by carl wilson

Biography of a Song


You might recall some discussion in these parts last fall about books that are about a single song. The subject came up in a piece in the Boston Globe last weekend by James Sullivan (author of a forthcoming cultural history of blue jeans) that was mostly about books about albums (such as the 33 1/3 series). It starts off with the cute thesis that the album as a form may be dying in the music marketplace, but it has new life on bookshelves. But then it takes a turn in the final section:

Recently, a spate of books extolling the virtues, and plumbing the depths, of individual songs have appeared alongside books about albums. The critic Greil Marcus has dissected Bob Dylan's ''Like a Rolling Stone" at book length. Dave Marsh wrote about ''Louie Louie"; David Margolick, ''Strange Fruit." There are books on ''White Christmas" and ''Amazing Grace."

There are, though, substantive differences between books on album and books on songs. The latter tend to follow a song standard as it travels through the culture, crossing regions and generations and reinterpretations by different artists. Journalist Ted Anthony's forthcoming ''Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song" traces the long journey of the traditional lament ''House of the Rising Sun" from its origins in 19th-century folk through the British Invasion of the 1960s (when it became a No. 1 smash hit by the Animals) and into the present day, where he finds it in karaoke bars in Bangkok and Beijing.

More so than books about albums, which, whatever their cultural implications, remain bound by the specific time and place of the recording, books about songs tend to offer a kind of microhistory-an offshoot, as it were, of another of the publishing world's recent infatuations.

The success of Mark Kurlansky's books ''Salt" and ''Cod,"-biographies, essentially, of important commodities-inspired a slew of works in a similar vein-the titles ''Spice," ''Tobacco," ''Zipper," and ''Zero" among them. As with these projects, books about single artworks can provide revelations about the world beyond the thing itself.

Books about traditional songs, such as ''Chasing the Rising Sun" or Cecil Brown's ''Stagolee Shot Billy," are especially good at teasing out deeper meanings, says Marcus. ''You have a song that comes to general notice through a pop hit, and then you find it opens into this cave where there are thousands of burials, people still living in the corners, some people conducting mining operations deep inside. There's infinite complexity."

Anthony canvassed hundreds of versions of ''House of the Rising Sun" in his research, but he doesn't consider himself a musicologist. ''I'm coming more from an American studies perspective," he says. In his introduction, he writes that he might have found his window into American culture in any number of things-a recipe, an advertising icon. ''I like looking at larger issues through the prism of something very small," he says. And songs, as any iPod user knows, take up a lot less space than albums.

While I mainly agree, the potential trouble with using a song as a window into cultural history - just as with using salt or tobacco - is that you risk making more of the song's journey and influence than is really warranted, and as creative as that can be, it can also curdle into crap, of the "the song that changed history" variety. To quote the Artforum review of Dave Marsh's Louie Louie book, for instance: "By the end of his book Marsh is claiming Richard Berry as the forebear of both rapper Ice-T and Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, insisting, with typical understatement, 'Louie Louie shaped the modern rock 'n' roller's entire world.' "

All of which leads up to me alerting you to the existence of a single-song blog, a site that details the quest of my friend Rob Walker (you might know him from the "Consumed" column in the New York Times Magazine) into the history and fascinations of the trad.blues St. James Infirmiry, and by tangent, the culture of New Orleans.

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, February 14 at 05:59 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)



Toop was indeed a regular journalist, wrote a lot for The Face in the '80s and The Wire in the '90s.

Posted by Matos W.K. on February 21, 2006 08:35 PM



I'm wrong -- Marcus hasn't been the only writer from rockcrit journalism to have written a larger overview. Robert Palmer (not the singer) wrote "An Unruly History" of rock and roll with interesting digressive theoretical chapters on guitar-noise-timbre, the Dionysian impulse in rock, and the influence of the black church on rock. The actual historical chapters are OK, but some of the digressive chapters are great.

Nik Cohn may have been a journalist-critic when he wrote "Rock from the Beginning," a terrific history. Written in '69!

And Simon Reynolds's books may qualify as unified book-length-essay theoretical overviews, but I haven't read them. Some day!

Probably others too.

Still, it's a rare enough feat.

Posted by john on February 15, 2006 08:24 PM



I once ended a play, dubiously I suppose, with a rewritten version of St. James Infirmary:

Once there was a rockaby little baby
way way up in the tree top.
Big bad ol wind started hollerin
weren't no way to get it to stop

let er blow, let er blow
oh mamma daddy
poplar tree sure is tall
bough will break and yr baby will come tumblin
ain't no way to stop yr fall
(ain't no way to stop yr fall)

something like that anyway. I guess I was trying to turn it into a cautionary tale about unprotected sex. don't know what possessed me to use such a famous song though.

Posted by Dixon on February 15, 2006 06:54 PM



And of course Burden was being disingenuous because the Animals obviously got it from Bob Dylan. (Who got it from Dave Van Ronk - as discussed in the No Direction Home movie.) And then, as John noted, they changed the pronouns and such a bit so that it would be less weird and more macho.

I'll save my comments on Marcus for the main page.

Posted by zoilus on February 15, 2006 06:34 PM



Following up on the single song topic - I spent the day doing press with Eric Burdon last week and it amazed me how many journalists/producers/hosts were asking him about House of the Rising Sun but yet had no context to the meaning and origins of the song. It is certainly iconic and memorable as songs go, because certainly musically it stands out from other songs but the lyrics and story are a huge part of it as well. When asked where the song came from, Eric simply said he thought it came from an folk tune, not necessarily gospel or blues or any of the other influences that have been noted in later re-interpreted versions.

