME: Love, Death, and Country Music by Dana Jennings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The perfect country song, according to the late songwriter Steve Goodman, always had references to Mama, being drunk, prison, cheating men and women, trains, death, and hell-bent driving. Taking a page from Goodman’s songbook, author Dana Jennings brilliantly captures the essence of country music in this hard-driving tale that is part memoir and part music history.
Combining the down-home humor of Andy Griffith and the wild-eyed, hard-edged energy of Hank Williams and Jerry Reed, Jennings sings us back home to his upbringing in the hardscrabble hollers of New Hampshire, where the men worked hard and drank hard and the women stood by their men despite abuse and cheating.
He recalls characters from his family to illustrate the various themes of the golden age of country music: 1950-1970. For example, his Grammy Jennings, “like Patsy Cline, knows what it is to go walkin’ after midnight searching for her man, to fall to pieces, to be crazy – you don’t go chasing your oldest son with a butcher knife if you ain’t crazy. But she carries no torches. She herself is the torch.”
With the lonesome strains of the steel guitar and tales of hunger and poverty, hard work, and reckless driving, cheating and drinking, and religion and prison, artists like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Connie Smith, and Merle Haggard – country singers no longer heard on today’s country radio – were singing not only directly to Jennings and his family but also to the millions of folks just like them trying to face what Porter Wagoner sang about as “The Cold Hard Facts of Life” in a post-war world. Jennings’ affectionate recollections of Wagoner’s “Green, Green Grass of Home” also include a discography perfect for anyone who wants to “Walk the Line” of classic country music by folks like Johnny Cash.
A FREEWHEELIN’ TIME: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties by Suze Rotolo (Broadway Books)
In July 1961, Suze Rotolo, a shy 17-year-old from Queens, met an up-and-coming young folk singer named Bob Dylan at an all-day folk festival at Riverside Church in Manhattan, and her life changed forever. For the next three years, Suze – who changed her name from Susan when she saw the more exotic moniker on a wine bottle in a Picasso painting – and Bobby lived a freewheeling life amidst the bohemians in the emerging folk scene in Greenwich Village.
In A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, Rotolo offers brief glimpses of the denizens populating the new music scene below 14th Street in the early '60s – Mayor of MacDougal Street Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins, Dick Fariña, Odetta, José Feliciano, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Wavy Gravy, Eric Weissberg, Bill Cosby, and Noel Stookey (aka “Paul,” of Peter, Paul and Mary).
She recalls the anticipation of the music scene in the Village where writers and musicians like Dylan wandered in and out of each other’s lives and apartments, trading music and lyrics to produce a new sound that changed American music. Yet, for the woman who’s clutching Dylan’s arm on cover of his second album, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Rotolo doesn’t give us a very freewheelin’ memoir. She offers shallow, almost schoolgirl-like, reflections on the man she loved and lived with for three years. In a dull and plodding manner, Rotolo provides no new insights into Dylan, claiming, as have so many, that he is mysterious and enigmatic.
In an excerpt from one of her journals, she writes ambivalently that she believes in his genius and that he is an extraordinary writer but that she doesn’t think he’s an honorable person or that he necessarily does the right thing. Dylan’s honesty, according to Rotolo, lies in his being his own person from the beginning. Thus, Rotolo’s monotonous memoir turns an exciting moment in American history into a lifeless and lackluster affair. Even so, Rotolo’s chronicle gives us important insight into her times and into Dylan that we don’t get anywhere else.
THE SOLOIST: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music by Steve Lopez (Putnam)
Scurrying back to his office one day, Steve Lopez, a columnist for the L.A. Times, is pulled up short by the ethereal strains of a violin. Searching for the sound, he spots a homeless man coaxing those beautiful sounds from a battered two-string violin. When the man finishes, Lopez compliments him briefly and rushes off to write about his newfound subject, Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless violinist. Over the next few days, Lopez discovers that Nathaniel was once a promising classical bass student at Julliard but that various pressures – including being one of a few African-American students – and mounting schizophrenia caused Nathaniel to drop out.
Enlisting the help of doctors, mental health professionals, and professional musicians, Lopez attempts to help Nathaniel move off Skid Row, regain his dignity, develop a musical talent cut short by life’s circumstances, and free himself of the demons induced by the schizophrenia.
