The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing
Publication Year: 2010
Published by: University of Arkansas Press
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If the phrase “it takes a village” weren’t copyrighted, we’d use it here. First and foremost, we thank the writers and artists—including the ones deserving inclusion in this book, but not here simply because of space limitations. We thank all of them, not only for their mountain-moving talent, but for their soul-stirring generosity. For example, most of the contributors to this book donated their fees ...
Foreword: Greek to Me
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Mathematician-Philosopher Pythagoras was born and raised in the country, but he hit the road early. He hit Memphis (the Egyptian one), Cairo (not Illinois), and even met the Pharaoh (though not Sam the Sham). In short, Pythagoras was as global as one could be. He met all the Who that were Who in those days (sixth century B.C.) because he was a giant ...
Introduction: Rage Against the Machine
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A profound disconnect is often at play between music journalism—with its focus on frivolous side issues like money, celebrity, controversy, and image—and the reasons people love music. Of the possibility of excellence in music writing, however, there is no limit. Lester Bangs single-handedly decimated any possible theory of limits. (As did others.) (With his other hand, ...
Various Artists: Falling Into Place: A MUSIC WRITER LOOKS BACK
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I could act as if I don’t really know how it happened, but it wouldn’t be true. I know exactly how I got to this place, whether for good or ill, and I can’t pretend otherwise. I wanted to be a writer. Not a rock writer—there was no such thing. I wanted to write novels and stories. And so I did—and occasionally still do. When I was fifteen, I first read ...
Leadbelly: ANOTHER WORLD
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You are sitting next to strangers, on a city bus, or maybe in a doctor’s waiting room. The space is close and would be claustrophobic, but you begin to overhear conversation—a riveting tale, an old man’s life, a world away from your own. The one you thought was his son next to him, or his niece on his other side, are strangers, and this man is talking not to them but to everyone; and unlike the ...
Bessie Smith: ANY WOMAN’S BLUES
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A few years ago, a woman I had a soulful connection with nearly charmed me into changing my sexual allegiance. Later, on mid-winter trips to the Los Angeles area, she would play Bessie Smith on a boom box while rubbing my back and neck. I had injured myself in yoga class—Iyengar, known for its strict, lengthy poses—while trying to get over a boy. I would slip away from my magazine job and trod ten ...
Jimmy Martin: TRUE ADVENTURES WITH THE KING OF BLUEGRASS
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It’s pitch-dark and cold and I’m sitting in my car at the top of a driveway on a small hill outside Nashville, trying to decide what to do. In an hour and a half, the Grand Ole Opry starts, and I’m supposed to attend with the King of Bluegrass himself— or, rather, the King-in-Exile, the sixty-nine-year-old Black Sheep of the Great Dysfunctional Family of Country Music—Jimmy Martin, veteran of Bill Monroe’s ...
Blind Tom Wiggins: SLAVERY ONSTAGE
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Thomas Greene Wiggins was born a few miles north of Columbus, Georgia, on May 25, 1849. He was the youngest child of Charity and Mingo Wiggins, slaves of Wiley Jones of Harris County. Jones had moved to Georgia’s western frontier hoping to improve his fortunes, but in the fall of 1850 the sheriff advertised his property to be sold for the settlement of debts. The Wiggins family—two adults well ...
Emmett Miller: GET DOWN, MOSES
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Emmett Miller died, forgotten and on the skids, in 1962. On his death certificate, in the space indicating the usual occupation of the deceased, it said simply: Entertainer. And that, just as simply, is what he was: a blackface singer and comic who rose and fell in a time of twilight, in the mingling, falling darkness of the final days of minstrelsy and vaudeville. He was a son of the Deep South, born with the century, in 1900. ...
Rock & Roll/Pop
My Morning Jacket: A DESCENT INTO FANDOM
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An ominous ninety-nine-second rumble: Is that a looped growl? A funnel cloud in an echo chamber? Is somebody’s work-truck underwater? What noisome thing is being wrought in the foul rag-and-bone shop of Kentucky? Keyboards and drums announce themselves teasingly, and build, mastered as if emerging from the disagreeable soundcloud. So beginneth my favorite album by my favorite rock ...
Janis Joplin: LOOKING FOR HER IN PORT ARTHUR, TEXAS
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It’s not deep in the heart of Texas—it’s more like the service entrance. Driving around downtown Port Arthur, Texas, you pass the Golden Light Social Club, then something called Club Say What where an ominous-looking van—the kind used by villains in 1970s TV movies—is parked in front. Nearby, paint peels from pastel shotgun shacks, while banana trees stand beside them. A gaunt, tranced woman ...
