Book Reviews

 

BLUES, R&B

- Obrecht, Jas, ed. Rollin’ and Tumblin’ : The Postwar Blues Guitarists. San Francisco : Miller Freeman Books, 2000.
- Wardlow, Gayle Dean. Chasin’ That Devil Music : Searching For the Blues. San Francisco : Miller Freeman Books, 1998.
- Younger, Richard. Get A Shot of Rhythm and Blues : The Arthur Alexander Story. University of Alalbama Press, 2000.

JAZZ

- Hasse, John Edward, editor. Jazz : The First Century. New York : William Morrow, 2000

MUSIC TECHNOLOGY

- Théberge, Paul. Any Sound You Can Imagine : Making Music/ Consuming Technology. Hanover, New Hampshire : Wesleyan University Press, 1997

ROCK, AND POP

- Bertrand, Michael T. Race, Rock, and Elvis. Urbana and Chicago : University of Illinois Press, 2000.
- Lowe, Allen. American Pop from Minstrel to Mojo : On Record 1893-1956. Cadence Jazz Books, 1997. [ISBN # 1-881993-33-7 Cadence Jazz Books, Cadence Building, Redwood, New York, USA 13679]

NOVELS WITH MUSIC THEMES

- Moss, Robert. Descending Memphis, 2017 (review at the bottom of this page)

Rollin’ and Tumblin’ : The Postwar Blues Guitarists : Edited by Jas Obrecht


The electric guitar was invented in the 1930s and by the next decade had made an impact on jazz, country, and blues music. As the iconic instrument of rock, its saga and the lives and music of its players, regardless of their genre, has been highlighted. This book profiles names big and little in the blues, primarily in their own words, and as a source of oral history it is invaluable. An opening chapter, and well-written introductions to subsequent ones provide the necessary contextual details. Editor Obrecht, author of another book on blues guitarists and one on Jimi Hendrix, has gathered together some of his own articles and those of other noteworthy researchers into a hefty volume of precious blues lore.

For more than half its length, the book is organized by geography. “Texas and the West Coast” is where one finds the stories of T-Bone Walker, Lighnin’ Hopkins, and others. “Sweet Home Chicago,” the longest section, contains chapters on 14 guitarists, among them Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and Elmore James. Readers curious about the details of Robert Lockwood, Jr.’s relationship to his stepfather, Robert Johnson (mentioned in this website’s review of Lockwood’s current album), will find them here. Geographical organization breaks down for a chapter, called “Blues With a Feeling,” profiling John Lee Hooker, Albert King, and BB King, and others. The final section, which has its own unique charm, is “Conversations with the Blues,” where four chapters are devoted to reporting the dialogue between pairs of bluesmen.

Portions of these articles have appeared in various music magazines but are here presented in more complete form. For its autobiographical component and eyewitness reportage of blues history, this book is a wonderful addition to the blues fan’s library. The big names will sell the book, but the chapters on unsung heroes-Saunders King, Willie Johnson, Guitar Slim, Jody Williams-will instruct even the most erudite of blues mavens.

Chasin’ That Devil Music : Searching For the Blues by Gayle Dean Wardlow

Wardlow didn’t start off with the idea of becoming one of the world’s foremost blues detectives. At first he just wanted to expand his collection of Roy Acuff hillbilly records. A mail order dealer noticed his Mississippi address and proposed trading blues records for them. By the early 1960s Wardlow came to prefer the blues, especially the 1920s and 1930s acoustic, downhome kind.

Mississippi delta blues is not only among the most powerful styles of music available, it is the undeniable root of the evolution of the genre. A list of the world’s top blues people from any era will reveal an impressive number who come from Mississippi. The earliest of the big names-Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Son House, Skip James-are here in detail, as well as their lesser-known contemporaries.

Wardlow found their precious out-of-print records by “junking” for them, canvassing from door to door. He soon realized that the best places to look were houses that had flowerpots, for that indicated a long-term, female resident. It was primarily women who bought the windup victrolas and 78-rpm records to play on them. Using research skills he knew from working as a newspaper reporter, and encouraged by a growing network of blues collectors and scholars, Wardlow put his stock in verifiable documents, recovering information from city directories and birth, marriage, and death certificates. He also interviewed
whomever he could track down.

