jean ritchie’s singing family of the cumberlands

April 22nd, 2009

A couple weeks ago, I finished Singing Family of the Cumberlands by Jean Ritchie. It was a recommended book for a class I took in the fall of 2002 and I’m glad I finally decided to read it.

Jean Ritchie was the youngest of thirteen children, growing up in Viper, Kentucky, in the Appalachian Mountains. Her family was well known–and well documented–for singing ballads, in the Anglo-American folk tradition. That is to say, they sang ballads that came over with English, Scottish and Irish settlers and could still be found on both sides of the Atlantic. The best documented of these were the Child Ballads, but that could be a whole other post.

Written in 1955, the book is a memoir of her childhood. As fascinating as her descriptions of growing up in the early part of the 20th century in an isolated part of the Appalachians are–and they are–what really makes this book special is the songs. Interspersed in the book are transcriptions of the ballads. Say there’s a vignette about learning a particular song around a fireplace on Christmas. Well, the song is there in the book, both music and words, if you want to sing along.

The writing is wonderful and evocative, too. She immediately sets quite conversational tone and it feels like she’s telling you her family stories from the armchair next to you. In that sense, it reminds me a lot of Cash by Johnny Cash.

Jean Ritchie – the Merry Golden Tree (mp3)

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If you have any interest in Appalachian music or culture, I’d recommend this book.

Jean Ritchie’s still alive and she still does occasional live performances. Her website seems to have expired though, so I’m not sure where to get more info.

You can pick it up at amazon. Buy Jean Ritchie’s music at amazon.

And as a bonus, here’s Jean singing a duet with Emmylou Harris. Gorgeous.

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

April 30th, 2008

I’ve been meaning to write a review of Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (wikipedia) by Oliver Sacks (wikipedia).

The book presents a number of case studies in a variety of topics involving music and the brain, like epilepsy and music, amnesia and music, or depression and music. There are also case studies involving things like amusia and note-color synesthesia. There are people who get struck by lightning and then becomes obsessed with piano music. Or the people who are unable to speak but are still able to sing. Or the violinist for whom a single note suddenly sounds out of tune.

After each case study, Sacks offers some explanation about what might be going on in the brain to cause these abnormalities.

I found this book absolutely fascinating and devoured it whenever I had a chance until I finished it. It’s well worth the money, especially if you love music and have a nerdy bone in your body.

You can read a significant excerpt and hear an interesting piece on Musicophilia at NPR. You can purchase it from amazon.

Cash by Johnny Cash

February 25th, 2008

I finished Johnny Cash’s second autobiography, Cash: the Autobiography a couple weeks ago.

You’ve seen Walk the Line (probably) so you know the Johnny Cash story, approximately at least.

But there’s a lot more to this book than the story of his life. In fact, this isn’t so much the story as the stories of his life: vignettes, tales and anecdotes from many different periods of his life.

Some parts are funny. Some are poignant. Some give you a better background to where his music’s coming from and the artists he grew up on. There are even a couple advertisements for things he likes (like the Carter Family Fold he’s totally upfront about these endorsements).

I was most interested in the stories of music on the farm growing up–listening to the radio late at night, singing out in the fields–and also of the story of how the partnership with Rick Rubin came about. There was another interesting snippet about preparing for a mid 90s concert (with an audience of younger people) at the Fillmore.

The style is very fluid, conversational, upfront and personal. There’s a ghost writer, but it honestly feels like he must not have done much because it seems like Cash put down these words himself.

At some point I read someone say something like Cash by Johnny Cash is the best music biography or perhaps the best writing on music. I can’t find who said that or the context now, but I’m leaning toward that sentiment. It’s an engaging and entertaining read and give a good background and context to this great artist’s music.

You can buy it at Amazon.

Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea turns 10, officially the best album in the last 10 years: a personal essay

February 10th, 2008

Neutral Milk Hotel’s (wikipedia) 2nd and final album, In the Aeroplane over the Sea was released on February 10, 1998 making it 10 years old as of today. I can now officially say it’s the best album in those ten years and that it’s probably my most personally significant single album.

[I’m not the only one who noticed the anniversary, but I will note I started this post about a week before the ‘gum post was up.]

At just under forty minutes, eleven tracks and between seven and thirteen songs (depending on what you want to count) and consisting of psychedelic fuzz pop, one wouldn’t think it is the epic and meaningful album that it is. But it is epic and for me it has been extraordinarily meaningful and important.

It has been written about eloquently (by Will Sheff, of Okkervil River, no less) and with (mounting) and glowing praise, probably better than I can do it, but I can write something about its effect on me personally.