Chris Bell: THE LEGACY OF BIG STAR’S “OTHER GENIUS”
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One thing you do not find much of in It Came From Memphis, Robert Gordon’s history of the deeply, richly twisted cultural scene that occupied that city from roughly 1950–75, is tragedy. (Within the scene itself, that is; outside of it, the whole period could look pretty tragic.) There’s awfulness: people rushing headlong into bad ends, talent going unrecognized, that sort of thing. But overall, the sense ...
Jim White: THE ORIGINAL HICK-HOPPER
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Jim and I are in his dilapidated van, driving around Washington Square Park an hour before sound check at the Village Underground. We are, like so many others, looking for a parking spot, a place to rest and talk. Jim is at the wheel, swearing. Tall and lanky with long, black hair and sideburns, he looks like a gasstation attendant from some music video fantasy; his accent, more twang than ...
Eartha Kitt: TIGRESS
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In 1982, when I was twenty-four years old, I was ushered into an apartment in the West Village where Eartha Kitt suggested I sit beside her on a sofa. She was a famous woman in her fifties, promoting a new show, and still very much a striking figure. She had a Cary Grant jaw beneath a forehead high enough to rent a banner ad. Up top, she had a fluff of a ’do that would one day perhaps inspire Will ...
Henry “Red” Allen: A NEW ORLEANS TRUMPETER AND THE MAN WHO LOOMED OVER HIM
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I stumbled onto Henry “Red” Allen when I was maybe fifteen, in that haphazard, ahistorical, assbackwards way you discover music as a kid. Thanks to the Columbia Record Club, the Amazon.com of its day—this would’ve been 1962 or ’63—I’d already become entranced by Louis Armstrong: his live Ambassador Satch album from the ’50s and one volume of his studio-created Hot Fives from the ’20s. ...
Doc Watson: SITTING ON TOP OF THE WORLD
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The week before MerleFest I went by to check on Grady, and he was putting a fuel pump on his RV. It was a huge RV so ancient it looked like something the Joads might have fled the Dust Bowl in, and something was always going wrong with it. Grady had skinned knuckles and a half-drunk beer and a home-rolled Prince Albert cigarette stuck to his lower lip that waggled when he talked. ...
Fred Neil: WHO WAS FRED? FRED WAS FRED WAS FRED
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In 1969 Fred Neil had a hit song and what was probably a lot of money. Fred Neil did not, however, have a telephone. The hit was called “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which he’d recorded for his 1967 album, Fred Neil; it was covered by Harry Nilsson and used as the theme for Midnight Cowboy in 1969. And then, you know, in drifted ...
Iris DeMent: TANGLED IN MY LIFE
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It seems to me that those of us who aren’t musicians usually take one of two imaginative stances toward the songs we listen to—either we imagine ourselves as the singers or we imagine ourselves as the sung to. I am one of the sung to. When I concentrate on a song, it is as if someone is speaking directly to me, unreservedly and in total privacy. The voice that comes through my speakers strikes me as ...
Ray Charles: HE HIT IT ON THE NOSE
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I’ve been trying to write up Ray Charles ever since I interviewed him in 1983. We were in his dressing room at Lincoln Center, where he was to appear in the Kool Jazz Festival. As we shook hands, he felt up my arm from wrist to elbow. “If you’re a woman,” somebody told me, “he’ll keep going on up till you stop him.” ...
Dusty Springfield: THE QUEEN OF BLOND SOUL
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It was 1965, and I heard a mesmerizing voice pouring out of my car radio. I was on my way to my office in Manhattan from my home in Great Neck, Long Island. The song was “Some of Your Lovin’.” The singer was one Dusty Springfield, whose voice—tender and pristine—conveyed a vulnerability both sexual and soulful. Her ...
Joe Tex: HIDDEN MEANINGS (a short story)
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In the song “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More No Big Fat Woman” by Joe Tex, the speaker or the narrator of this song, a man previously injured before the song’s opening chords by a large, aggressive-type woman in a disco-type bar, refuses to bump with the “big fat woman” of the title. In doing so he is merely exercising his right to an injury-free existence thus insuring him the ability to work and provide ...
Ike Turner: STILL SMOKING
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Ike Turner lives on a quiet suburban street about thirty miles north of San Diego. His gray ranch-style house with sky blue trim has a picket fence in front, a two-car garage, and a well-maintained lawn. A small black cross hangs from the fence gate. The front door is open, and before I can knock on the screen door, a petite blond woman appears. I introduce myself to Jeanette Turner. “You’re late,” she ...
