‘Tis the season of giving. I have read some excellent books about music in the last couple of years, so I thought it would be fun to share them, in case any of you are looking for some cool reading for holiday gift giving. Or just for yourself. My mom and grandma used to put presents under the tree labeled “from me to me with love”.
I love books that take me to another place in time, or into the lives of other people. I also love to learn about the context; for the music styles I enjoy, and for the people and communities that bring the music into the world and contribute to it’s evolution. Those of you who have been following me over the years know that when I do my youtube tours, I often ask questions like ‘who did this artist listen to in the formative years of their life?” and “How did the places they grew up or spent time affect their music?”. I just love going down the rabbit holes those questions take me in.
These are a couple of my youtube tours, in case you want to read them, or bookmark them for later.
Several of the books on my list are all about putting particular styles or eras of music into the context of their times. This is a source of endless interest to me. I have also included some personal memoirs written by musicians about their own lives, or of someone they are close to. And, I’ve got some links for some kids books. I hope you find something here for someone on your gifting list.
1) Chinaberry Sidewalks (Rodney Crowell)
Colby Jack (one of the bass players I work with) passed this one on to me, and it was an absolutely great read! Rodney is an excellent wordsmith, and his stories are so colorful, charming, and often hilarious. He had a lot of crazy parts to his childhood. It’s kind of amazing he survived, let alone became such a grounded and successful guy. If you have ever listened to the lyrics of his songs, you will know how well he paints pictures of interesting people, places and events. Here is a sample from the book. He is describing a TV repair man who came to his house near Houston Texas.
“A lumbering voice, a cross between Bronx brogue and Cajun bumble, sends words like”I gotcha now” and”C’mon outta there” rattling around the electronic gadgetry. When the head the voice belongs to emerges from behind the set, I nearly swallow my wad of bubble gum.
The color of orange soda water, a horseshoe shaped hedgerow that looks more like clumps of Brillo pads than sprigs of hair has attached itself to what looks like an over sized version of the plastic Cro-Magnon skull Mr. Weiss keeps on a shelf in back of his classroom. Matching steel-wool eyebrows punctuate an impossibly white dome where one green eye stares down an exact replica of W. C. Field’s swollen red nose. The other eye, blond as buttermilk, alternates between a sideways glance and St. Vitus’s dance. The demands on my attention have never been so clownishly divided. The very sight of him decrees that I try to focus on one or the other, but I can’t figure out which one to go with. ….. I can’t decide if it’s Popeye the Sailor Man, Jack in the Box, or Bozo the Clown assuring my father that Gunsmoke will once again be a stationary target and his Sunday night motion sickness a thing of the past. “I put some lead in yer picture tube’s pencil” he says, “That oughta hold you for a while”.
Hahahahaahah- what a picture! I highly recommend this as a great read.
2) Last Train To Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Peter Guralnick)
This was the first Peter Guralnick book I read. It really does a great job of taking you into Elvis’s personal life, while also painting a really vivid picture of the times he lived in, his relationships with family, band mates, girlfriends and many others in his life. It made me feel like I was there as it all unfolded. Ten years of research and interviews by this excellent music writer are evident. If you are interested in Elvis in particular, or the beginnings of rock and roll and rockabilly music, you will enjoy this read.
Preston Lauderbach has clearly put some deep research into this book. His writing pulls you in from page one of the introduction, where he describes visiting a man who had an amazing history in several music related careers, but is largely unknown to most people today. The characters he introduces us to include the well known and the obscure, and much in between. He puts these stories into the context of the times and culture of the 30s through early 60s. I learned a lot about the history of segregation, and the ways musicians, promoters and communities of color operated under the limiting rules and opportunities. It is a great testament of the human spirit that so much great music came from such difficulty. This book is full of wonderful characters and descriptions.
4) Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom this book is similar to the Chitlin Circuit, in that it is deeply researched and takes us into the places and people that make up the history of r&b and soul music. The dateline is mostly the 50s and 60s, and the challenges of the power differential between the races is part of the story. It also profiles a bunch of people; musicians, producers, owners and managers of record companies, and other movers in the business and evolution of soul music. And it celebrates and highlights the amount of collaboration between black and white musicians, who were brothers (and sisters) in making great music, despite the segregation that was such a part of life during those years. Peter Guralnick is the author of several excellent music books, including the aforementioned Last Train To Memphis. Very insightful.
5) Room Full Of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix by Charles R Cross Another well researched book that depicts the life of the very influential and inventive guitarist. Jimi grew up very poor, with a family life (or lack there of) that would have been enough to stifle many. He had an incredible perseverance that carried him through many challenges. This story comes together through interviews with a lot of different people who knew him, and really takes us into his world, with it’s troubles and triumphs.
6) Anchored In Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash (John Carter Cash) John Carter, son of Johnny and June, offers a beautiful portrait of this woman who lived a life filled with grace. It is amazing what she endured. John Carter doesn’t gloss over anything. He speaks of the addiction that she had to live with among her loved ones, and that she struggled with near the end of her life. He also tells many stories about how she rose above it and carried herself with a degree of grace throughout her life.
7) Louis Armstrong -In His Own Words: Selected writings (Louis Armstrong, Thomas Brothers) Thomas Brothers offers a bit of insight and context for these writings, but mostly lets them speak for themselves. Some of them are parts of a book Louis was hoping to write about his life, while others are essays and articles he wrote, and a number of letters he sent in response to the fan mail he received. His charm and personality come across, and there is quite a bit of his personal history in here, too. He used to bring a typewriter with him on his tours, and he loved to correspond with his fans and friends. We are the richer for getting a glimpse into his world, from the horses mouth.
8) Reckless Daughter -A Portrait Of Joni Mitchell This is one I have not had a chance to read, but I am hoping to get to it before to long. I saw a post about her on facebook recently, and it inspired me to look into how she was doing since she had her stroke, several months ago. A trip to her website led me to discover this. I also went on a youtube tear of videos including interviews and music. Such an interesting person. The first song I ever taught myself how to play on the guitar was The Circle Game.
9) Picture Books Inspired By Popular Song Lyrics I found this link via a facebook post. I have only seen one of these in person, but they all look wonderful. The blog site is called Brightly, and is devoted to connecting kids, parents and teachers with books that are appropriate for a wide range of ages and abilities. Looks like an excellent resource! There are nine books on this post, each with links to hook you up with where to buy them. I had a charming experience with one of these books a few years ago. I was doing a carpentry job at the home of a single mom and her twin daughters (around 3 years old). Their grandma was visiting, and she invited me and their mom into the living room, where the girls had a special surprise for us. The girls sat of the couch and, using the picture book as their guide, sang all the way through What a Wonderful World- the Louis Armstrong classic. Charm doesn’t begin to describe the experience. Could not have possibly been more sweet. So glad I got to be there to witness it.
10) Little Melba and Her Big Trombone I wanted to include some books for older kids, even though I have not personally read any lately. I went to what I knew would be an excellent source- A Mighty Girl. I am a huge fan of their fb page, where they post all kinds of stories about the powerful, brave and smart girls and women of the world, with each post accompanied by suggestions for related books. Typing music books into their search led me to this and several other great options. Melba Doretta Liston beat all kinds of odds to become a renowned trombone player and arranger, who played in bands with several masters of the twentieth century, including Randy Weston, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Quincy Jones, to name just a few. What a great role model! This site is a treasure of excellent books. I am just going to link you to one more, on the hope that it leads you to further explore this excellent resource. Ella Fitzgerald, the Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa. Check out their facebook page, too. A Mighty Girl indeed.
That concludes my list for today. I’d be happy for you to add any favorite music books you love in the comments below. In the meantime, I will leave you with a quote from one of Louis Armstrong’s letters. He is writing back to a soldier who sent him a fan letter. After talking about the kinds of music they both love and a few personal notes, he says ‘I’m gonna do you like the farmer did his potatoes. I’m gonna plant you now and dig you later”
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