Eric Weisbard


On his book Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music

Cover Interview of May 19, 2021

In a nutshell

Songbooks is a book about books on American popular music. It’s a vast subject, and my book covers books from a 1770 collection of psalmody by a tanner in revolutionary New England to Jay-Z’s Decoded in 2010. I break the book into pieces, with essays on different authors, artists, and topics carrying the history forward in the order that the book that headlines an entry was published. You might find yourself reading about a blackface minstrel in the 1830s and about Zora Neale Hurston’s pioneering juke joint ethnography Mules and Men in the 1930s; there’s room to consider how Joel Whitburn’s books of chart hits shaped our sense of how to remember pop songs, but also how Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez’s Love and Rockets comic books became the first place to learn about Latinx punk in Southern California. I want people to read it however makes them happy: hopscotching to favorites or checking out a period in time to see how things they didn’t know were connected spoke to each other.

Two major ideas come out of this study. The first, which has to be said loudly now that popular music has been embraced by academia, is that most interesting writing in this field has been by non-academics or decidedly oddball ones. While heaps of books pledge allegiance to a music genre or an academic discipline, dutiful to document the lives and work of musicians, I’m driven by stuff that invents its own form, often writings by women, people of color, outsiders to set fields. The “hooks” in pop songs come from musical mistakes, odd phrasings, unlikely collaborations, the broken amp making funny feedback. So too the most intriguing music books, which come at the subject from a novel angle—including many novels! From Theodore Dreiser through Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, they are acute on connections between popular culture and urban desire. Egan knows the tradition and ends with what might be Sister Carrie’s story: “It was another girl, young and new to the city, fiddling with her keys.”

The second key concept is the now centuries-long reckoning with vernacular commercial music as culture. It’s not high art, it’s not folklore. At times it has felt revolutionary. Not so much lately. My groupings are a mini-history. “Setting the Stage” is the Stephen Foster era of sheet music and blackface minstrelsy: the original songbooks were cheap amusements or spiritual collections like Slave Songs of the United States. The Jazz Age came next: urban modernity from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Louis Armstrong, whose first books were transcribed trumpet solos. By mid-century, icons were a staple: Woody Guthrie’s folksy vernacular, Billie Holiday’s beyond-true Lady Sings the Blues, Américo Paredes’s incredible outlaw corridos study, “With His Pistol In His Hand.” The revolutionary part came in the 1960s, via Tom Wolfe and rock critics, but soul countercultures too via Amiri Baraka. When that moment faded, the epic saga of vernacular music was done. But I’m only half-way—the rest of the book tracks how later generations rethought what mattered and why.