Lopez is able to arrange to have Nathaniel take cello lessons with a cellist from the Los Angeles Symphony as well as to get Nathaniel backstage to meet Yo-Yo Ma, one of Nathaniel’s idols. Yet Nathaniel is not the only one changed by this experience. Although Lopez wants Nathaniel to embrace his help and to be cured quickly, the columnist endures disappointments and setbacks with Nathaniel’s case, questions his own motives for helping his friend, and acknowledges that Nathaniel has taught him about courage and humanity in ways that Nathaniel will ever know.
With self-effacing humor, fast-paced yet elegant prose, and unsparing honesty, Lopez tells an inspiring story of heartbreak and hope in The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music, which is also now a movie starring Chris Rock as Nathaniel.
THE WORLD IN SIX SONGS: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature by Daniel Levitin (Dutton)
For a brief moment in 1969, at Woodstock, it felt as if music was the primal force that could change the world. The wailing guitar of Jimi Hendrix and ringing harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, drew together thousands of strangers as one in love and harmony.
What makes music such a powerful force, and how can we use its energy to understand our own humanity? In The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, a rewarding though often repetitious study, Charles Darwin meets the Beatles as musician and scientist Daniel Levitin attempts to answer these questions.
He argues that music is not simply a pastime or a distraction. It is a core element of our identity as a species, paving the way for more complex behaviors such as language, large-scale cooperative undertakings, and the passing down of information from one generation to the next.
Through his studies, Levitin has discovered that there are six kinds of songs that do all of this: songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. For example, work songs and synchronized singing promote feelings of togetherness and help build large-scale civic structures.
According to Levitin, evolution may have selected individuals who could settle disputes in nonviolent ways such as music and dance. Songs also function to teach our children, to remind us about events in our lives (Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” for example), and to record our legends. Although many will think Levitin’s claims are reductionist, he nevertheless offers a detailed explanation for the continuing power of music in our society and in the lives of individuals.
THE INDIE BAND SURVIVAL GUIDE: The Complete Manual for the Do-It-Yourself Musician by Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan (St. Martin’s)
These days it’s getting harder and harder to be a rock band or an independent musician. Getting your music heard by producers and record labels, developing a fan base, and making money from your music are only some of the challenges that new musicians and bands face in an industry that changes rapidly every day.
Randy Chertow and Jason Feehan, lead members of the Chicago-based band Beatnik Turtle, have managed successfully to get their music out to the public, to produce four albums, to build a huge following, and to write music for television shows and theater without the benefit of a record label. In their indispensible handbook, The Indie Band Survival Guide: The Complete Manual for the Do-It-Yourself Musician, the two effectively and graciously share the wealth of knowledge they have accumulated during their career.
Covering topics ranging from building your brand, your network, your website, and your rights to getting noticed, getting booked, playing live, and getting publicized, Chertow and Feehan pass along advice that, while sometimes self-evident, encourages bands to exploit the internet and to become web savvy in order to make a name for themselves.
In illustrious detail, they spell out clearly terms in contracts such as “nonexclusive” that can often be so fuzzy. In their section on getting booked, they remind bands that the essence of a good show is remembering that the band is there for the audience, and the authors explain step-by-step the ups and downs of dealing with bookers, scheduling, and booking kits. Because this lively book offers such essential guidance in these changing times, no band should be without a copy of it.
HALLELUJAH JUNCTION: Composing an American Life by John Adams (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Best known for his groundbreaking musical works Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, composer John Adams helped shape the landscape of contemporary classical music. Combining the narrative power of opera, the atonal themes of classical music, the spooky modulations of jazz, and the complex rhythms of The Beatles and The Band, Adams created a new music that could express the fractiousness of the political scene of the 1960s and 1970s.
In this entertaining memoir, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, Adams deftly chronicles his life and times, providing along the way an incisive exploration of the creative process.
A precocious musician, Adams began playing clarinet in the third grade, and, after hearing his teacher read Mozart’s biography, tried his hand at composing music. During his undergraduate years at Harvard, he threw himself into performing and conducting when his own inadequacies as a composer began to dawn on him. By his final year at Harvard, however, the chaos of the late 1960s and the creative turbulence of the music scene drove him back to composing, and he composed two serious pieces in graduate school, including the 15-minute tape composition, Heavy Metal.
After two years in graduate school, Adams set out for California, where he paid his dues by teaching numerous composition classes and private clarinet lessons while working tirelessly on his own music and working with a who’s who of the music world from Cage and Leonard Bernstein to Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
Adams’ searingly introspective autobiography reveals the workings of a brilliant musical mind responsible for some of contemporary America’s most inventive and original music.