The story of his sleuthing is as fascinating as his findings, and both are absolutely invaluable for lovers of the blues. We owe much of our knowledge of the great blues pioneers and the details of the early recording industry to Wardlow’s work. We are even enriched, if saddened, by what he can say we have irretrievably lost : trails gone cold, missing artifacts. He unraveled mysteries of biography, geography, and song lyrics. In doing so he also locked horns with other researchers over disagreements that turned theories and conclusions into controversies.

The book combines reprints of album notes and magazine articles from the 1960s and later, at times with updates and corrections. There is also some new material, from Wardlow and from editor Ed Komara, another blues detective. To make it all come alive, the book includes a CD of choice blues, a bit of gospel, and a few interview snippets.

Now that I have hopefully convinced you to get this book, I need to advise you that it can be frustrating. Some sections are poorly written, others badly organized. There is lots of repetition, some typographical errors, many references that send the reader to other parts of the book, and an incomplete index. In other words, it would have needed a good copy editor. However, as readers dig around in the book, they will experience what Gayle Dean Wardlow does : chase and search. The effort is worth it : there is gold here.

Get a Shot of Rhythm and Blues : The Arthur Alexander Story by Richard Younger


Straddling rhythm and blues, country, and gospel, Arthur Alexander forged a unique and thrilling style, inspiring passion, affection, and cover versions of his songs by many, including the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan.

Sparked by seeing Arthur Alexander in concert and interviewing him just before his untimely death, Richard Younger has written a sensitive and detailed biography of this great and influential Alabama singer whose songs are loved internationally. The author cuts a sure path though an impressive amount of research and interviews, drawing as clear a portrait as we are likely to have. The narrative is populated by familiar and unknown characters, and enlivened by their own words and the observations of eyewitnesses, as Younger describes the struggles, the fame, and the craziness. Then came years of obscurity in which Alexander, through service work, made peace with God and self, to finally experience one of music’s most genuinely deserved and most poignant comebacks.

Arthur Alexander’s rise to fame in the early 1960s touches two vital American music scenes and the author provides fascinating particulars on Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Nashville, Tennessee, as well as the inner workings of the music business.

Jazz : The First Century edited by John Edward Hasse


The best jazz is about making an individual statement within a powerful ensemble that is united by their creative approach to style and led by a visionary leader. The remarkable and delightful results uplift us while articulating lived experience. So it is with this book. In it 25 authorities share their expertise in a beautifully illustrated colorful layout under the guidance of editor John Edward Hasse. Together they have succeeded in the unlikely endeavor of making a visually informa tive, highly readable yet comprehensive and nuanced history of jazz from its origins to its recent innovations in under 250 pages.

Hasse, curator of American Music at the Smithsonian Institution and an expert on ragtime, Duke Ellington, and Hoagy Carmichael, wrote two chapters : “The Emergence of Jazz” and “The Swing Era.” These and the six other chapters discuss important figures and movements and conclude with an annotated list of key recordings. A whole chapter is devoted to the spread of jazz throughout the world.

Hasse also wrote several of the 70 sidebars, which expand and enliven the basic narrative. From a half page to two pages long, the sidebars detail aspects of jazz, highlighting particular tunes and repertoires, important locales and clubs, and related styles and the influence of other genres. The sidebars also cover record labels, promoters, musical components, dances, controversies, revivals, gender issues, and jazz in various settings : in creative writing, on TV, film, and radio, in visual art, museums, and in education, and at festivals.

Jazz : The First Century, its very title assuming the possibility of a sequel (!), concludes with an annotated list of “100 Essential Jazz Albums” (some are multi-volume sets) according to a survey of about the same number of experts. In an increasingly crowded field of jazz histories, this book stands out for its quality, balance, and appeal. Bravo !

Any Sound You Can Imagine : Making Music/ Consuming Technology by Paul Théberge.

Over the previous decades all manner of electronic keyboards, drum machines, and signal processors have become, to use Curt Sachs’ words, “the most characteristic instruments of our time.” In this important study, Paul Théberge deliberates on the rise of technology in music and how consumers’ use of it has brought fundamental changes to music making and culture. In the 1980s, he argues, came two events of great significance : the digitalization of keyboard instruments, and the advent of computerized studios.

The promise of creating “any sound you can imagine” was what sold synthesizers in the 1970s. While the lure of great timbral variety was a potent attraction, few consumers actually took the trouble to program new sounds from scratch. A market developed for prefabricated sounds, recorded samples of real instruments, and samplers themselves. The attention given to “sounds”-not just “patches” but sonic signatures-is still causing new interpretations of the word. Even the definitions of “live” and “music” are changing.