My Mother’s Blues: WHY SHE WON’T LEAVE NEW ORLEANS
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My mother’s sitting in her ruined backyard, the one haunted by the memories of children and swing sets, sandboxes, plastic pools, and Slip ‘n Slides. Almost everything that wasn’t knocked down, split in two, or uprooted by Katrina was drowned or damaged by the water that covered the yard for no one knows how many days. ...
About a Girl: MY SISTER’S LOVE AFFAIR WITH COUNTRY MUSIC
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... While my sister is, inarguably, an “obsessive country-music fan,” she is not a crazed fan. She doesn’t stalk people, has never been arrested, doesn’t do drugs, has never auditioned for a reality TV show. She has rented the same Nashville apartment and held the same job—bookkeeping for a property management company—for more than a decade, and she volunteers weekends in a therapeutic ...
Jerry Lee Lewis: ONE NIGHT WITH THE KILLER
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And there he was, Jerry Lee Lewis, host to a passel of in-laws and friends, sipping bourbon and Coke, joking, clowning, reflecting, while fifteen big diamonds and a bloodred ruby the size of a Wild Cherry Life Saver glistened upon his fingers. It was eight o’clock on a Saturday night and Jerry Lee, once the Crown Prince ...
The Allman Brothers: THE ONLY PLACE THEY REALLY FELT AT HOME WAS MAMA LOUISE HUDSON’S SOUL-FOOD RESTAURANT
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In April 1969, a scraggly bunch of hippies made their way north from Jacksonville, Florida, to the Central Georgia town of Macon, a quiet citadel of red-brick churches, fading antebellum mansions, and row after row of mill houses. The hippies came at the behest of music promoter Phil Walden, who had made a name ...
Lynyrd Skynyrd: SONG OF THE SOUTH
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After two notes, after one second, I know it. You’d know it, too—everybody would: It’s everywhere every day on “classic rock” and oldies stations, it’s a near-the-top selection on jukeboxes in bars called Ray’s or the Cotton Patch, and it’s played to ignite the soggy, waning hours of keg parties from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Lake Okeechobee. The chords chime, then somebody (Ronnie?) says, “Turn it ...
Lynyrd Skynyrd: CAN YOU FIND SALVATION IN THE LATE-NIGHT MUSIC OF A ROADHOUSE COVER BAND? (a short story)
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So it’s somewhere between Saturday night and Sunday morning clock-wise, and I’m in a cinderblock roadhouse called The Last Chance, and I’m playing “Free Bird” for the fifth time tonight, but I’m thinking not of Ronnie Van Zant but of an artist dredged up from my former life, Willie Yeats, and his line “surely some revelation is at hand.” ...
Southern Heavy Metal
Southern Heavy Metal: AN ODE
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If you grew up in Texas in the ’80s and didn’t wear a black Pantera concert jersey, you likely got your ass kicked by someone who did. (Or, like me, you wore the shirt and still got your ass kicked, but whatever.) In Louisiana, the requisite jersey was from the band Crowbar. North Carolina? Corrosion of Conformity. ...
Blues: Dept. of R.L.Burnside
Authenticity Be Damned!: A DIRTY BLUES ALCHEMY THAT IS CORRUPT AND ALIVE
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Isn’t one of the horrible secrets of the blues how boring they can sometimes be? Consider the great Eric Clapton, who can cop a Freddie King lick better than anyone, but whose blues tribute albums feel too precise and mannerly and ultimately vitiated—like repertory, for God’s sake. They make you wish he’d left the key to the highway back under the mat at home. ...
Why I Wear My Mojo Hand: CHAOS THEORY, APPLIED
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Blues and trouble, that’s the cliché. The reality is: blues and chaos. Blues is supposed to be—what?—nurtured by trouble? So is most art that reaches deep inside and demands unflinching honesty. Is blues about trouble? No more than it is about good-time Saturday nights and murder most foul, sharecroppers’ servitude, and sweet home Chicago. ...
Walking After Midnight: I BEGAN TO SEE THAT THE BLUES IS REALLY NEWS FROM AN OLDER PLACE
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I am not a man bent on gathering souvenirs of my passage through this world, but I seem to have made certain exceptions, including one for Oxford, Mississippi, where I spent two balmy spring days a few years back. I went there to participate in the annual Oxford Conference for the Book. Usually I come back from places with nothing at all to show. From Oxford, I have a coffee cup bearing the ...
