I first heard of Amanda Petrusich’s book It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music from Largehearted Boy’s Book Notes. I was intrigued by the author’s musical selections. I like music. I’m interested in finding out more about the “next American music.” I picked up the book.
Petrusich mentions early in the book:
It is my perpetual and unmistakable failure as a music critic that I am infinitely more interested in personal details than in studio settings or guitar pedals or synthesizer type or whether or not something has been recorded in 3/4 time.
What this means in practice is that the book is half the size of those by music writers like Peter Guralnick and Michael Azerrad who document their subjects in painstaking detail. She could have also added that she is more willing to offer her own impressions than the more academically-minded music writers. Of course, when the narrative strays from the strictly factual, the author opens herself up to debate. Which is fine by me. Music is one of the few things that I’m willing to cheerfully debate over a cold one.
Petrusich’s book is a good starting point for arguing about what has been truly important in the history oftraditional American music and where our music may be headed. For clarity, when “American” music is discussed in the book, we’re mostly talking about music that could also be described as “Americana.” The blues figures into this definition but Motown largely does not. It’s a definitional problem that Patrusich acknowledges.
Having established a working definition of American music, Patrusich notes:
Periodically, in interviews or conversations about American music, my counterparts will shift their eyes, lean close to my face, and whisper–voices deep, conspiratorial, hushed–a curt proclimation: ”All great music comes from the South.” If they are feeling particularly plucky, they will fold down their hands and add: “And literature, too.”
Some might quibble on this point, but Petrusich notes that the opinion is “mostly true.” So she loads up her car and leaves Brooklyn for a musical tour of the South. She visits the usual musical touchstones: the Mississippi Delta, Nashville (music row), Memphis (Beale Street and Sun Records), and the Appalachian mountains.
The travelogue portion of the book mostly serves as a backdrop for discussions of the history of American music. Petrusich does a nice job expounding on the work of Alan Lomax, famous of his field recordings of American Folk Music for the Library of Congress in the 30s and 40s. The author also provides a nice overview of the importance of the Carter Family and their role in preserving American music. Both Lomax and the Carter Family have been criticized for cashing in on music created by other people, but without them a large portion of our musical heritage would have been lost.
Back in Brooklyn, Petrusich interviewed touring bands and musicians for their thoughts on the current American music scene, their part in it, and where American music is headed. To their credit, most of those interviewed wanted little to do with being labeled as alt-country, freak folk, or “Americana” bands. As Ray Raposa of the free-folk band Castanets opines:
“Are R. Kelly or Eminem of Hillary Duff any less American than [alt-country acts like] Dock Boggs or Whiskeytown or Old Crow Medicine Show?”
The interviews highlight that the vanguard of the new American music borrow from the time honored traditions of American music but infuse it with the “new,” reflecting the changes in their country. (See the last four or five artists at the bottom of the post for examples.)
It Still Moves is a thoughtful book about a difficult topic. My first stab at writing this review was twice as long and detailed all of the points where my opinion and Petrusich’s differ – or how I would have tackled the subject differently. The problem with that first draft is that it hid how much I liked and admired the book. Several times I had to put the book down to hunt down a thread on Wikipedia or go searching for mp3s of bands, old and new, that I needed to hear RIGHT THAT MINUTE. I’m looking forward to discussing the book and music with the author soon. (Did you like that awesome segue to…)
Added bonus: Amanda Petrusich will be reading from her book here in Atlanta this Saturday night at Wordsmiths Books. The event is co-sponsored by Wordsmiths and Paste Magazine. Music will be provided by The Georgia Fireflies (listen to their music here) who fit nicely with the book’s ethos. (That’s right. I said ethos.) FREE BEER will be provided by the Oskar Blues Brewery. The event starts at 7:30 and is free. I expect the place will be packed with music nerds discerning enthusiasts like me, so you may want to get there early. And, you know, FREE BEER.
Of course, a music book is always a great excuse to sneak some streaming audio into the blog. Here’s a sampling of some songs by artists that get a shout out in the book:
Johnny Cash – Cocaine Blues (live)
Nirvana – Where Did You Sleep Last Night (Lead Belly cover)
Billy Bragg & Wilco – California Stars (cover of an unrecorded Woody Guthrie song)
Ryan Adams – Hallelujah
Uncle Tupelo – No Depression (a Carter Family cover)
Califone – The Orchids
Iron and Wine – Bow With a Coin
My Morning Jacket – Gideon (the book is named after an MMJ album)
Calexico – The News About William
Fleet Foxes – White Winter Hymnal