The author, a composer and Communications professor, is sharp and erudite in his survey, probing for meaning amid shifting values. Taking a cultural studies approach, his observations are backed by impressive research, including numerous interviews made between 1988 and 1991 with manufacturers, publishers, recording engineers, and musicians. His ability to make sense of a mountain of information is a tremendous strength. Originally his Ph.D. thesis, Théberge’s book, while dense with ideas, is rarely too thick with academic language (though he does drift at times into talking about “collapsing distinctions” and “discursive typologies”). His academic background makes him careful about placing ideas in context and founding them on the work of thinkers in various other fields. The book thus carries much authority, and Théberge writes with a steady hand. A consistent voice is speaking, and a consistent message is being given : one that passionately underlines the human side of musical endeavor.

Though the author says nothing of his personal involvement in music making, readers will often be reminded of theirs. While reading, I recalled pumping the player piano in the basement at home, composing in music school on the ARP 2600 synthesizer (with its patch chords), and playing various kinds of keyboards in performance, rehearsal, or (other people’s) home studios. I remembered several drum machines, from archaic models that were glorified metronomes to ones that could program in a “human feel.” The book helped put those experiences in a social and historical context.

Any Sound You Can Imagine : Making Music/ Consuming Technology can be seen as a series of essays neatly linked together, all directly addressing the theme of the title. Throughout, Théberge connects recent occurrences to past ones, drawing fascinating parallels. The first of the book’s three sections concerns the musical instrument industry, specifically aspects of design, production, and marketing. Here, the history of keyboard instruments, especially the piano and the player piano, provides background. The Theremin, Ondes Martenot, and Hammond organ are presented as transitional instruments. The book’s middle section focuses on forums of communications amongst musicians, including specialist magazines, networks, and user groups. Comparisons between the ham radio operators early in the 20th century and the computer hackers of recent times enliven the discussion of technical subcultures. The final section covers the use of technology in the practice of music making. Théberge explores issues around copyrights and outlines the history of music notation as a forerunner of current technological literacy.

Full of insights, each of the ten chapters could stand alone ; they are perhaps best approached one at a time by the conscientious readers the book deserves. The majority of the eleven illustrations are reproductions of advertisements for keyboards and related devices, and Théberge astutely reads their implications. He is, however, not concerned with actual songs and only a handful are even mentioned, mostly in the quotes. Nor does he appear to have allegiance to particular styles, which makes for a more objective analysis.

One welcome facet of the book is how the author repeatedly addresses gender issues, specifically pondering the minimal involvement of females. The traditional home music maker was, and not so long ago, a female piano player whose parlour pieces entertained the family and accompanied their singing. Now the home studio, separated from family life, is the private domain of the solitary male, a relatively isolated consumer who shares a mediated bond with compatriots, “meeting” through specialized magazines and user group interactions. Thus, while home music making has changed from a feminine to a masculine pursuit, the role of the music has changed from helping to forge familial and communal bonds to “self-realization through technology” p.244). One company is actually called Saved By Technology.

In examining the evolution of “gear” and its position in society, Théberge explains how unique, experimental instruments used in academia led to mass-manufactured instruments for live performance. Design teams replaced individual inventors. Synthesizers went from monophonic to polyphonic. Cheaper models, such as Casio keyboards, were then made for home use. The introduction of microprocessors shook the market. After a convoluted process, certain manufacturers agreed upon and adopted MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), a voluntary (and non-profit) technical standard. Also significant was the introduction of expandable modular ADAT units for digital multitracking.

As technology gets cheaper, it becomes more available to the average consumer. Some see this as showing how “democracy has succeeded in the equitable distribution of utilitarian satisfactions” (149). But the search for greater satisfaction often takes the form of desire for new gear. Each new item, however, “incorporates the same ambiguities of empowerment and dependency, creative potential and formal constraints, that lead to renewed levels of consumption” (254). At the same time, there is a fetishization of older equipment, not just classic guitars and tube amplifiers, but “vintage” synths like the analog ones of the 1970s, prized for their “warm” sounds. The tension here is more than just between obsolescence and the hope of a wise investment, it is the basis of the pop music industry, the dichotomy between fashion and nostalgia.

