Dr. Eric Weisbard’s Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music was selected by the music critic Greil Marcus as one of the Best Scholarly Books of 2021 for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
|The Best Scholarly Books of 2021
Thinkers including K. Anthony Appiah, Priya Satia, and Greil Marcus pick their favorites.
As Greil Marcus writes: I’m not altogether comfortable recommending Eric Weisbard’s Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music (Duke University Press), an account of books about American popular music, as I turn up here and there as a subject in it. But it’s too ambitious not to recognize. Weisbard explores songbooks ranging from William Billlings’s 1770 New-England Psalm-Singer to Jay-Z’s 2010 artist’s book Decoded, but in truth he seems to include every relevant book published almost to last week.In 500-some pages that read like 200 — the writing is fluid, playful, funny, tough, fast on the eye — Weisbard lightly packs more critical judgment and original phrase-making into each of his two- or three-page chapters than most scholars can manage in 50. This is a literary history of American popular music, but it’s also a map of the country so many other writers have marked out.
Take the state of Robert Johnson. The formal peg for the chapter “Revisionist Bluesology and Tangled Intellectual History” is Elijah Wald’s 2004 Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. That was an intentionally controversial book that took on, and meant to take down, almost all previous writers who had addressed themselves to the music and the mystery of the 1930s blues singer. But Weisbard’s subject is less any particular book or commentary than the concept of a particular musician’s work as a field for inexhaustible argument and treasure-hunting. In an uncharacteristically long four pages, he deploys Wald’s book to bring in more than 40 writers — from John Hammond in New Masses in 1937 to Kimberly Mack’s Fictional Blues, which, carrying a publication date of December 18, 2020, is really a book from the same year as Weisbard’s own. The result is revelatory. I know something about Robert Johnson, but I hadn’t read a third of what Weisbard brings in.
Embarrassment might be a common response to the book: There is so much here that the most sophisticated readers might find their first response a sense of shock over their own ignorance. But the prose is so alive to its subjects (“the death projected onto him long before his stardom was harvested” refers to Elvis Presley, but it could fix a hundred names here) that soon enough a sense of pleasure will take over. Songbooks is a great reference book, but before and after that it’s a funhouse.