In late February 1998, Superchunk played at the Graffiti in Pittsburgh. I’d been listening to that band, Seam, Sebadoh, Coctails, Moxy Fruvous and a bunch of oldies music. I seriously considered going but passed. My friend Colin, who was a few years ahead of me and was in college at the time ended up going to the show. A few weeks later he was back in the neighborhood for spring break and my high school band had a rehearsal; Colin drummed for us some of the time. I don’t remember actually practicing that day, but I remember Colin putting on an album by the band that opened for Superchunk and regaling us of stories of bowed banjos, guitars with pickups taped onto them, trumpets, broken cymbals, concertinas and all sorts of musical odds and ends this crazy band played.

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phil elverum (mt eerie, microphones) posts photos of every book in his house, releases book

January 24th, 2008

Phil Elverum (Mt. Eerie/ Microphones) is a quirky individual. He’s posted photos of every book in his house on December 11, 2007.


photo by Phil Elverum

If you’re wondering what Phil and co. are up to right now, he’s not touring, but he has released a book/ CD set with photos he took and “a record of vaguely corresponding music”. It’s in a limited edition of 2400.

Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet

January 23rd, 2008

A few weeks ago I finished Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet. Lethem’s the author of one of my favorite books, Motherless Brooklyn.

Where Motherless Brooklyn is a Tourettic thug-narrated detective story and is quite a serious and heavy story, You Don’t Love Me Yet is a farcical look at an LA art scene, an indie band and the relationships within and without the band.

It’s a quick and quite a fun read though it wasn’t genius-level work, like Motherless Brooklyn. I enjoyed it overall. One thing I sometimes have trouble with farces, and this is sort of a fundamental quality of the genre, is that the characters are difficult to relate to because they’re often absurd.

The music sections of the book are definitely written in a way that is convincing; either Lethem knows the small band music biz or he fakes it pretty well.

I found myself thinking while reading about what the band would sound like, trying to reconstruct the songs in my head as they were described. I don’t think I would like the band, they seem too angular with too little melody in the vocals. Maybe that’s just how I’d hear it at least.

It’s available at amazon.

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang

December 12th, 2007

I finished Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (amazon; wikipedia) a couple of weeks ago. It’s a hefty book, weighing in at 500+ pages and it’s not a quick read like some of the mostly light fiction I’ve been burning through since, but I found it a compelling read.

I was looking for new books at an Eslite here in Taipei and saw this book. I’d heard of it before and I’d thought about getting it when I saw it at the Kepler’s in Menlo Park a few months ago, but had too many unread books at the time. Now with too little to read and plenty of time, I picked it up without hesitation.

Given that it is a non-fiction history of art in a sub-culture for 30-some years, its a surprisingly smooth read. It’s well-researched and all the various areas and stories are fit well into an overall story arc. It gave me a new and interesting perspective on the culture and socio-economic background that spawned this art.

The subtitle is important here: it’s not a history of rap music or the history of hip hop culture (though the latter is closer), it’s a history of the hip-hop generation. Hip hop, as defined in the book is the four arts of MCing, DJing, b boying and graffiti. If you’re only looking for a history of the music, you’ll find extra material here. There are also points of the book that delve into areas that are integral to the history of the people, but not of those arts, necessarily. For instance there is a chapter or two–many pages–about the LA riots following the Rodney King trial and the impact on the music is only discussed for a page or two.

There are a few points I feel like I should bring up is this: one is that I think the book’s racist. Here’s one example. The book makes the distinction in a few places that things can be pro-black without being anti-white. In most instances, this book is unflinchingly pro-black and that’s fine. But when a book specifically uses the following nomenclature consistently, one has to wonder if it’s also anti-white: Black, Latino, Korean, Asian, white. (Granted Korean is properly capitalized–can anyone find me a style manual that says the others should be as well?) Pro-everything-except-one-thing is sort of like being anti-the-one-remaining-thing in my book. If you pick every kid but one for a basketball team on a playground and tell each one that they’re all great, some one would be sure to mention that you’re not treating the last kid very well, even if you’re just being pro-all-the-other-kids. There are other points in the book where there are many black characters that are described and talked about in great detail (as one may expect from a book about the history of a hip hop culture) while some groups of whites are painted with a pretty broad brush.

Another thing I found myself grumbling at while reading was that while most of the book was meticulously footnoted and referenced, there were some claims about the causes for such-and-such [1] that weren’t referenced and, even if they weren’t wrong–and I remember thinking at least one didn’t agree with my understanding of economics–they certainly weren’t self-evident. Obviously the book was well-researched and the claims may not have been furthering the overall story so I would have just left them out.