I'm sure there will be an interesting article in this coming Saturday's Globe and Mail Eric Burdon feature by Sarah Hampson and a few comments within about that "single song."

Posted by curlybecs on February 15, 2006 04:07 PM



On 2nd thought, shorter answer:

Jody, I think a lot of people dig Marcus for the same reasons you & I can't stand him: The hyper-romanticism, the hero worship, the lush obfuscation, the mythologizing, the stentorian significant-ism.

Posted by john on February 15, 2006 01:00 AM



Wow, I was going to comment on how Dave Marsh's history of "Louie Louie" was astounding and hilarious despite his pompousness, and then add a bit on how "Rising Son" would be a good topic for song bio, since it originally was a lament of a prostitute whose life had been ruined by her work, and "please tell my baby sister not to do what I have done" (AND, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan both recorded it in the persona of the female prostitute, Guthrie in 4/4, Dylan in the 6/8 meter made famous by the Animals); and how weird and nonsensical it is to turn the song into the lament of a male sex addict, and how weird it is that THAT was the hit (though the Animals' music is terrific) -- I WAS going to comment on that, but then I read Jody's comment.

Jody, you nailed it -- Marcus is a phonus balonus rockist anti-musical romanticizer king size. I've asked 2 people I respect very much what they like about him, and they both cited "Lipstick Traces" for drawing the connection between punk and Dada. I shouldn't judge, because I haven't read that book, but the point doesn't seem at all startling to me. But I still value "Mystery Train," mostly for drawing rock into the realm of cultural studies; also, it was before he started ignoring music, and some of his non-technical commentary on Elvis is musically astute. Marcus tells good stories, though I don't like how he tells them. (Marsh, for one, is zippier.)

The other thing is -- he might be the only guy to come from the world of daily-weekly rockcritdom to have written book-length cultural-historical-theoretical overviews of the music. It's remarkable that so few people have done it. The book-length music essays that I love are either narrowly focussed (like Marsh's "Louie Louie") or written by non-journalists. (I could be wrong about this -- is or was David Toop a regular journalist?) This makes me think that the task of keeping up with the day-to-day of pop music must be overwhelming and exhausting. (My very smart musician friend Jake (also a friend of Carl's; Jake introduced me to Carl's blog and eventually to Carl In Person) refers to the onslaught of music that critics are asked to assimilate as "the firehose.")

Maybe Marcus is a star simply because he's been able to get his head above water long enough to theorize larger vistas. I despised "Invisible Republic" for exactly the reasons you stated, and even "Mystery Train" makes painful re-reading for me now, but his accomplishment strikes me as rare.

Also, I think, Marcus's ooey gooey rich & chewy prose style is popular in general. I've picked up many contemporary popular "literary" novels and put them down after a few pages for just that reason.

Posted by John on February 14, 2006 11:34 PM



Thanks, Carl, for the link to Rob Walker's blog. Very cool.

At the risk of coming off like a real creep, I thought take this opportunity to pose a tangentially related question: Can someone please explain to me what is good about Greil Marcus? I'm asking the question sincerely -- I know that people I respect like Marcus' work, but I've never heard anyone articulate why exactly. I understand that he's "important": "Mystery Train" broke some ground in writing about pop music's place in American culture and mythology. Ok, fair enough. But...but...but...for starters, I find the guy's prose nearly unreadable: insanely overwrought and often just plain unintelligible. (I never understand what he's on about in those Real Life Rock 'n' Roll Top Tens, or any of his other journalism.) He seems incapable -- or worse -- unwilling to write about actual music in his music books: everything is abstracted and mystified beyond recognition and sense. Songs are not things made of musical notes performed by human beings, but repositories of ghosts and mysteries and "secret history" and what have you. In short, I think the guy is a real bullshit artist. I read "Like A Rolling Stone" on a plane and I swear it was only my fear of being remanded to Gitmo that kept me from hurling the thing across the cabin. I can't seem to find that book at the moment, but will cite a few lines from Marcus' other Dylan opus "Invisible Republic" -- a typical passage. The very first graf of "IR" reads as follows:

"Once a singer stood at a world crossroads. For a moment he held a stage no one has more than mounted since -- a stage that may longer exist. More than thirty years ago, when a world now most often spoken of as an error of history was taking shape and form -- when far older worlds were reappearing like ghosts that had yet to make up their minds, cruel and paradisiac worlds that in 1965 felt at once present and impossibly distant -- Bob Dylan seemed less to occupy a turning point in cultural space and time than to be that turning point. As if culture would turn according to his wishes or even his whim; the fact was, for a long moment it did."

Is it just me or, a.) is this total rock-god-mythologizing hogwash; b.) is the image of worlds reappearing like indecisive ghosts nonsensical; and c.) doesn't this sound like the kind of "In a time..there was a man" crap delivered by a stentorian announcer over a biopic film trailer? (Incidentally, this is one of more restrained passages in that book.)

Anyway...I know that Carl's readers are smart people who take music criticism seriously, so I'm issuing an earnest appeal. What am I missing about this guy? (I should add that I met Marcus once and found him completely sweet and charming. I guess I hope he doesn't stumble on this post.)

Posted by Jody on February 14, 2006 09:25 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson