Hitting the high notes
Music lovers have always welcomed the chance to read about their favorite musicians and the sounds they create. Though newspaper and magazine coverage of music has declined, those outlets are now augmented by a seemingly endless array of websites and blogs devoted to music reviews, critiques, commentary, gossip and profiles. For more in-depth appraisals, readers turn to books, and the six in this sampling represent various approaches to writing about music. Some lean toward technical appraisal, while others represent fond appreciations or reflective treatises, but they’re all informative, valuable and enjoyable treats for music lovers.
A fresh look at famous men
Current Wall Street Journal drama critic and former jazz musician Terry Teachout’s superb biography Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong mixes sociological observation, analytical examination and psychological portrait, while correcting inaccuracies and offering new, often stunning information about the man considered by many critics the greatest jazz soloist of all time. Teachout rejects that claim, instead labeling Armstrong the greatest “influence” in jazz history, citing him as the figure numerous other players, regardless of instrument, credited with championing the value of artistry, developing a personalized sound and being both innovative and entertaining.
Indeed, his showmanship frequently led to vicious criticism of Armstrong by more militant blacks, who felt his mugging and clowning on stage were a throwback to the Jim Crow and minstrel eras. Drawing on a wealth of previously unpublished material, including letters, private recordings and backstage conversations and accounts, Teachout shows that Armstrong was a driven, sophisticated performer with a quick-trigger temper and penchant for denouncing conduct by both blacks and whites as counterproductive.
Teachout also brings more perspective to events only briefly or incorrectly covered in previous biographies. These range from Armstrong’s longtime love of marijuana (something that got him arrested in 1930) to the simmering quarrel with President Dwight Eisenhower that encompassed more than just his anger at Eisenhower’s reluctance to protect the rights of black students trying to integrate Central High School in Arkansas. The book contains so many new bits of information—such as the revelation that his embouchure (the way he held his lips to the trumpet) was incorrect—that even the most ardent fan might be surprised. Teachout has crafted a definitive work that dissects the personality and motivations of a genius.
Journalist and filmmaker Antonino D’Ambrosio’s exhaustive A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears is equally thorough, though it mainly sticks to one subject. Widely considered exclusively a country musician, Johnny Cash had a range, thematic impact and sound that were much broader. He was politically farther to the left than many industry comrades, and one subject close to his heart was the nation’s history and treatment of Native Americans. Cash joined forces with folk artist Peter LaFarge in 1964 to create the striking, unforgettable album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.
As D’Ambrosio’s work shows, the eight-song LP brought Cash some of the fiercest attacks and criticism he’d ever received. When the controversial album was released squarely in the middle of a turbulent era, Cash was called “unpatriotic” in some circles and the Ku Klux Klan even burned a cross on his lawn. But he stood resolute against the pressure, even as Columbia pulled its advertising for the album and retail stores quietly and quickly took it off their shelves. D’Ambrosio adds numerous interviews with Cash’s bandmates, associates and friends while telling a story of corporate cowardice and artistic integrity that remains remarkable 45 years later.
Bob Dylan Revisited isn’t nearly so encyclopedic or socially powerful, though it still proves compelling. A much shorter book than the others described here, it contains 13 graphic interpretations of vintage Bob Dylan tunes, among them “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Positively 4th Street,” “Desolation Row” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” Each song’s lyrics are matched with a graphic artist who creates a visually provocative viewpoint to embellish the text. Personal favorites include Thierry Murat’s interpretation of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” Benjamin Flo’s colorful treatment of “Blind Willie McTell” and Francois Avril’s dashing illustrations for “Girl Of The North Country,” but all are delightful. This is a book with special appeal for hardcore Dylan fans.
Capturing a moment
Sam Stephenson’s The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965 covers an art form whose greatest stars were unknown to most music fans. Even within the notoriously insular jazz universe, the style known as “loft jazz” never had a wide following. The music was made by instrumentalists coming to New York from many places, including the West Coast, as well as some city residents. They found artistic solace and living space in previously abandoned buildings like the one at 821 Sixth Avenue, which was the home of photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. Stephenson’s book focuses on the exhaustive materials Smith amassed between 1957 and 1965.
Musicians well-known (Thelonius Monk) and obscure (David X. Young, Hall Overton) recorded there, while Smith took their pictures in all manner of situations. Some accounts are funny, others sad or odd, but all are intriguing and memorable. Part of an ongoing research project conducted by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (there’s also a radio series and photographic exhibition), the book spotlights a valuable collection of vignettes and snapshots that chronicle an underreported, vital part of jazz and cultural history.
There’s not exactly a wealth of unknown material or lack of familiar faces in our final pair of books. Indeed, top photographer Jim Marshall proclaims in the introduction to Gail Buckland’s Who Shot Rock and Roll: A Photographic History 1955-Present that “too much [expletive] is written about photographs and music.” While the accounts of great people manning the camera are often quite entertaining, it’s famous shots like Johnny Cash flipping the bird at San Quentin in 1969 (taken by Jim Marshall) or David Gahr’s picture of Janis Joplin leaning off to the side in 1968 that make Who Shot Rock and Roll far more than simply another photo book.
Rather than a collection of pictures by a multitude of photographers, Elvis 1956 is a showcase for the dazzling, frequently surprising photos of Alfred Wertheimer, whose majestic work is also featured in the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition “Elvis at 21.” Rather than just gathering concert footage (though the book contains incredible on-stage shots of Presley, Scotty Moore and company doing acrobatics and charismatic maneuvers), Wertheimer sought places and situations that conveyed the attraction of Presley and his magnetism off the bandstand. These great scenes include one of an elderly black woman poised right behind Presley at a Southern restaurant at a time when segregation was a fact of life. Her presence, and Presley’s easy, nonchalant manner sitting a few feet away, speaks volumes about the simmering racial explosion on the horizon. Likewise, shots of him with Steve Allen or sequences showing waves of girls fighting to touch him at shows convey the enormous sex appeal of the youthful Elvis.
While no book will ever be a worthy substitute for the thrill of hearing great music or the sense of achievement felt by those who play it, these volumes effectively communicate the sense of community among music lovers and the importance it holds in our lives.
Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and other publications.