[1] I regret not having particular passages from the book to reference here.

Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield

November 14th, 2007

A couple weeks ago I finished Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time (wikiepdia). The premise is Rob’s life, especially the part concerning his now-late wife, Renee, framed in terms of mixtapes.

I like mixtapes [1] and I like indie rock. That’s why I was interested. I read a few pages in a bookstore and liked the style and picked it up.

Each chapter of the book is titled after and features the track-listing of a mixtape Rob has (usually that he’s made, but some that others made for him) and the mixtape works itself into the chapter somehow. There’s a great story of father-son time early on in which Rob and his dad spend an afternoon making a 90 minute version of “Hey Jude” by simply looping the “na na na” section (pause on the tape player, move the needle back).

It has some great writing about music in the early chapters and throughout, much of it about early 90s indie rock.

But the story quickly gets to Renee, another rabid music fan and the woman that Rob ends up marrying and eventually, watches die. Dealing with her death is, as you might expect, a big part of this book. Most of the rest of the book is dealing with her death, with mix tapes at hand. It’s a pretty emotional and sentimental book.

I didn’t really know this part of the story when I picked up the book and while I liked the book, I was expecting a much more light-hearted book.

One complaint of mine is that the turning point, the climax of the story, I suppose, seems almost silly. I mean, it involves a little person and a sombrero. It feels like a bit of let down and the denouement comes very quickly after that. On the one hand, it’s the guy’s life, so how else is he supposed to write about it; on the other hand, he chose to tell this story including this climax.

Still it was a fast, enjoyable and affecting[2] read.

[1] One word, despite what Firefox’s spell checker and Rob Sheffield seem to think–in my book at least.

[2] I’m usually okay with grammar. I know the difference between will and shall and when to use each, the difference between which and that, but effect/ affect is one that I don’t have a grasp on. Anyone?

The Art of the Band T Shirt

August 27th, 2007

I got The Art of the Band T Shirt by Amber Easby and Henry Oliver the other day after seeing something about it on largeheartedboy.

It’s sort of a mini coffee table book: small in size but lots of photos and not a lot of text. There’s a pretty interesting history of the t-shirt and particularly of the band t-shirt in the beginning and then there’s a lot of shirts, sub-divided into very broad categories. Each shirt has a short caption or explanation and some shirts have longer stories associated with them.

The book is visually interesting and well laid out. It’s a quick read and some of the stories, particularly the one behind the This is Not a Fugazi Shirt shirt. In the end, though, while I found it interesting to glance through, it isn’t really a must-buy for me because of a few reasons: 1) there are some bands I care about in the book, but the majority of the shirts are for bands I simply don’t care about: some ’70s, ’80s and ’90s bands, hard rock or metal bands, etc. 2) Some of the captions come close to saying things like “well obviously this shirt is great” where I didn’t see anything good about that particular shirt at all. I guess what that comes down to is a difference in taste between the authors and myself.

It is available from Amazon.

Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live, review

July 24th, 2007

I made reference a while ago about reading Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story by Chuck Klosterman. I finished it a few weeks ago.

Chuck Klosterman is one of those incredibly sarcastic and self-aware pop culture writers. This doesn’t always turn out well.

The basic premise is that Chuck, a writer for Spin at the time, rents a Ford Taurus to drive across the country to see and write a piece about the places rock stars (or rock-related fires) died: Duane Allman (plane crash site), Lynard Skynard (plane crash), the Stations fire, Buddy Holly (plane crash), Jeff Buckley (drowning), Kurt Cobain (shotgun), etc. That’s all quite morbid. But the book is also largely about Klosterman dealing with his fractured relationships with three girls he’s in various stages with. Klosterman ties all these together in an interesting and funny story.

In the end, I felt like this is what Perfect from Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life (my review here) was trying to be: scattered thoughts in a way that the reader can (and wants to) still follow, clever asides, interesting writing about music but also really about something else as well. Now, if instead of talking about the merits of the KISS solo albums, Klosterman was talking about the long term impact of the Archers of Loaf, Pedro the Lion, or Sufjan Stevens, I’d like this book even more.

It was a quick, light and fun read. It was never a chore to read, so count that in its favor. This book isn’t the sort that will make you a better person or win you points for name-dropping at a party (well, depends on the party, I suppose), but it’s definitely a lot better than watching another rerun of Family Guy or whatever (not that I don’t enjoy an episode of said show here and there).

Killing Yourself to Live is available at Amazon.