Homage to a Juke Joint: WHEN THE MUSIC INSIDE MEETS THE MUSIC OUTSIDE
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I was visiting Oxford, Mississippi, in 1999, when I got invited to Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint in the tiny community of Chulahoma, near Holly Springs. I didn’t jump at the chance—I was with my husband on his book tour and was tuckered out. We’d married a few months prior, and we were young enough when the tour began that staying in a different hotel every night and eating out three ...
Rock & Roll II
Captain Beefheart: WE COULD REALLY USE SOME MYSTERY IN OUR MUSIC THESE DAYS
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Come back, Captain Beefheart, come back! I was a mere prat of a child when my friend Bob dropped a needle into Clear Spot. I was just twelve, maybe thirteen, the youngest disc jockey in the country, or so said the man who swore he could get me on Johnny Carson but never did. My friend Bob used to come to the little 1,000- watt AM station where I worked ...
The Sex Pistols: IN ENEMY TERRITORY: THEIR SOUTHERN TOUR OF ’78
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Twenty years ago, the most notorious British punk-rock band made its stateside debut at a strip mall in Atlanta. Fans of the Sex Pistols began lining up at four P.M. for the group’s sold-out (actually, oversold) show at the Great Southeast Music Hall, a five-hundred-capacity club that shared a parking lot with a Kmart. As the ...
R&B: Dept. of Al Green
Raw and Born Again: THE SOUND THAT PROMISES TO TAKE US HOME
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Let’s look at the facts about Al Green. Or rather, the fact, the biographical detail he does not discuss, the moment around which the whole story turns: at 4 A.M., October 18, 1974, when the last, great, sweet falsetto soul singer of the South eased into a bath after a long night of recording and got a pan of boiling-hot grits poured on him by a spurned lover. ...
Only His Voice Made Us Feel This Way: IT IS LIKE CHURCH
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The young girls look at us like we’re ghosts when Al Green comes on the boom box in the driveway, just as the sun is going down and we’re done putting up the rest of the ribs in foil-covered pans, when all of us, the women who are their mothers and aunts, are sitting in folding chairs with our feet out in front of us because we’ve been on them all day cooking and putting up with Usher and Ciara blasting ...
Dept. of Elvis
Bill Haney: THE FIRST AND MOST INFLUENTIAL ELVIS IMPERSONATOR EVER
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Bill Haney never liked being called an Elvis impersonator. “I’m a lousy imitator,” he says. “If you asked me to sound like anybody, I couldn’t. I don’t know how to change my voice. People automatically started comparing my voice to his. I never once tried to sound like Elvis. I tried to sound like Bill Haney.” ...
Rock& Roll/Pop III
R.E.M.: IT’S NOT LIKE YEARS AGO
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When I was in college in Massachusetts in the late ’80s, what I remember most about the early spring-fever days was the way the dorm-room windows would be flung open to reveal that the student body seemed to be listening to one band and one band only: R.E.M. Indeed, you could walk across the budding grass on the campus green and hear one R.E.M. album blasting out of a building ...
Bobbie Gentry: AN ATTEMPT TO SOLVE ONE OF AMERICA’S GREATEST MYSTERIES
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We’re so sure we know what it was and why they dropped it. A baby, they dropped a baby off the bridge. I’m here to reopen this troubling file. It’s been more than thirty years, and we need finally to face the music. The multiple ambiguities in Bobbie Gentry’s song “Ode to Billie Joe” require close scrutiny. ...
Randy Newman: (NOT) THROUGH ROSE-COLORED GLASSES
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In 1974, Randy Newman was a thirty-one-year-old Los Angeles–based singer and songwriter of near-unanimous critical praise but negligible commercial success. In a pattern that has continued through the present day, Newman is known as a “staff” songwriter, a craftsman who has turned out such small pop masterpieces as “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” “Love Story (You and Me),” “Living ...
Drivin’ N’ Cryin’: MISCHIEVOUS TAXIDERMY
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Music critics are hard-line evolutionists, determined to discover lineage, advantageous mutation, vectors of influence and descent. Family, genus, species. The Tree of Rock, as it were. ...
King Pleasure: CLARENCE BEEKS, AN ASTRONAUT OF JAZZ, EXPLORED THE SPACE INSIDE THE SOUND
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At times we are given to know that we are outside our territory: a Wisconsin boy, for instance, afoot in Oakdale, Tennessee, surprised by dogwoods blooming in April. I am standing on Piney Road, overlooking the river Sherwood Anderson called the Babahatchie. The spring sun is working the asphalt, loosening the scent of petroleum. It is a thick scent, molasses-brown and dumpy, the perfect base ...
