The Literature of American Popular Music


Refiguring American Music

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Book Pages: 552 Illustrations: 40 illustrations Published: May 2021

Author: Eric Weisbard

American Studies, Cultural Studies, Music > Popular Music

In Songbooks, critic and scholar Eric Weisbard offers a critical guide to books on American popular music from William Billings's 1770 New-England Psalm-Singer to Jay-Z's 2010 memoir Decoded. Drawing on his background editing the Village Voice music section, coediting the Journal of Popular Music Studies, and organizing the Pop Conference, Weisbard connects American music writing from memoirs, biographies, and song compilations to blues novels, magazine essays, and academic studies. The authors of these works are as diverse as the music itself: women, people of color, queer writers, self-educated scholars, poets, musicians, and elites discarding their social norms. Whether analyzing books on Louis Armstrong, the Beatles, and Madonna; the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Gayl Jones, and Jennifer Egan; or varying takes on blackface minstrelsy, Weisbard charts an alternative history of American music as told through its writing. As Weisbard demonstrates, the most enduring work pursues questions that linger across time period and genre—cultural studies in the form of notes on the fly, on sounds that never cease to change meaning.


“Entertaining scholarship! Entertaining criticism! What a revelation! Eric Weisbard is one of those rare writers who understands that in mirroring the music it addresses, literary analysis should provide pleasure as well as insights. With great verve, Songbooks provides both.” — David Ritz, co-composer, “Sexual Healing”

“Embracing the fact that there's no hearing any music without mediations of crosstalk, mythography, humbug, gatekeeping, and taste war, Eric Weisbard's exuberant and encyclopedic history of music writing delivers two and a half centuries of vernacular bounce—sheets of sound, if you will. Heroic, acutely discerning, compulsively readable, and bound to be enduringly useful.” — Eric Lott, author of Black Mirror: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism

“Eric Weisbard is the rare critic who can pair a deep, intersectional, and breathtakingly intelligent survey of music writing with the nuance and joy of someone who has actually done the strange, difficult work of parsing sound on paper. Songbooks is an extraordinary look at how we try to make sense of the music that buoys and destroys us. It made me rethink what criticism can do, what music can do, and how both can change our lives.” — Amanda Petrusich, author of Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records

"Weisbard’s comprehensiveness means he may introduce many music fans to works they might not know otherwise. . . . A valuable literature review of American pop. . . ." — Kirkus Reviews

"Weisbard’s book will be required reading for all music critics and journalists." — Henry Carrigan, No Depression


