Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, September 25, 2006

A while back Scott at Rockcritics Deli posted a list of favorite music books, and I’ve been wanting to do one since.

The Jazz Tradition
by Martin Williams. This book taught me more about listening than any other, partly because I read it so early. Williams preaches the twin gospels of rhythm and structure. Wise about music, life, improvisation, and democracy.

The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music
by Paul Hemphill. I put Williams first out of loyalty to first love, but this is probably my favorite music book ever written: a loving and witty reporter’s survey of the country music scene circa 1969 from the television studios of Glenn Campbell and Johnny Cash to backwoods fiddle players who build their own instruments.

Lyrics on Several Occasions: A Selection of Stage and Screen Lyrics Written for Sundry Situations; and Now Arranged in Arbitrary Categories To Which Have Been Added Many Informative Annotations and Disquisitions on Their Why and Wherefore, Their Whom-For, Their How; and Matters Associative
by Ira Gershwin. The lyrics are great, but that is not the reason to read the book. His commentaries are wise, witty, treasurable snapshots of life, friendship, music, and song.

Rock from the Beginning
by Nik Cohn. Zip flash witty partisan Pop! Wacky that he’s almost as interested in bands’ managers as he is in the bands. Still the best history of rock, but it’s hard to compete because it stops at 1969.

Music Is My Mistress
by Duke Ellington. Eloquent, grand, witty, warm, musically astute, laugh-out-loud funny at times -- what a life, what music.

The American Songbag
by Carl Sandburg. An astonishing collection of songs, and Sandburg’s quirky, folksy, faux-folksy, erudite, witty, wise commentary influenced Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie’s personas and prose. Unfortunately Garrison Keillor wrote the introduction to the currently available edition, and he neither respects Sandburg nor understands his milieu; it boggles me that the publisher hired someone to trash the book with an unnecessary introduction.

Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘N’ Roll Music
by Greil Marcus. Inspired and prophetic. His description of bands as “images of community” anticipates Christopher Small’s notion that musicking is about relationships.

Exotica: Fabricated Soundscapes in a Real World
by David Toop. Gorgeous dreamwork and reporting on musical exotica, local and international.

A Little Night Music: Discoveries in the Exploitation of an Art by Gerald W. Johnson. 1937. A reporter takes up the flute and joins a neighborhood classical ensemble. Hilarious and interesting polemic about the importance of making your own music, however badly.

Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening and other Moodsong
by Joseph Lanza. The best discussion I know of how the ubiquity of recording changed the experience of music listening, plus an entertaining polemic on how background music is also better than the other kind (that so-called other kind, which most of us consume as background music most of the time).

The Recording Angel: The Experience of Music from Aristotle to Zappa
by Evan Eisenberg. Fantastic reporting on record collecting extremists, plus beautiful meditations on music and how recording changed it.

A Year From Monday
by John Cage. Open your ears! It’s the two beautiful pieces on Ives that shifted the nature of my being: preaching the gospel of multiplicity.

The Incompleat Folksinger
by Pete Seeger. This collection of magazine articles by the pope of “folk” music is a lot of fun to read; it includes poignant reminiscences about barnstorming with Woody Guthrie.

Born to Win
by Woody Guthrie. The most audacious and wide-ranging song lyricist of the 20th century unwinds in prose and poetry.

The Glenn Gould Reader
. Witty and musically deep, and with a cold, bright tone reminiscent of his piano sound; preaching the gospel of counterpoint.

Music Ho!
by Constant Lambert. 1934. An English composer surveys the scene perceptively and very wittily from a classical-centric but open-minded perspective (and marred by occasional racism).

Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924
by David Wondrich. Zippy, passionate history of the evolution of popular music from minstrelsy to jazz and country.

After the Ball: Pop Music from Rag to Rock
by Ian Whitcomb. Begins near the end of Wondrich’s book, with similar perspective. Whitcomb’s English; he had a fluke rock-pop hit during the British Invasion, but he’s partial to the Tin Pan Alley tradition, and he locates rock as part of the continuum.

