Touring American pop music by way of the writers who have addressed it
By Dwight Garner
“How much history,” critic Robert Palmer asked in “Deep Blues” (1981), “can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string?”
Eric Weisbard quotes that question in his new book, “Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music,” and he patiently investigates the many ways music critics and other writers have sought to answer it.
Weisbard is a critic and scholar who teaches at the University of Alabama. He’s a past editor of the Village Voice music section, an elite gig in the pop music world; he’s married to Ann Powers, the gifted former New York Times music critic who now comments for NPR.
The world of music criticism is Mafia-like in its consolidations and exertions of influence.
Robert Christgau, the “dean of American rock critics,” co-officiated at the Powers-Weisbard wedding. The author is a made man.
“Songbooks” sounds straightforward. Weisbard has gone back and reread more than 150 volumes, classics and oddities of American music writing. In chronological order, he chews through biographies, memoirs, song collections and academic studies, from William Billings’ “The New-England Psalm-Singer” (1770) through Jay-Z’s memoir “Decoded” (2010).
There are pauses along the way to talk about books such as Louis Armstrong’s “Swing That Music” (1936), Woody Guthrie’s “Bound for Glory” (1943), LeRoi Jones’ “Blues People” (1963), Greil Marcus’ “Mystery Train” (1975) and Kitty Kelley’s blistering 1986 tell-all biography of Frank Sinatra.
Weisbard reshuffles the canon, paying close attention to Black, gay and other voices that have often been pushed to the margins. “Nothing looms larger in American music than African American music,” he writes, “real, racially fantasized and one-drop-rule conjoined, from blackface minstrelsy to spirituals, ragtime, jazz, blues, rock, soul, hip-hop and EDM.”
Via Anthony Heilbut’s book “The Gospel Sound” (1971), he writes about how gospel music has been the blues, in a way, for gay men and lesbians. A chapter is titled “Finding the Blackface in Bluegrass.” He discusses the work of some of his favorite younger critics, including Jessica Hopper, Amanda Petrusich and Zandria Robinson.
He considers fiction. About Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” (1900) he observes that, even though there’s little music in it, the novel “revealed more than any previous book about the longings urban pop addressed.” Weisbard refers to Jonathan Lethem, the culture-saturated Gen X novelist, as “the greatest used bookstore clerk of all time.” Lethem’s eventual biographer should nick that title.
If this book sounds straightforward, the experience of reading it isn’t. You don’t learn a lot about the subjects (Dorothy Baker, Ray Charles, Gayl Jones, Cameron Crowe, Nirvana) Weisbard considers. He doesn’t provide overviews.
He doesn’t penetrate his subjects so much as hurl himself at them and bounce off, like a bird smacking into a window. Weisbard falls to the ground, dusts himself off, then counts the intellectual change that’s fallen from his pockets.
His chapter on Bob Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One” (2004), to take just one example, barely discusses that book at all. Instead it’s a tour of all the other Dylan literature he can summon to mind. It’s a display of sonic beachcombing, of numbing esotericity.
Scholarly debris and jargon pile up. This is the sort of book in which people rarely say anything simply when they could be said to have “posited a dialectic.”
Weisbard has a good eye for the telling detail or quote. About the consolations of food, he reminds us, Louis Armstrong said: “I’ll probably never be rich, but I will be a fat man.”
Weisbard puzzles over this observation from Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee: “If there’s one genetic trait that automatically disqualifies a man from being able to rock, it’s curly hair.” He quotes Ray Charles on how difficult it was, growing up, to masturbate in a school for the blind.
Journalist D.T. Max, writing in The New York Times Magazine, once said of Gordon Lish, another great editor who was an unmemorable writer, that “reading his stories is like looking at the gears of a clock that’s missing a face.” Weisbard’s paragraphs in this book are similarly gearlike and faceless. Ideas are nipped before they bud. There’s little feeling to be had.
“Songbooks” reads like arch and jaded endnotes to a book that doesn’t exist — and, as most writers know, endnotes are an excellent place to hide a joke or a put-down. This book is replete with the latter. An older generation of America’s pop music writers will jump right to the index to see how he’s zinged them, in his anxiety not to be lumped among their clueless number.
Critic Terry Teachout is “the latest white male writer lecturing Duke Ellington on what to play.” Gerri Hirshey dabbles in “baby boomer essentializing.” Biographer Robert Hilburn has a “canonizing imperative.” Greg Kot burnishes his “dad-rock daily newspaper critic credentials.”
Weisbard writes that The New Yorker’s classical music critic Alex Ross, in his book “The Rest Is Noise” (2007), expresses “few anxieties” about the “rarefied, stable positions” of the composers he discusses. Jazz critic Ted Gioia has a “tendency to exterminate rather than develop pop theories.” The influential journalist Lillian Roxon, who died at 40 in 1973, wrote from a “white rock perspective.”
Pushing further back on Weisbard’s timeline, Walt Whitman is “the champion of the white male vernacular.” Song collector John A. Lomax had a “white manly erudition.” Weisbard extends little historical sympathy to anyone save a handful of favorites such as Christgau, Marcus and Palmer.
I’m “friends” with Weisbard on Facebook. (We’ve never met.) This is the sort of problem Elizabeth Hardwick and Anatole Broyard didn’t have. I’ve always admired his taste. He recently posted a list, based on a Rolling Stone survey, of his 50 favorite all-time songs. I’ve had it on a loop for nearly two months.
If his book is an omnishambles, well, I’ve always had a soft spot for rough noise.
‘Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music’By Eric WeisbardIllustrated. 530 pages. Duke University Press. $27.95.