Eric Weisbard


On his book Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music

Cover Interview of May 19, 2021

A close-up

I’d hope that a browsing reader would check out a trio of entries (most are under 1000 words!) and get a sniff of the thing. For example:

Early in the book: Emma Bell Miles, first to write about Americana, which she or Harper’s called “Real American Music” in 1904—Appalachian mountain stuff. Split between the city-bourgeois world she distrusted and Appalachians who distrusted her, she caught gender divides shaping cultural ones: “The woman belongs to the race, to the old people. He is a part of the young nation. His first songs are yodels.” A poem—she scraped to fund a collection; a posthumous one, from 1930, first proved her endurance—contrasted “The Banjo and the Loom”, domesticity and “Possum up a ‘simmon-tree” minstrel scamp. Her story “The Dulcimore”—among those collected in 2016—sketched a mother exiled by love to mountains hardship watching a daughter do the same for a blacksmith who’d made her the lap instrument.

Middle: Mystery Train author Greil Marcus. To invoke a fellow critic, the “Ellen Willis test” was to judge sexism by how a singer’s words resonated when you imagined a woman performing them. The undeclared Greil Marcus test was to take each cultural item, noble or sordid, as it came, and see if the dough leavened, see if the candle kept, unfathomably, burning. Those everlasting flames he collected. Not like most collectors, genre definers. His was a critic’s compendium: songs, film scenes, ad hypes, all sorts of performances that affected him entered in the register and given fitting prose.

Late: poet-philosopher Fred Moten. With Burning Spear’s dub-heavy “do you remember the days of slavery?” filling his head, Moten could connect cultural studies interpellation and vaudeville interpolation, then bluntly demand of black British cultural studies scholar Paul Gilroy, antithetical to U.S. blackness, “Who the fuck you talking to?” Sound to him mattered as “the site of a kind of unruly music that moves in disruptive, improvisational excess … a certain lawless, fugitive theatricality.” The Universal Machine began: “what you have here is a swarm”. But what particulars swarmed. Who except Moten could link philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s disdain for dancing civilization to Springsteen manager, Jon Landau, hearing indulgence rather than expansiveness in Curtis Mayfield? He didn’t take sides, he took asides.