by carl wilson

Ich Bin Ein Irving Berliner
(Plus: Single-Song Studies!?)


While your proprieter has been busy back-and-forthing with his web sherpa on details of the forthcoming Zoilus redesign, as well as beavering away on the final version of this month's Toronto gig guide, some of this site's smartest readers have been making magic in this here Comments section with a Battle of the Patriotic American Songs, a welcome tangent from this site's slight over-preoccupation with Liz Phair this week. Especially not to be missed is Jody Rosen's extensive recontextualization of God Bless America and the remarkable MP3 he posts of Irving Berlin's own heart-rending rendition of it. Jody is too modest to mention that he's something of an expert on Berlin, as the author of a fine book about Berlin's (and arguably America's) greatest hit, White Christmas. If you note the URL on that link, you'll see you're getting a preview of Jody's own a-birthin' blog The Anachronist, which is slated to go live any moment now. On the subject of America the Beautiful, I'd also mention Lynn Sherr's lefty book about the song as well as my own related piece on the reference to the tune within Chicago jazz trio Sticks and Stones' album Shed Grace last year. (Scroll down to the second article.)

Jody and Sherr seem to be among a small handful of writers who have done whole books about single songs. The book-on-one-album genre is now well-established, arguably even oversaturated, with the 33 1/3 and the apparently abortive Vinyl Frontiers series, as well as Kingsley Abbot on Pet Sounds (bringing the total of Pet Sounds books to three if you've been following along), or the "Making of" books on Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme. But single-song books? There's also Greil Marcus's recent tome on Like a Rolling Stone, David Margolick's on Strange Fruit, naturally several on The Star-Spangled Banner (of which this is probably the best) and a lot of songs-turned-into-picture-books. (Know any others?) It's a thrilling challenge, well worth it when the writer digs into history for unexpected twists as Jody does, but a risky one, as Marcus's mixed reviews indicate. (I haven't cared to read it, and I'm usually a GM fan.) After all, how many songs can carry the freight? St. Louis Blues occurs to me as a rich possibility. But a book on the most-recorded song, Yesterday, would be a guaranteed snoozer. What would your nominee be?

Also: Our pal in campus-radioland, Helen Spitzer, seems to be taking up blogging duties in earnest this month, and now she's adding her own Spitzcast. Spitzer's an indie loyalist (and, to tie the bow neatly, a frequent cameo in the Comments box hereabouts) but one of particular discernment, and I'm eager to cozy up to her hitlist.

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, October 25 at 12:35 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (13)



I can't believe it, my co-worker just bought a car for $63877. Isn't that crazy!

Posted by Betsy Markum on November 18, 2005 2:08 PM



Hey jody - my emails to you don't seem to be going through. (Get off AOL!) no big deal but wanted to let you know.

Posted by zoilus on October 26, 2005 2:03 PM



As long as we're on the subject of Berlin, I'll mention a couple more: an article by Jeffrey Magee (musicologist at U. of Indiana and author of a book on Flecther Henderson), "Irving Berlin's 'Blue Skies': Ethnic Affiliations and Musical Transformations," Musical Quarterly 2000 84: 537-580. One of the two best things ever written about Berlin. The other is Charles Hamm's Irving Berlin: Songs from the Melting Pot: The Formative Years, 1907-1914, which has a great chapter-length treatment of a single song, "Alexander's Ragtime Band."

Posted by jody on October 26, 2005 10:48 AM



Not a book, but a lengthy article: there's a well-known Rolling Stone piece about Solomon Linda's "Mbube," which Pete Seeger "adapted" as "Wimoweh," which of course became the Tokens' smash hit "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

Here's a summary which, I believe, includes a link to the RS story.

Posted by DW on October 26, 2005 10:23 AM



"Caravan" by Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington. Somewhere there's a dual interview with decades-long Ellingtonians Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges, where they're talking about the band's arrangement book, and one of them says, laughing and shaking his head, "And don't even talk to us about 'Caravan.'" And every arrangement I've heard, including about a dozen by the Duke, is gorgeous. '30s exotica written by a light-skinned Puerto Rican who got really offended at the assumption he was black, and who had to wear dark-skin makeup when the Ellington Orchestra appeared in the movies.

