I have a confession to make. I love music that is scratchy and recorded on a single audio channel. I grumble whenever a new Nina Simone recording is "remastered" to sound clean and crisp. Much of the allure of old music is to hear it as it was heard when it first came alive. Not that I don't appreciate the clarity in hearing Nina's bold, husky tones and knowing all that scratchiness is in her voice, not the speakers, but some music just sounds better with audio scratches. It's true.
So when co-worker and avid Oxford American reader/subscriber Carl Hoffman* showed me the heavy tome that is The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing, all I had to do was scan the table of contents to know this was all I wanted for Christmas.
Contributors include Tom Piazza, William Gay, Kevin Brockmemier, Michael Perry, Roy Blount Jr., Beth Ann Fennelly, R. Crumb, Rosanne Cash, Steve Martin, a poem by Billy Collins and a short story by Ron Rash.
It gets better! How about diverse artists and themes such as Iris DeMent, R&B, The Allman Brothers, Lynrd Skynrd, family, Doc Watson, rockabilly, Eartha Kitt, Blind Tom Wiggins, southern heavy metal, Bessie Smith, Leadbelly and the Banjo.
On second thought, if $34.95 is more like the kind of cash money you need for groceries or to get mom some trinkets for Hanukkah, there is another option. And this one includes two CDs with 55 tracks!!
For $9.99, you can pick up Oxford American's annual music issue. It's a special treat.
There is a six-page piece by Kevin Brockmeier about little known folk music duo Elton & Betty White. Betty was 31 years Elton's senior, but that didn't stop this interracial couple from wandering around Little Rock and then Venice Beach in bathing suits and sequins playing keyboard and ukulele while singing songs about sex and love, but primarily about sex. While you may snicker at songs titled "I'm in Love With Your Behind" or "Climaxation is a Sweet Sensation" or "Menopause Mama", the piece is full of biographical information, sentimental childhood discovery, but mostly it's a lot of heart and sweetness and light.
In "I Hate to See You Go" we hear the standard issue blues sound of Little Walter as he moans about his woman leaving him, how badly he wants her back while humming into his little mouth harp (aka harmonica). But something about the sounds he makes and the simple drum line underneath it all has your heart aching with Little Walter and longing to hear more. The writing that corresponds with this song is nearly as brief and mostly talks about what a musical genius Walter was and it seems that with all his hits, he still got lost behind names like Muddy Waters. Everyone knows Muddy Waters, but who is Little Walter? Interestingly enough, the new movie Cadillac Records features a fictionalized Little Walter and he may just get his name on the charts one more time.
Not everyone is from the era of "scratchy recordings"** as indicated in the essay by Downer Schwartz bookseller favorite Jack Pendarvis. Pendarvis stalks Neko Case and his telling of this brief foray into tour bus life with a messy-haired, t-shirt wearing Neko who complains about her e-mails being uninteresting, is spirited and delightful. There is also a brief piece on the depth and beauty of Neko's solo music as well, for those of you who want serious music writing as opposed to a travelogue that will make you giggle with glee.
If you need a sneak preview (whatever you do, DO NOT open the plastic covered magazine at a store to peek at the insides of the magazine unless you really plan on buying it), check out OA editor Marc Smirnoff's liner notes for both of the two CDs included with the issue. Read some of these snippets and you will run right out and pick this bad boy up, take it home, pour it a nice single malt scotch and cozy up with it in front of the fireplace.
While most of the music is "old", the writings and perspectives are still fresh and bright. This is music that will have you closing your eyes, tapping your toes, uttering a few intermittent "mmm mmms" and dreaming of warm breezes and tall glasses of sweet tea.
*A big thank you to Carl Hoffman for his passion and excitement, without which I wouldn't have the aduitory and reading pleasure I am currently experiencing with the OA Southern Music Issue. I owe you one!
**"The Oxford American covers old music...mainly...though not exclusively. I would feel badly, I hope, if our looking back contributed to people ignoring great contemporary music. <...> My point is, simply, that there's room for a publication or CD that focuses on scratchy recordings. It's called variety."
-from Editor's Box: Baby I Love You by Marc Smirnoff, OA #63