They’re Playing Our Song: From Jerome Kern to Stephen Sondheim -- the stories behind the words and music of two generations
by Max Wilk. Warm profiles of Tin Pan Alley songwriters.

The Street Where I Live by Alan Jay Lerner. Grand, witty, and rueful elegy for a bygone showbiz era, by the lyricist of My Fair Lady and Camelot.

Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists from Vaudeville to Techno
by Robert Christgau. The most compulsively readable of rock critics; passionate and wise about music and politics and culture and life.

Noise: The Political Economy of Music
by Jacques Attali, trans. from the French by Brian Massumi. A book by an economist: mind-re-orienting on music-as-politics.

Music Reviewed 1940-1954
by Virgil Thomson. I really disliked his polemical book The State of Music, but it led to Thomson getting this gig as a regular newspaper reviewer of classical music, which revealed him as the Pauline Kael of classical reviewing -- pithy, omnivorous, enthusiastic, and occasionally harsh.

Jazz Is
by Nat Hentoff. First amendment scholar and activist, jazz record producer, and street corner existentialist, Hentoff knew the jazz titans of the ‘50s and ‘60s and wrote about them beautifully.

Black Music
by Leroi Jones. His liner notes to Coltrane’s Live at Birdland are gorgeously enlivening, and his defense of Dionne Warwick is surprising and heartening.

Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World’s Most Famous Rock ‘n’ Roll Song; Including the Full Details of Its Torture and Persecution at the Hands of the Kingsmen, J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I., and a Cast of Millions; and Introducing, for the First Time Anywhere, the Actual Dirty Lyrics
by Dave Marsh. An astounding history of a great record and a durable, versatile song, told like a detective thriller.

Jazz Panorama: From the Pages of the Jazz Review
, edited by Martin Williams. Portraits and reviews; the profile of Lester Young breaks your heart while Young’s devastating conversational style presages Bob Dylan’s evasive hipster persona.

Chronicles Volume One
by Bob Dylan. Dylan as a memoirist is as full of baloney and evasive and fascinating as ever, and more loving and generous than had ever been his artistic wont.

Beneath the Underdog
by Charles Mingus. Outlandish and oversized, pained, observant, and hilarious; as volatile as his music.

Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music
by Robert Walser. Preaching the gospel that people always love music for many reasons, always including musical ones. Great ethnographical insights into the milieus of different musical styles.

Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality
by Susan McClary. McClary’s feminist approaches to harmony and musical structure are challenging and worthwhile whether you end up agreeing or not.

The Singer and the Song
by Gene Lees. Eccentric, erudite, passionate, warm, highly readable essays on songwriting and lyrics, and good profiles of songwriters and singers.

Old Troubadour: Carl Sandburg with his Guitar Friends
by Gregory d’Alessio. A warm and loving memoir of Sandburg as amateur singer and guitarist and guitar aficionado, written by a friend and amateur classical guitarist who knew Segovia.

Riding on a Blue Note
by Gary Giddins. His bio of Satchmo is terrific as well, as is his omnibus Visions of Jazz, but this collection includes an interesting and persuasive counter-history to the myth that jazz was born in New Orleans and travelled upriver, which I haven’t seen elsewhere.

Country: Living Legends and Dying Metaphors in America's Biggest Music by Nick Tosches. Harsh and vivid and learned.

Hey, if you ever get the chance, check out Four Lives in the Bebop Business, by A.B. Spellman. Written in the mid 60's and focusing on Ornette Coleman, Jackie McLean, Herbie Nichols, and Cecil Taylor, it's gritty, honest, and not a little bit angry. It's been out of print for a long time, but you can fine used copies for reasonable prices.
Thanks for the tip -- I've seen that book and don't know why I've never picked it up.
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