The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing
Publication Year: 2010
Published by: University of Arkansas Press
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If the phrase âit takes a villageâ werenât copyrighted, weâd use it here. First and foremost, we thank the writers and artistsâincluding 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 journalismâwith its focus on frivolous side issues like money, celebrity, controversy, and imageâand 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 donât really know how it happened, but it wouldnât be true. I know exactly how I got to this place, whether for good or ill, and I canât pretend otherwise. I wanted to be a writer. Not a rock writerâthere was no such thing. I wanted to write novels and stories. And so I didâand 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 doctorâs waiting room. The space is close and would be claustrophobic, but you begin to overhear conversationâa riveting tale, an old manâs 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 WOMANâS 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 classâIyengar, known for its strict, lengthy posesâwhile 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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Itâs pitch-dark and cold and Iâm 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 Iâm supposed to attend with the King of Bluegrass himselfâ or, rather, the King-in-Exile, the sixty-nine-year-old Black Sheep of the Great Dysfunctional Family of Country MusicâJimmy Martin, veteran of Bill Monroeâs ...
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 Georgiaâs 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 familyâtwo 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 somebodyâs 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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Itâs not deep in the heart of Texasâitâs 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 vanâthe kind used by villains in 1970s TV moviesâis 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 STARâS âOTHER GENIUSâ
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One thing you do not find much of in It Came From Memphis, Robert Gordonâs history of the deeply, richly twisted cultural scene that occupied that city from roughly 1950â75, is tragedy. (Within the scene itself, that is; outside of it, the whole period could look pretty tragic.) Thereâs 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 âdo that would one day perhaps inspire Will ...
Henry âRedâ Allen: A NEW ORLEANS TRUMPETER AND THE MAN WHO LOOMED OVER HIM
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I stumbled onto Henry âRedâ 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 dayâthis wouldâve been 1962 or â63âIâd already become entranced by Louis Armstrong: his live Ambassador Satch album from the â50s and one volume of his studio-created Hot Fives from the â20s. ...
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 âEverybodyâs Talkinâ,â which heâd 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 arenât musicians usually take one of two imaginative stances toward the songs we listen toâeither 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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Iâve 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. âIf youâre a woman,â somebody told me, âheâll keep going on up till you stop him.â ...
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 âSome of Your Lovinâ.â The singer was one Dusty Springfield, whose voiceâtender and pristineâconveyed a vulnerability both sexual and soulful. Her ...
Joe Tex: HIDDEN MEANINGS (a short story)
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In the song âAinât Gonna Bump No More No Big Fat Womanâ by Joe Tex, the speaker or the narrator of this song, a man previously injured before the songâs opening chords by a large, aggressive-type woman in a disco-type bar, refuses to bump with the âbig fat womanâ 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. âYouâre late,â she ...
My Motherâs Blues: WHY SHE WONâT LEAVE NEW ORLEANS
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My motherâs sitting in her ruined backyard, the one haunted by the memories of children and swing sets, sandboxes, plastic pools, and Slip ân Slides. Almost everything that wasnât 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 SISTERâS LOVE AFFAIR WITH COUNTRY MUSIC
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... While my sister is, inarguably, an âobsessive country-music fan,â she is not a crazed fan. She doesnât stalk people, has never been arrested, doesnât do drugs, has never auditioned for a reality TV show. She has rented the same Nashville apartment and held the same jobâbookkeeping for a property management companyâfor 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 oâclock 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 HUDSONâS 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. Youâd know it, tooâeverybody would: Itâs everywhere every day on âclassic rockâ and oldies stations, itâs a near-the-top selection on jukeboxes in bars called Rayâs or the Cotton Patch, and itâs 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, âTurn 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 itâs somewhere between Saturday night and Sunday morning clock-wise, and Iâm in a cinderblock roadhouse called The Last Chance, and Iâm playing âFree Birdâ for the fifth time tonight, but Iâm thinking not of Ronnie Van Zant but of an artist dredged up from my former life, Willie Yeats, and his line âsurely some revelation is at hand.â ...
Southern Heavy Metal
Southern Heavy Metal: AN ODE
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If you grew up in Texas in the â80s and didnât 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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Isnât 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 vitiatedâlike repertory, for Godâs sake. They make you wish heâd 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, thatâs the clichÃ©. The reality is: blues and chaos. Blues is supposed to beâwhat?ânurtured 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, sharecroppersâ 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 Kimbroughâs juke joint in the tiny community of Chulahoma, near Holly Springs. I didnât jump at the chanceâI was with my husband on his book tour and was tuckered out. Weâd 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 â78
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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 groupâs 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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Letâs 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 weâre ghosts when Al Green comes on the boom box in the driveway, just as the sun is going down and weâre 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 weâve 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. âIâm a lousy imitator,â he says. âIf you asked me to sound like anybody, I couldnât. I donât 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.â ...
Rock& Roll/Pop III
R.E.M.: ITâS NOT LIKE YEARS AGO
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When I was in college in Massachusetts in the late â80s, 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 AMERICAâS GREATEST MYSTERIES
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Weâre so sure we know what it was and why they dropped it. A baby, they dropped a baby off the bridge. Iâm here to reopen this troubling file. Itâs been more than thirty years, and we need finally to face the music. The multiple ambiguities in Bobbie Gentryâs song âOde to Billie Joeâ 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 Angelesâbased 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 âstaffâ songwriter, a craftsman who has turned out such small pop masterpieces as âI Think Itâs Going to Rain Today,â âLove Story (You and Me),â âLiving ...
Drivinâ Nâ Cryinâ: 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 youngerâ John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monkâthen 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 Iâve taken ...
Carl Perkins: HOW A ONE-LEGGED CHICKEN LED THE WAY TO ROCK & ROLL HEAVEN (an interview)
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âWell, 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 sharecroppinâ 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: THATâS GUITAR PLAYING!
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Spending time with Dale Hawkins, singer and songwriter of the 1957 hit âSusie Q,â 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 ITâS JULY IN MEMPHIS, HOODOO HAPPENS
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âWhere are we going after we leave here?â I ask the band. About seven years ago, I lost all sense of where I might be at any given moment. Iâm told tomorrowâs show is in Lula, Mississippi. Weâll 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 Williamsâs laidback manner and languorous drawl suggest sheâs got all the time in the world. If you didnât know her songsâunflinching and precise accounts of heart-sore retrospection, self-destruction, and the insatiable desire that leads down the dead-end avenues of the soulâyouâd 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 Hamiltonâs house for my first guitar lesson. I was twelve years old. The Hamiltonsâ house was new and on a quiet street in a nice part of Indianola, Mississippi. They had a swimming pool out backâa rarity in town, and as sure a sign of affluence as Mrs. Hamiltonâs Cadillac, which stood parked out front in the driveway. ...
Moondog: THERE IS JAZZ, CLASSICAL, AVANT-GARDEâ AND MOONDOG
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The more you learn about Moondogâs 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 braveâall 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 CafÃ©: CAN YOU YEARN FOR A PLACE YOUâVE 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 afternoonâplaces where Iâd occasionally practice on the bar piano to escape my motherâs home canasta gamesâa peculiarity of mood, light, and fragrance that I found myself irresistibly drawn to. In the case of Gabeâs 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. Theyâre either too tart or too bland. Definitely too watery. But in the winter of 1981â1982, 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