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Eric Weisbard is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama and the author of Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Introduction  1
Part I: Setting the Scene
First Writer, of Music and on Music: William Billings: The New-England Psalm-Singer, 1770  20
Blackface Minstrelsy Extends Its Twisted Roots: T.D. Rice, "Jim Crow," c. 1832  22
Shape-Note Singing and Early Country: B.F. White and E.J. King, The Sacred Harp, 1944  25
Music in Captivity: Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave: 1853  26
Champion of the White Male Vernacular: Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1855  28
Notating Spirituals: William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, eds., Slave Songs of the United States, 1867  30
First Black Music Historian: James Trotter, Music and Some Highly Musical People: The Lives of Remarkable Musicians of the Colored Race, 1878  32
Child Ballads and Folklore: James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 vols., 1882-1898  33
Women Not Inventing Ethnomusicology: Alice Fletcher, A Study of Omaha Indian Music, 1893  35
First Hit Songwriter, from Pop to Folk and Back Again: Morrison Foster, Biography, Songs and Musical Compositions of Stephen C. Foster, 1896  39
Americana Emerges: Emma Bell Miles, The Spirit of the Mountains, 1905  44
Documenting the Story: O.G. Sonneck, Bibliography of Early Secular American Music, 1905  45
Tin Pan Alley's Sheet Music Biz: Charles K. Harris, How to Write a Popular Song, 1906  47
First Family of Folk Collecting: John A. Lomax, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, 1910  50
Proclaiming Black Modernity: James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, 1912  52
Songcatching in the Mountains: Olive Dame Campbell and Cecil Sharp, English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, 1917  54
Part II: The Jazz Age
Stories for the Slicks: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flappers and Philosophers, 1920  62
Remembering the First Black Star: Mabel Rowland, ed., Bert Williams, Son of Laughter, 1923  64
Magazine Criticism across Popular Genres: Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts, 1924  67
Harlem Renaissance: Alain Locke, ed., The New Negro: An Interpretation, 1925  69
Tin Pan Alley's Standards Setter: Alexander Woollcott, The Story of Irving Berlin, 1925  71
Broadway Musical as Supertext: Edna Ferber, Show Boat, 1926  74
Father of the Blues in Print: W.C. Handy, ed., Blues: An Anthology, 1926  76
Poet of the Blare and Racial Mountain: Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues, 1926  78
Blessed Immortal, Forgotten Songwriter: Carrie Jacobs-Bond, The Roads of Melody, 1927  80
Tune Detective and Expert Explainer: Sigmund Spaeth, Read 'Em and Weep: The Songs Your Forgot to Remember, 1927  82
Pop's First History Lesson: Isaac Goldberg: Tin Pan Alley: A Chronicle of the American Popular Music Racket, 1930  84
Roots Intellectual: Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study of the National Character, 1931  85
Jook Ethnography, Inventing Black Music Studies: Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men, 1935  87
What He Played Came First: Louis Armstrong, Swing That Music, 1936  90
Jazz's Original Novel: Dorothy Baker, Young Man with a Horn, 1938  94
Introducing Jazz Critics: Frederic Ramsey Jr. and Charles Edward Smith, eds., Jazzmen, 1939  95
Part III: Midcentury Icons
Folk Embodiment: Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory, 1943  104
A Hack Story Soldiers Took to War: David Ewen, Men of Popular Music, 1944  106
From Immigrant Jew to Red Hot Mama: Sophie Tucker, Some of These Days, 1945  108
White Negro Drug Dealer: Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, Really the Blues, 1946  110
Composer of Tone Parallels: Barry Ulanov, Duke Ellington, 1946  111
Jazz's Precursor as Pop and Art: Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, They All Played Ragtime: The True Story of an American Music, 1950  114
Field Recording in the Library of Congress: Alan Lomax, Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and "Inventor of Jazz," 1950  118
Dramatizing Blackness from a Distance: Ethel Waters with Charles Samuels, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, 1951  120
Centering Vernacular Song: Gilbert Chase, America's Music, 1955  122
Writing about Records: Roland Gelatt, The Fabulous Phonograph: From Tin Foil to High Fidelity, 1955  124
Collective Oral History of Document Scenes: Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, eds., Hear Me Talkin' to Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It, 1955  127
The Greatest Jazz Singer's Star Text: Billie Holiday with William Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues, 1956  129
Beat Generation: Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1957  133
Borderlands Folklore and Transnational Imaginaries: Américo Paredes, "With His Pistol in His Hands": A Border Ballad and Its Hero, 1958  136
New Yorker Critic of a Genre Becoming Middlebrow: Whitney Balliett, The Sound of Surprise: 46 Pieces on Jazz, 1959  141
Part IV. Vernacular Counterculture
Blues Revivalists: Samuel Charters, The Country Blues, 1959; Paul Oliver, Blues Fell This Morning: The Meaning of the Blues, 1960  148
Britpop in Fiction: Colin MacInnes, Absolute Beginners, 1959  151
Form-Exploding Indeterminacy: John Cage, Silence, 1961  153
Science Fiction Writer Pens First Rock and Roll Novel: Harlan Ellison, Rockabilly [Spider Kiss], 1961  155
Pro-Jazz Scene Sociology: Howard Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, 1963  159
Reclaiming Black Music: LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Blues People: Negro Music in White America, 1963  159
An Endless Lit, Limited Only in Scope: Michael Braun, "Love Me Do!": The Beatles Progress, 1964  162
Music as a Prose Master's Jagged Grain: Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act, 1964  167
How to Succeed in . . .: M. William Krasilovsky and Sidney Schemel, This Business of Music, 1964  169
Schmaltz and Adversity: Sammy Davis Jr. and Burt Boyar, Yes I Can, 1965  171
New Journalism and Electrified Syntax: Tom Wolfe, Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, 1965  173