Bob Dorough: A ONE-MAN MOVEMENT
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I stuck with a predictable clique of jazz music for a while, when I was younger— John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk—then sought out less obvious talent. I backed up toward Ellington and Armstrong and Charlie Parker, but always remained fixed to the idea that transcendence in jazz ultimately depended on some degree of moody seriousness. An easy mistake, and lately I’ve taken ...
Carl Perkins: HOW A ONE-LEGGED CHICKEN LED THE WAY TO ROCK & ROLL HEAVEN (an interview)
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“Well, I was born in Lake County, Tennessee. All my early years I worked in the fields picking cotton with black people. We were the only white family sharecroppin’ on this one farm. I remember that late in the evening when the sun was getting low, you would hear these wonderful voices start to sing out. The music of these people would be flooding the air after a while. To this day I can hear that music in my soul, the ...
Dale Hawkins: THAT’S GUITAR PLAYING!
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Spending time with Dale Hawkins, singer and songwriter of the 1957 hit “Susie Q,” is a little like spending time inside a life-sized, long-exposure photograph: Certain details, appearing and reappearing in the same places, burn themselves into recognizable forms; others, whipping past, are inscrutable blurs. Hawkins is a tall man, angular and knobby, with a rubbery, animated face and a corona of wavy ...
Notes From the Underground (Twang Tour): WHEN IT’S JULY IN MEMPHIS, HOODOO HAPPENS
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“Where are we going after we leave here?” I ask the band. About seven years ago, I lost all sense of where I might be at any given moment. I’m told tomorrow’s show is in Lula, Mississippi. We’ll be performing at some cottonfield casino in a town off Highway 61, a few miles south of Memphis. ...
Lucinda Williams: TOUGH-LOVE SONGWRITER (as told to) Marc Woodworth
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Lucinda Williams’s laidback manner and languorous drawl suggest she’s got all the time in the world. If you didn’t know her songs—unflinching and precise accounts of heart-sore retrospection, self-destruction, and the insatiable desire that leads down the dead-end avenues of the soul—you’d hardly guess that her vision ...
Guitar Lessons: LEARNING TO PLAY MUSIC IN THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA
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One of the enduring memories of my childhood is the night I went to Carl Hamilton’s house for my first guitar lesson. I was twelve years old. The Hamiltons’ house was new and on a quiet street in a nice part of Indianola, Mississippi. They had a swimming pool out back—a rarity in town, and as sure a sign of affluence as Mrs. Hamilton’s Cadillac, which stood parked out front in the driveway. ...
Moondog: THERE IS JAZZ, CLASSICAL, AVANT-GARDE— AND MOONDOG
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The more you learn about Moondog’s life, the more your own suffers by comparison. Whatever you might have done that you were proud of, those acts you had considered interesting or even brave—all those episodes in your life you were saving up, the anecdotes, the yarns to tell your wide-eyed grandkids: All this is so much hokum compared with the stories Moondog must have gathered up in his ...
The Song of a Sad Café: CAN YOU YEARN FOR A PLACE YOU’VE NEVER BEEN?
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Early in my musical career, I was discovering a kind of enchantment to darkened honky-tonks and nightclubs in the afternoon—places where I’d occasionally practice on the bar piano to escape my mother’s home canasta games—a peculiarity of mood, light, and fragrance that I found myself irresistibly drawn to. In the case of Gabe’s Silver Dollar in Worcester, Massachusetts ...
Banjo: OBSESSION IS A GREAT SUBSTITUTE FOR TALENT
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The four-string banjo has four strings. The five-string banjo has five. The five-string banjo has a truncated string running halfway up the neck. It is called the fifth string and is rarely fretted. It creates a drone. Conventional history places the addition of the fifth string around 1855, but I saw a five-string banjo, by all ...
The Most Human Sound: TWO STRANGERS WERE SHARING HER LAST MOMENTS OF PEACE
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I eat no more than four oranges a year. They’re either too tart or too bland. Definitely too watery. But in the winter of 1981–1982, in the months of December and January, I ate nearly a dozen oranges a day. I was heavily pregnant with my second child and I lived in a big log house in the woods of Middle Tennessee with my then-husband Rodney, my two-year-old daughter, and my six-year-old ...
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Page Count: 448
Publication Year: 2010