Although there is an old adage that says, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” books are a wonderful way to explore the roots and branches of American music. The Daniel Boone Regional Library offers a great music collection to get you started. And we even have some architecture that you can dance to!
I remember discovering “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music” by Greil Marcus (Dutton, 1990, first published in 1975) at my local library nearly 35 years ago, and it is still one of the best books written about the subject. It includes sections on performers both well-known — Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sly Stone, The Band — and some a bit more obscure, such as Robert Johnson, Harmonica Frank Floyd and Randy Newman. There are some amazing stories and anecdotes — don’t miss the story about Little Richard interrupting “Love Story” writer Erich Segal and critic John Simon on “The Dick Cavett Show” — and Marcus makes all kinds of links between music and the culture at large.
“Sacred Steel: Inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition” by Robert L. Stone (University of Illinois Press, 2010) describes one of the more fascinating sub-genres of American music to emerge, or at least be recognized, in the last decade or so. The pedal steel guitar is most often seen as an instrument suited only for country music, but two small denominations in Florida have been using it in unique ways in their worship services for years. It is fantastic music and a fascinating story.
“Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock ’n’ Roll From Southern California” by David Reyes and Tom Waldman (University of New Mexico Press, 2009) explores the lesser-known but vital history of the Chicano music scene that flourished in Southern California in the late 1960s. It covers everyone from early pioneers Richie Valens, Thee Midniters and Cannibal and the Headhunters to late ’60s and ’70s artists such as Mark Guerrero, Carlos Santana, El Chicano, Tierra and Malo. This is a deep and rich vein of American music, and Reyes and Waldman have written an exciting and engaging history.
“You Don’t Know Me but You Don’t Like Me: Phish, Insane Clown Posse, and My Misadventures With Two of Music’s Most Maligned Tribes” (Scribner, 2013) by Nathan Rabin, former head writer of The Onion’s wonderful A.V. Club, focuses on, well, just what the title says, the-oft maligned and mocked fans of Phish and Insane Clown Posse. Note that there is almost no overlap between these two tribes. Rabin keeps the snark to a minimum and actually presents a well-rounded and affecting portrait of these all too easily dismissed music lovers.
“Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young” by Jeremy Grimshaw (Oxford University Press, 2011), looks at one of America’s most adventurous and enigmatic composers. The grand-daddy of minimalism and experimental music, Young has followed his own muse and created works that are conceptually audacious, musically adventurous and steeped in spirituality. The book covers Young’s music and also provides the first in-depth biographical detail about this astonishing musician. Young has influenced everyone from Terry Riley to Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Brian Eno, John Cage and the Velvet Underground. It isn’t an easy read, but like Young’s music, it is well worth taking the time to explore.
“Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music” by Irwin Chusid (A Capella, 2000), explores some of the stranger paths of American music, highlighting artists as varied and fascinating as Jandek, the Shaggs, Captain Beefheart, Daniel Johnston, Harry Partch and, God bless him, Tiny Tim. Although these artists can tend to be an acquired taste — or an un-acquirable taste to some — their stories are fascinating, and their music is fun to explore and will definitely expand your musical boundaries. The story of the Shaggs, three Wiggin sisters stage-mangled — not managed, mangled — by their father Austin, who tried to thrust stardom upon them by paying for studio time and 500 copies of the resulting LP, is one of the most hilariously bizarre and intriguing that you’ll ever read. And one listen to their magnum opus “My Pal Foot Foot” (about a missing cat) will make you a fan for life.
The library has CDs by almost all of the artists mentioned in this article, as well as a number of DVDs on American music and musicians. Come explore the nooks and crannies of America’s music through our collection or the America’s Music series of community programs. Find out about these lectures, films and concerts happening over the next several weeks at www.dbrl.org/americas-music.