In “a musical world where it has become difficult for the aspiring young musician to act meaningfully with other musicians and audiences, where it has become difficult even to secure a gig at a local club” (128), the promise of technology is a powerful if mythic force. For all the options available now to craft and manipulate music of superior technical quality at home, for pop musicians “a successful career in the music business is as elusive as ever (if not more so)” (250).

One theme running through much of the book, in my interpretation at least, is the search for identity that confronts musicians. In the final paragraph, the author sums up one of the most vital issues raised by the recent innovations :
“[A]s the technologies of electronic and digital reproduction have increasingly become the central mode of production, distribution, and consumption in popular music, learning ‘to manage,’ both with and without new technology, has become one of the essential ways in which many contemporary musicians learn to define themselves, their relations with others, and the ‘sound’ of their music” (255). To gain a better understanding of what “learning
to manage” involves is one of the best reasons to read this book.

Race, Rock, and Elvis by Michael T. Bertrand


By examining the intense reactions-love, hatred, bewilderment-that swirled around rock and roll and particularly Elvis Presley at their emergence, the author nuances our understanding of class, geography, and especially race. Michael T. Bertrand, an historian, focuses on the South and the unique conditions there between 1945 and 1960, and shows how the rather chaotic arrival and spread of rock and roll both reflected and promoted profound cultural shifts in postwar society.

Though rock and roll did not explicitly intend to cause change, for as the author rightly acknowledges : “Incentives for the production and consumption of postwar popular music involved profit and entertainment rather than social protest or upheaval” (p. 54), it nonetheless provided a model of tolerance and opened lines of communication between blacks and whites, who “had occupied the same land for centuries yet hardly knew each other” (p. 55). Ambivalence on the part of performers and audiences to racial differences created a new, detached mood and wavering allegiances to traditional mores.

By disrupting routine, rock and roll caused a reassessment of racial stereotypes. In music, this resulted in a blurring of style and genre categories. In society, this created conflict ; some that understood rock and roll’s threat to the status quo created a backlash against it. The music industry’s reaction to rock and roll, played out in the controversy over explicit lyrics, the cover version phenomenon, and payola, and the intellectual elite’s campaign against rock and roll as mediocre and degenerate are all presented in great and compelling detail. These issues diminished in importance as “youth gradually replaced race and class as the chief quality of performers who became popular” (p. 83).

This work draws extensively from period newspapers and magazines, and the quotations of participants and eyewitnesses lend authority to the author’s comments. Quotations are to be found in nearly every paragraph, and though they are judiciously chosen and draw intelligent commentary from the author, they seem to have somewhat directed the flow of the book. It has a choppy feel from the liberal use of section breaks and a tendency for repetition. Several concepts reappear and receive additional commentary, such as the point that youth did not react to race like their parents did, and that Elvis Presley was the central,
controversial representative of shifting values.

Errors are few and slight, for example disc jockey Bill Randle last name is misspelled as Rhandle, and King and Federal are listed as different labels. One odd omission is found in a discussion (pp. 21-23) of the background of 100 rock and roll artists : though the author analyzes data and provides statistics of his findings, he names only 20 of them, leaving the remaining 80 to our imagination. A more important omission is the actual music under discussion ; less than a dozen songs are mentioned in the text.

Bertrand has made a major contribution to our knowledge of the cultural importance of early rock and roll. He goes a long way towards answering the question “why does so much rock and roll and most of its great artists come from the South ?” This thoroughly researched and important study will be a useful reference for many scholars and readers from various disciplines.

American Pop from Minstrel to Mojo : On Record 1893-1956 by Allen Lowe

Saxophonist and audio restoration specialist Allen Lowe had a couple of conversion experiences that woke him from a "jazz-induced musical slumber." His "blind disdain for pop music" changed to a
vision of American sound as an eclectic weave of complicated and important elements. Pop, jazz, country, blues, gospel, R&B, rockabilly, and more are all treated in this idiosyncratic survey.

The book is a rescue operation, aiming to redress history’s neglect of certain performances, performers, and even whole genres, like vaudeville. Lowe writes : "The twangy, nasal beauty of country music has made it the convenient target of musical snobs.” (p.197) No one would take him for a snob, not anymore.

The author has a bone to pick with the standard statements, deflating myths such as the one that says "rock and roll was just a great White rip-off of Black blues...these claims ignore that fact that rock and roll’s development was truly that, a development and fusion of a number of diverse musical trends and influences, but they miss other, non African-American references in the music." (201) He attacks the historical invisibility of female artists, spotlighting names like Arizona Dranes (early black gospel pianist), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (guitar playing gospel singer), and Lil Green (headlining 1940s Chicago blues singing star).

