Voices of the Books
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
As anyone who reads this column knows, music is the ground of my life. As I write this today, I’m listening to the tenth 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’ gravelly, sultry voice fades into the high-flying soul and gospel wails of The Staples Singers and 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.
There are numerous recent books about music, musicians, and the nature of music that provide great companions to our journey through these times. So, drop another platter on the player, drop the needle into the groove, and sit back and let the sounds of your favorite music and the voices of these books wash over you.
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, Dana Jennings brilliantly captures the essence of country music in this hard-driving tale, Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music, that is part-memoir and part music history. Combining the down-home humor of Andy Griffith and the wild-eyed and 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, 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 the millions of folks just like them trying to face “The Cold Hard Facts of Life” (Porter Wagoner) in a post-war world. Jennings’ affectionate recollections of the “Green, Green Grass of Home” (Porter Wagoner) also include a discography perfect for anyone who wants to “Walk the Line” (Johnny Cash) of classic country music.
In July 1961, Rotolo, a shy seventeen-year-old girl 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 Fourteenth Street in the early ‘60s—Dave Van Ronk, the Mayor of MacDougal Street, Judy Collins, Dick Fariña, Odetta, José Feliciano, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Wavy Gravy, Eric Weissberg, Bill Cosby, Noel Stookey (the 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 would change 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. Rotolo’s monotonous memoir turns an exciting moment in American history into a lifeless and lackluster affair.
Scurrying back to his office one day, Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles 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 a 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. For example, 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 back stage 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 never 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, now a movie starring Chris Rock as Nathaniel.
In November 1959, Thomas Quasthoff’s parents were completely unprepared to welcome into the world a child born with birth defects. One of thousands of German mothers to have taken thalidomide during her pregnancy to ease morning sickness, Quasthoff’s mother gave birth to a young boy who, according to the doctors, looked just like a young seal with flippers for hands and crippled feet. The doctors told his parents that young Tommy would never be able to walk, but Quasthoff’s inspiring memoir, The Voice, is a story of steely determination and a paean to the human spirit. With lively humor and unerring honesty, Quasthoff energetically regales us with the challenges he faced growing up as well as his many triumphs as one of the world’s most famous classical singers. His parents refused to treat his disabilities as a barrier to his success and taught him to walk, supported him through boarding school, lobbied on his behalf with music teachers, and applauded his success when he debuted at Lincoln Center. Discovering his love of music during his boarding school days, Tommy, with the help of his parents, built a career as a bass-baritone lead singer, who also sings jazz, and he continued to teach voice and to offer forty to fifty concerts a year around the world. Quasthoff’s splendid memoir is not simply about overcoming the odds but it is about the power of music and one man’s loving tribute to his powerful instrument.
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, an often 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, he 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 non-violent 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.
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 this indispensable 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 to make a name for themselves. For example, in illustrious detail, they spell out clearly the terms of 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.
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 fifteen-minute tape composition, Heavy Metal. After two years in graduate school, Adams sets out for California where he pays 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.
Books mentioned in this column:
Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music by Dana Jennings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties by Suze Rotolo (Broadway Books)
The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music by Steve Lopez (Putnam)
The Voice: A Memoir by Thomas Quasthoff (Pantheon)
The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature by Daniel Levitin (Dutton)
The Indie Band Survival Guide: The Complete Manual for the Do-It-Yourself Musician by Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan (St. Martin’s)
Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life by John Adams (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.