Defining a Genre: Bill C. Malone, Country Music, U.S.A.: A Fifty-Year History, 1968  175
Swing's Movers as an Alternate History of American Pop: Marshall and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance, 1968  177
Rock and Roll's Greatest Hyper: Nik Cohn, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, 1969/1970  182
Ebony's Pioneering Critic of Black Pop as Black Power: Phyl Garland, The Sound of Soul: The Story of Black Music, 1969  184
Entertainment Journalism and the Power of Knowing: Lillian Roxon, Rock Encyclopedia, 1969  185
An Over-the-Top Genre's First Reliable History: Charlie Gillett, The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1970  187
Rock Critic of the Trivially Awesome: Richard Meltzer, The Aesthetics of Rock, 1970  188
Black Religious Fervor as the Core of Rock and Soul: Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, 1971  190
Jazz Memoir of "Rotary Perception" Multiplicity: Charles Mingus, Beneath the Underdog, 1971  193
Composing a Formal History: Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans, 1971  194
Krazy Kat Fiction of Viral Vernaculars: Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo, 1972  196
Derrière Garde Prose and Residual Pop Styles: Alec Wilder, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950, 1972  198
Charts as a New Literature: Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Records, 1955–1972, 1973  201
Selling Platinum across Formats: Clive Davis with James Willwerth, Clive, Inside the Record Business, 1975  203
Blues Relationships and Black Women's Deep Songs: Gayl Jones, Corregidora, 1975  205
"Look a the World in a Rock 'n' Roll Sense . . . What Does That Even Mean?": Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music, 1975  207
Cultural Studies Brings Pop from the Hallway to the Classroom: Hall and Tony Jefferson, eds., Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, 1976  211
Life in Country for an Era of Feminism and Counterculture: Loretta Lynn with George Vecsey, Coal Miner's Daughter, 1976  214
Introducing Rock Critics: Jim Miller, ed., The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1976  216
Patriarchal Exegete of Black Vernacular as "Equipment for Living": Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues, 1976  219
Reading Pop Culture as Intellectual Obligation: Roland Barthes, Image—Music—Text, 1977  221
Paging through Books to Make History: Dean Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, 1977  223
Historians Begin to Study Popular Music: Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom, 1977  225
Musicking to Overturn Hierarchy: Christopher Small, Music, Society, Education, 1977  226
Drool Data and Stained Panties from a Critical Noise Boy: Nick Tosches, Country: The Biggest Music in America, 1977  229
Part V: After the Revolution
Punk Negates Rock: Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, The Boy Looked at Johnny: The Obituary of Rock and Roll, 1978  236
The Ghostwriter behind the Music Books: Ray Charles and David Ritz, Brother Ray: Ray Charles' Own Story, 1978  240
Disco Negates Rock: Andrew Holleran, Dancer from the Dance, 1978  242
Industry Schmoozer and Black Music Advocated Fills Public Libraries with Okay Overviews: Arnold Shaw, Honkers and Shouters: The Golden Years of Rhythm and Blues, 1978  245
Musicology's Greatest Tune Chronicler: Charles Hamm, Yesterdays: Popular Song in America, 1979  247
Criticism's Greatest Album Chronicler: Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the '70s, 1981  248
Rock's Frank Capra: Cameron Crowe: Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story, 1981  251
Culture Studies/Rock Critic Twofer!: Simon Frith, Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock'n'Roll, 1981  252
A Magical Explainer of Impure Sounds: Robert Palmer, Deep Blues, 1981  255
Feminist Rock Critic, Pop-Savvy Social Critic: Ellen Willis, Beginning to See the Light: Pieces of a Decade, 1981  257
New Deal Swing Believer Revived: Otis Ferguson, In the Spirit of Jazz: The Otis Ferguson Reader, 1982  259
Ethnomusicology and Pop, Forever Fraught: Bruno Nettl, The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-Nine Issues and Concepts, 1983  260
Autodidact Deviance, Modeling the Rock Generation to Come: V. Vale and Andrea Juno, eds., RE/Search #6/7: Industrial Culture Handbook, 1983  263
The Rolling Stones of Rolling Stones Books: Stanley Booth, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, 1984  266
Finding the Blackface in Bluegrass: Robert Cantwell, Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound, 1984  268
Cyberpunk Novels and Cultural Studies Futurism: William Gibson, Neuromancer, 1984  269
Glossary Magazine Features Writer Gets History's Second Draft: Gerri Hirshey, Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music, 1984  272
Theorizing Sound as Dress Rehearsal for the Future: Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, 1977; Translation 1985  274
Classic Rock, Mass Market Paperback Style: Stephen Davis, Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zepplin Saga, 1985  275
Love and Rockets, Signature Comic of Punk Los Angeles as Borderland Imaginary: Los Bros Hernandez, Music for Mechanics, 1985  277
Plays about Black American Culture Surviving the Loss of Political Will: August Wilson, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, 1985  280
Putting Pop in the Big Books of Music: H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, eds., The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, 1986  282
Popular Music's Defining Singer and Swinger: Kitty Kelley, His Way, The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra, 1986  284
Anti-Epic Lyricizing of Black Music after Black Power: Nathaniel Mackey, Bedouin Hornbook, 1986  288
Lost Icon of Rock Criticism: Lester Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, 1987  290
Veiled Glimpses of the Songwriter Who Invented Rock and Roll as Literature: Chuck Berry, Chuck Berry: The Autobiography, 1987  292
Making "Wild-Eyed Girls" a More Complex Narrative: Pamela Des Barres, I'm with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, 1987  294
