Friday, November 21, 2008

Recent Reading: Nick Tosches and John T. Edge

Words such as realism, neoclassicism, minimalism and dada are intellectual niceties, terms invented to describe esthetics. Each has a definition easily rote-learned; each has a clear, sensible origin...But words such as juke, jazz, honky-tonk and rock-n-roll are elusive. None of them was invented for the purpose of art; each seems to have it's own pneuma, from which the art evolved, like dark, primeval word magick. Ancient black men say they quit playing the blues because it's the devil's music. Pale, white preachers yell against the sinfulness of rock-n-roll. And it's not impossible that the word juke, first encountered among the blacks of Florida and coastal Georgia, late in the last century, has the same source as the Wolof word dzug, which means to lead an evil, wicked life.

-Nick Tosches, Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll

I hadn't been reading much this year. Fell out of the habit when I was teaching night classes, and then couldn't get myself back on the ball. After a few months without digesting much pulp, I found a copy of Nick Tosches' book Country, and went through it lickety-split.

Country is a strange book. It's nothing like a definitive history of country, or even of the roots of rock music in country. Instead, it's a meandering, idiosyncratic book of impressionist history. Not that it's not rigorous--the bulk of the book is meticulously researched--but it's a book that insists, with immovable conviction, on discussing everything that interests it's author, and nothing that doesn't. What you end up with is a book that, through its very style, conveys the twisted roots to which its title alludes. A chapter that seems to be a chronological catalog of every independent label in America suddenly starts telling the story of Hank Williams, another chapter chronicling the tradition of "dirty" country songs takes 4 pages to talk about Roy Acuff's gospel hit "The Great Speckled Bird." There are chapters on the history of yodeling, the emergence of rockabilly (which will make you scared to death of Jerry Lee Lewis), and minstrel performer Emmett Miller, whose singing style may have influenced Jimmy Rodgers. One chapter traces a rockabilly song ("Black Jack David" by Warren Smith) back through English ballads and folk traditions to the myth of Orpheus.

The central chapter, bearing the inflammatory title "Cowboys and Niggers", is a long view of the interaction of country music with black music and culture. This history of musical miscegenation has defined American music of the 20th Century, despite the general perception of country as a segregated white music. It's a story of fiddlin' slaves, black cowboys, blackface minstrels, the common ancestry of blues slide guitar and country steel guitar, Freddie Roulette (whose steel guitar soul album album Sweet Funky Steel is now on my want list) and Charlie Parker jamming with Ray Price, a story that continues today, right up to last week when I heard a new country song called "Get Your Drink On" playing at a BBQ joint in Pasadena.

In between these chapters are odd pieces of short fiction that may or may not be based in fact, often concerning unidentified country singers, and in each case igniting deep curiosity in the reader. That sense of mystery is the driving force behind the crate-digging impulse, the desire to always find the next record, the next piece of information, to seek out the source of it all. And while Tosches creates an occult sense of history, with strange links between the past and the present (the book begins with a man named John Lydon arriving in America from England--in 1607), and throws in a healthy dose of heresy (in the space of two sentences, Tosches manages to dismiss the influence of Maybelle Carter's guitar playing (my scholarship is too shallow to defend it, but this is like saying Jimmy Page wasn't that important) and dis Altman's Nashville), the most important measure of a book like this is how many records it puts you on the trail of, and right now it has me sniffing for the Americana gumbo of James Luther Dickinson's Dixie Fried, the ancient country blues of Henry Thomas (whom I just realized did one of my favorite tracks from The Anthology of American Folk Music), and minstrel yodeler Emmett Miller (a chief obsession of Tosches, Miller is given three chapters in the book). I already managed to find Luis Russell's "The (New) Call of the Freaks."

At about the same time, I finally bought a book I've been meaning to get for years now. John T. Edge's The Southern Belly isn't really a guidebook for good eats through the South. It's more like a guided tour, one that spends more time profiling the personalities and families behind the various restaurants, BBQ shacks, lunch counters and fish stands than describing their food. I was going back and forth between this and Country, and the flavor this combination produces is the essence of the South. There is a strange cognitive dissonance produced by Edge's profile of Lester Maddox, the segregationist governor of Georgia who got his start selling fried chicken and biscuits. He comes off more as a lovable eccentric than an evil hatemonger. Maybe the two aren't mutually exclusive. Maybe that's the essence of Southern Culture right there.


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