Sunday, April 03, 2011

Peter Guralnick, teaching us about those who make the music

(Ed. note: It's Music on Sunday at The Reaction. We're going to try to do more of this, with regular posts from Richard on a wide variety of music and music-related topics. And the rest of us may chip in as well from time to time. I posted some Heart videos last night and often post music clips, usually on weekends. Yes, we're still a political blog, but it's fun to do other things now and then, and we've blogged frequently about music, art, literature, philosophy, etc. Now we're just trying to make it a more regular feature. Hope you enjoy. -- MJWS)

Several years ago I got interested in reading biographies and autobiographies by and about musicians. My interest is mostly in rock, blues, jazz, R&B, folk, and "Great American Songbook"-type artists. Well, with the exception of classical music, which I've never managed to learn much about, I guess I like a lot of things.

One of the very best writers about popular music and those who make it is Peter Guralnick. I actually stumbled on him when I picked up a book of his called Last Train to Memphis about the rise of Elvis Presley. He went on to write a second book about his fall, if it's fair to call it that, called Careless Love.

Other books by Guralnick that I have had the pleasure of reading are Sweet Soul Music, Lost Highway, and Feel Like Going Home, in which he profiles all sorts of artists in genre like rhythm and blues, country, rock, and blues.

Everything he writes is very well researched. He understands music. He's got a great sense of culture, history, and politics. He has an incredible knack for making music celebrities fully human -- strengths and weaknesses. And he writes very well. That's not a bad endorsement.

The last thing I read by Guralnick was Dream Boogie, about Sam Cooke, another gem.

All I can say is that when you finish one of his books or essays, you feel like you know something about a subject and can listen to the music with a better of understanding of what's going on.

Getting back to Elvis, I first started paying attention to the phenomenon probably in the early '70s, not long before he died, which was around the time he started to become a caricature and a bit of a joke. I was too young to catch him on the way up so didn't really appreciate his contribution. It was good to read the Guralnick set to get a better understanding of how important Elvis was to the development of rock 'n' roll.

I don't have anything brilliant to say about Presley or the books, or anything else that this writer has done, only that if you have an interest in this kind of music, you'll want to check him out.

Here's a little something for your entertainment pleasure: "Blue Suede Shoes" from a very young Elvis Presley.

(Cross-posted at Music Across the 49th.)

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  • I would love to contact Peter via email. Do you happen to have his address or, if you would rather not give it and you know him, could you ask him to communicate with

    He is very insightful and just wrote a wonderful piece for the Oxford American, and outstanding little magazine.

    By Anonymous Frank Ceresi, at 2:53 PM  

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