Posted by john on October 26, 2005 9:17 AM




There is a photo book called Palm Desert, based on the song of the same name by Van Dyke Parks. The book is very lovely and includes the song’s lyrics, which run thread-like over the pages, and whose imagery inspired the photos. The shots are mostly of landscapes, both man-made (a lot of billboards and an endless series of bungalows) and natural (a lot of Southern Cali-specific vegetation). It is by Rudy Vanderlans, who runs a type foundry in Berkeley. There are two other books in this series: one based on the life of Captain Beefheart and one on the songs of Gram Parsons (All the books come with music CDS, too). These aren’t really histories of the songs or artists per se, but they are interesting interpretations of the music.

Posted by Charles on October 26, 2005 9:13 AM



Forgot to mention Will Friedwald's Stardust Melodies: A Biography of 12 of America's Most Popular Songs. He has a chapter on St. Louis Blues, Carl.

Posted by jody on October 26, 2005 7:44 AM



In the musicological world, the big cheese of single-song books is Philip Tagg (, who wrote huge dissertations about Abba's "Fernando" and the Kojak theme. What's amazing about these books is that he doesn't use the song in question as a launching pad for ruminations on culture in general. The entire book, in each case, is solid analysis, breaking each piece of music into motivic slice called 'musemes' and accounting for their meaning by comparing them to dozens of similar musemes from other pieces of music. It's exhausting.
In the self-promotion dept, I wrote a long chapter on Bob Dylan's vocal performance in the second verse of "Like A Rolling Stone" a few years ago. It appears in the recent collection The Bob Dylan Anthology: Twenty Years of Isis.

Posted by Mike on October 26, 2005 7:03 AM



Carl, thanks for the kind words (and the plugs).

I'm glad Brian mentioned the Amazing Grace book, which was published the same week as White Christmas and was the source of much agita in the halls of my publishing house at that time. (Haven't read it, but hear it's good.)

It's not a pure example, but David Brackett's Interpreting Popular Music is an outstanding book, with a chapter each on four songs: "I'll Be Seeing You" (Bing and Billie's versions), Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin'," "Superbad," and "Pills and Soap." (Some breadth, there.) Deep musicological/cultural exegesis -- and wit.

In the book-on-an-album genre, don't miss Ben Edmond's Marvin Gaye: What's Going On and the Last Days of the Motown Sound.

Having written one of these song books myself, I can tell you: it ain't easy. (If I could have it back, I'd revise, like, 75% of my book.) You have to get very discursive and use the song as a prism to refract other bits of musical and cultural history. Otherwise, it's just a big stretch, an article masquerading as a book, like most of those other microhistories (How The Pencil Saved the World, etc.)

One song I've always thought could support a book is "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag," which is arguably one of the most important ever. The day that James heard "guitars that sounded like drums" in his head was the day that rhythm eclipsed melody in American pop. And I don't think there's ever been a truly good James Brown book, including his two cracks at an autobiography. But wait, wait...I haven't read Douglas Wolk's Live at the Apollo book which, knowing Douglas, must be tip-top.

Posted by jody on October 25, 2005 5:47 PM



It's not a book but here's a page about one song, The Band's "Rockin' Chair":

There's also a pamphlet about one gospel song, "Hold the Fort! The Story of a Song from the Sawdust Trail to the Picket Line" by Paul Scheips, a deceased Army historian.


Posted by zoilus on October 25, 2005 5:02 PM



Hey Carl: Steve Turner's Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song has a bad title but is a good read, especially if you're unfamiliar with the wild story behind the "author" of the song, John Newton.

Posted by roy on October 25, 2005 4:56 PM



Hey Carl: Steve Turner's Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song has a bad title but is a good read, especially if you're unfamiliar with the wild story behind the "author" of the song, John Newton.

Posted by roy on October 25, 2005 4:56 PM



Dave Marsh's "Louie Louie." Marsh is a little out of his league ( Guys with mullets just can't quote the Situationists correctly, it seems) and some of the more interesting tangents--the folk interpretation of the lyrics, ironic covers--get lost in the quest for an off-the-shelf Americana-mystery. Still, the best (only?) book on the song.

Posted by Brian on October 25, 2005 3:56 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson