Chris Heim's Best Music Books of 2015
For the most part, music biographies only have so much charm. Many tend to be rather plodding, with dull as dishwater writing to drag things down a bit more. So unless you have a particular interest in the artist, they don't really command much attention. On the other hand, there is a growing body of work that looks at broader questions about contemporary music and (despite an often rather overly 'academic' writing style) leaves readers with much to chew on. This year contributed several interesting new additions to that literature.
Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Music Revolution by Michael Denning (Verso Books)
If you think there's a lot of world music now, you should have seen all the records being made in the 1920s. Michael Denning in Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Music Revolution explores the brief period between the emergence of electronic recording and the Depression when a remarkable burst of activity captured a broad range of ethnic music in the U.S. and an astonishing array of musical styles from all around the world. It was a shift, Denning argues, as profound as the introduction of the printing press, and not only because of change from written to recorded music. The wide range of styles captured and transmitted around the globe during that time (including jazz, fado, rai, tango, flamenco, hula, samba, palm wine and many more) all had their roots in this era and marked the emergence of a new 'vernacular' music. And all this remarkable recording activity, Denning argues, also profoundly changed our notions not just about music but about culture and politics, as they signaled and abetted a new post-colonial, post-modern world.
Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture by Jeremy Wade Morris (University of California Press)
Today we live not only in a post-colonial, but (musically speaking) a post- material world. Jeremy Wade Morris explores that in Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture. In the past three decades, the transmission of music has moved from analog to digital and from physical packages to computer and cloud based data. While much of the public discussion has focused on piracy and how to monetize music now (witness the intense interest in the Copyright Royalty Board's December decision setting new rates for streaming music services), Morris argues that more profound changes and questions about the meaning of music emerge in this new non-material world. He chronicles those changes and explores their meanings in studies of specific examples of five key developments in the digitization of music: media player software, metadata, file sharing, online retail, and cloud music services. Just as the change from sheet to recorded profoundly altered the nature and meaning of music, the change to a dematerialized digital form is reshaping music and culture in ways we are only beginning to understand.
Love Songs: The Hidden History by Ted Gioia (Oxford University Press)
"You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs," but Ted Gioia looked around him and he saw it wasn't so. So (backed by some 15 years of thought and research), he wrote Love Songs: The Hidden History. It's a surprisingly fascinating and complex look at a musical form that seems to have existed throughout history and across cultures. Gioia traces it from early indigenous cultures, through classical Greece and Rome, the troubadours, the Romantics, and era of mass-marketed popular song. Though its form and meaning has changed over time, the love song, Gioia compellingly argues, has a central place in human history and hearts. It tells us something important about culture and human nature and so is not so silly after all.
Squeeze This! A Cultural History of the Accordion in America by Marion Jacobson (University of Illinois Press)
How does an instrument go from serious to silly, from being massively popular to the butt of jokes? It's the strange and surprisingly fascinating path that the accordion has traveled since it was first invented in the early 1800s up to the present day when at least some artists are attempting to reclaim it for classical, jazz and indie music. Ethnomusicologist Marion Jacobson follows that story in Squeeze This! A Cultural History of the Accordion in America. From its invention and subsequent rise of the piano accordion, the instrument insinuated itself into classical music, was lovingly adopted into a variety of ethnic music (thanks to its portability and one-man-band ability), traveled across nearly the whole of the globe, and reached a peak of popularity in the U.S. with accordion orchestras and schools all across the land, only to be muscled out of the way by guitars and new styles of popular music. Jacobson sees a glimmer of hope in more recent decades as jazz, roots and avant-garde players have taken up the instrument once again. But, in the meantime, the accordion joke websites (see, for example: http://www.you-can-be-funny.com/Accordion-Jokes.html) live on.
Finally a few kind words for a couple of biographies from the past year.
Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music That Made Zimbabwe by Banning Eyre (Duke University Press)
NPR and Afropop contributor Banning Eyre has known Thomas Mapfumo for over two and a half decades. That rare, intimate and long access adds a depth and power to Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music That Made Zimbabwe. Mapfumo is an artist on par with Fela and Bob Marley, both in terms of artistic brilliance, and cultural and political significance, though his work hasn't captured international attention in the way those two have. His chimurgena style was not only a musical innovation, it was closely connected to the revolutionary movement that ultimately led to independence for Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). But Mapfumo was dismayed by the direction of the country under Robert Mugabe and eventually left to make a home in Oregon. Eyre follows the saga of the country, music and man with great insight, while grappling with the issues of how an outsider can truly understand another culture and another soul, and how someone with a personal connection can attempt an objective characterization of their subject. The book has a companion CD, also called Lion Songs, with both rare and essential tracks and commentary from Mapfumo himself.
Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis by Ian Zack (University of Chicago Press)
If musicians today and throughout history struggle with how to make a living doing their art, the Rev. Gary Davis offers one of the rare examples of a musician who spurned those opportunities to pursue what he saw as a higher calling. Davis was a brilliant and eclectic guitarist, an inspired and beloved teacher, and a performer of such classics as "Candy Man," Death Don't Have No Mercy," "I Belong to the Band," and "Samson and Delilah." Ian Zack, in the first full biography of the influential bluesman, follows the story from his early, poverty-ridden childhood in the South, his early days as a bluesman, his move to New York and his calling to be a preacher, and his later 'discovery' through the folk boom and the students he taught who carried on his legacy. Zack had access to many of those students and others who knew Davis, lending greater insight into a man who fought the devil perhaps because he was really so much like him. Zack's book also has that relatively rare distinction among musician biographies of being a well-written work and a physically appealing tome as well with an charming typeface and (fittingly) purple (vestment) endpapers.