Enemy of stereotypes, dismantler of cliched judgments, Lowe is not shy about giving his opinions. But like a reformed smoker, he can get a little strident at times. This can be a good thing-who would argue smoking is good for you ? -but may ruffle a few feathers in the process. Try these : James Lincoln Collier is one of the "pseudo-jazz historians"(133) or Leadbelly is "an interesting, if overrated songster brought East by John Lomax." (223) The bulk of the John and Alan Lomax’s field recordings Lowe calls "just plain dull," perhaps because of the performers’ desire to play up to the preconceptions of the folklorists’ misguided ideas of folk purity. (126-27) Lowe rightly points out that commercial intent played an important evolutionary role in music.

He handily sells many of his opinions, the others he gets away with by being intelligent, perceptive, well read, articulate, and able to hear clearly. He has heard some records you haven’t ; on ones you have, he heard things you didn’t. Sample : Lowe noticed that an unusual bluesy lick executed by a primitive street fiddler Eddie Anthony from Atlanta on a 1930 recording was almost identical to one played
often in the 1980s by Dickie Wells, a trombonist formerly with Count Basie. What could be the connection ? Discounting independent creation, Lowe wonders if it was a sound Wells heard growing up in Kentucky, maybe from a street musician (unlikely the same one), or just "another example of the strange (and slightly mysterious) musical retentions of African-American culture." (129)

Trailing the development of pop music, Lowe takes the anthology approach. This book is like an extended liner note essay, for in it he discusses the songs on a 9-CD set, available separately. Moving chronologically between 1893 and 1956, his commentary presents each song as a pinpointed moment. Each recording reveals the song’s creation as a signifying artifact capable of telling us about the life of the artist, the evolution of the style, and the music business in general. By opening these little windows and stepping back, we get a better sense of what the whole picture might be. In assessing how the artist or song has fared in the history books, Lowe also shows the evolution of music criticism.

This book applies the trends of cultural studies to pop music. Influenced by literary theory, the fundamental idea is that texts (records in this case) cannot be separated from their contexts. Aspects of race, ethnicity, and sex, once attributed to biology, are now clearly and widely accepted as social and cultural arrangements. Cultural studies insists that terms like folk, authentic, and traditional are also socially constructed categories having to do with the reproduction of race, class, and gender hierarchies and the policing of the boundaries of modernisms. History itself is a social construction, an art form if you will. By this application, Lowe makes a significant contribution.

The reader will recognize many artists’ names, like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Art Tatum from jazz, but Lowe often opts for their lesser-known songs to represent other aspects of their art. Some song choices seem inspired, others arbitrary, presumably a function of record collecting. Some entries are insightful, others add nothing, like for Eddie Cochran’s "Twenty Flight Rock," pairing him as usual with Gene Vincent. Lowe makes small mistakes (ascribing a song to the repertoire of the Electric Flag instead of Paul Butterfield), has a few head-scratching footnotes (Elvis with J.Edgar Hoover in a section on Hank Ballard), and drops a strange phrase or two ("where was Hank Williams the night Hank Williams died ?") which lead nowhere. These make one realize this is an unusual book, at times as full of odd and wondrous character as the music that inspired it.

As a course in ear cleaning and historical revision, this book is highly recommended for readers who are not purists, or purists who are willing to reform. Seek it out for educational and provocative fun.

NOVELS WITH MUSIC THEMES

Descending Memphis is a captivating detective story with lots of local color for the time (1956) and place (Memphis, Nashville, and outlying areas). At appropriate moments in the novel, Robert Moss authoritatively touches on race relations, politics, religion, the music business (including Sun Records), luxury and poverty, drug use and misuse, as well as the Civil War and the toll on survivors of World War II. As expected in the genre, it is a tale of cops and robbers, of allies and enemies, the innocent and the guilty, the foolish and the wise, corruption, deceit, violence, clues and blind alleys, and plot twists and revelations. But there is an unusual richness here, coming not just from the accurate cultural references, period detail, and deft handling of daily life and relationships. The story is told entirely through the first-person voice of the private investigator. This gives a sense of immediacy, allowing access to his psyche. Through his thoughts, dreams, and memories the reader comes to know and sympathize with him. It’s a satisfying read, well-written and entertaining. I recommend it.

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006