The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing
The credit--or blame, depending--for launching that fairly recent lit-mag rite of passage, the Special and/or Annual Music Issue, goes to Oxford American, whose Southern Music Issue has run most years since 1996. Currently headquartered in Conway, Ark., and coming out quarterly, on schedule, since moving there four years ago (the magazine's history consists of many ups and downs, shutterings and revivals), the issue, always with a free and well-chosen and -sequenced CD, is a lively grab bag of styles and approaches.
It's uneven, of course, as this new collection, which draws primarily from Oxford's music issues but isn't confined to them, demonstrates. There is Susan Straight's smug 2005 essay about listening to Al Green as a teenager (better than what today's teenagers listen to--so there) and, from 1993, Elizabeth Wurtzel pondering R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People with such deft phrasing as, "[M]usically this is definitely an album that was recorded sparingly and in a minor key." Not to mention editor Marc Smirnoff's introductory rant about the "Cult of the New" practiced by . . . Rolling Stone, a magazine that clings to the past like kudzu.
But those missteps are pretty easy to overlook in comparison to the rest. As anthologies of this sort tend to, its primary focus is on single artists, and some of them have real sweep. Paul Reyes' profile of Bob Dorough, the hipster jazzman who became better known for his work on the "Schoolhouse Rock!" series of kids' TV shorts examines both sides of his legacy, as well as the larger issue of the fervently loved artist who is nevertheless an acquired taste. Cynthia Shearer travels through Port Arthur, Texas, to find the legacy of its native daughter, Janis Joplin; she end s up in a barbershop whose occupants regard an old madam as a saint and Joplin a sinner for doing the same things in bed and, respectively, charging and not charging for it. John T. Edge interviews Louise Hudson, the restaurateur who fed the members of the Allman Brothers Band on credit when they were young and starving.
Maybe the most affecting piece is John Ryan Seawright's astonishing tale of Blind Tom Wiggins, the son of slaves whom we would today diagnose as autistic but back then was simply labeled an "idiot." Wiggins could repeat, impeccably, anything he heard someone else play on piano and toured the world as a kind of freak show, and Seawright tracks his shifting ownership, from son of slaves to indentured servant, by a handful of people within the same family. And with several good pieces from Oxford music issues that didn't make it in this book, such as Lisa Tucker on Helen Humes (2005) and Dave Marsh on Black Oak Arkansas (1998), we can hope for a sequel.