Reporting Black Music as Art Mixed with Business, Nelson George, The Death of Rhythm & Blues, 1988  295
Sessions with the Evil Genius of Jazz: Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography, 1989  298
Part VI: New Voices, New Method
Literature of New World Order Americanization: Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters, 1990  308
Ethnic Studies of Blended Musical Identities: George Lipsitz, Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture, 1990  310
Ballad Novels for a Baby Boomer Appalachia: Sharyn McCrumb, If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O, 1990  312
Pimply, Prole, and Putrid, but with a Surprisingly Diverse Genre Literature: Chuck Eddy, Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe, 1991  314
How Musicology Met Cultural Studies: Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, 1991  318
Idol for Academic Analysis and a Changing Public Sphere: Madonna, Sex, 1992  320
Black Bohemian Cultural Nationalism: Greg Tate, Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America, 1992  324
From Indie to Alternative Rock: Gina Arnold, Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana, 1993  326
Musicology on Popular Music—In Pragmatic Context: Richard Crawford, The American Musical Landscape, 1993  330
Listenign, Queerly, Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, 1993  332
Blackface as Stolen Vernacular: Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, 1993  334
Media Studies of Girls Listening to Top 40: Susan Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, 1994  338
Ironies of a Contested Identity: Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, 1994  339
Two Generations of Leading Ethnomusicologists Debate the Popular: Charles Keil and Steven Feld: Music Grooves: Essays and Dialogues, 1944  344
Defining Hip-Hop as Flow, Layering, Rupture, and Postindustrial Resistance: Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, 1994  346
Regendering Music Writing, with the Deadly Art of Attitude: Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers, eds., Rock She Wrote: Women Write about Rock, Pop, and Rap, 1995  348
Soundscaping References, Immersing Trauma: David Toop, Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds, 1995  348
Sociologist Gives Country Studies a Soft-Shell Contrast to the Honky-Tonk: Richard Peterson, Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity, 1997  354
All That Not-Quite Jazz: Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz: The First Century, 1998  355
Jazz Studies Conquers the Academy: Robert G. O'Meally, ed., The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, 1998  357
Part VII: Topics in Progress
Paradigms of Club Culture, House and Techno to Rave and EDM: Simon Reynolds, Energy Flash: A Journey through Rave Music and Dance Culture, 1998  368
Performance Studies, Minoritarian Identity, and Academic Wildness: José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentification: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, 1999  372
Left of Black: Networking a New Discourse: Mark Anthony Neal, What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture, 1999  375
Aerobics as Genre, Managing Emotions: Tia DeNora, Music in Everyday Life, 2000  377
Confronting Globalization: Thomas Turino, Nationalists, Cosmopolitans, and Popular Music in Zimbabwe, 2000  378
Evocations of Cultural Migration Centered on Race, Rhythm, and Eventually Sexuality: Alejo Carpentier, Music in Cuba, 2001 (1946)  382
Digging Up the Pre-Recordings Creation of a Black Pop Paradigm: Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889–1895, 2002  386
When Faith in Popular Sound Wavers, He's Waiting: Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert, 2002  388
Codifying a Precarious but Global Academic Field: David Hesmondhalgh and Keith Negus, eds., Popular Music Studies, 2002  391
Salsa and the Mixings of Global Culture: Lise Waxer, City of Musical Memory: Salsa, Record Grooves, and Popular Culture in Cali, Colombia, 2002  393
Musicals as Pop, Nationalism, and Changing Identity: Stacy Wolf, A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical, 2002  396
Musical Fiction and Criticism by the Greatest Used Bookstore Clerk of All Time: Jonathan Lethem, Fortress of Solitude, 2003  399
Poetic Ontologies of Black Musical Style: Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, 2003  401
Rescuing the Afromodern Vernacular: Guthrie Ramsey Jr., Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop, 2003  402
Sound Studies and the Songs Question: Jonathan Sterne: The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, 2003  404
Dylanologist Conventions: Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One, 2004  405
Two Editions of a Field Evolving Faster Than a Collection Could Contain: Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal, eds., That's the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, 2004, 2012  410
Revisionist Bluesology and Tangled Intellectual History: Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, 2004  412
Trying to Tell the Story of a Dominant Genre: Jeff Chang, Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, 2005  415
Refiguring American Music—And Its Institutionalizations: Josh Kun, Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America, 2005  419
Country Music Scholars Pioneer Gender and Industry Analysis: Diane Pecknold, The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry, 2007  423
Where Does Classical Music Fit In?: Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, 2007  426
Poptimism, 33 1/3 Books, and the Struggles of Music Critics: Carl Wilson, Let's Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, 2007  429
Novelists Collegial with Indie Music: Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad, 2010  432
YouTube, Streaming, and the Popular Music Performance Archive: Will Friedwald, A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, 2010  437
Idiosyncratic Musician Memoirs—Performer as Writer in the Era of the Artist as Brand: Jay-Z, Decoded, 2010  438
Acknowledgments  443
Works Cited  447
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Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-1408-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-1194-1