Eric Weisbard


On his book Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music

Cover Interview of May 19, 2021


The great thing about writing a book that starts with a book published in 1770 and ends with a book published in 2010 is that you get to take the long view—time will tell! In the immediate future, I expect to hear about all the errors I made rushing my way through a 2500 or so book bibliography, all the inherent problems in one person trying to vet a huge literature. But if I’m lucky, this book will work in some of the ways that my first one did, the Spin Alternative Record Guide (1995), which managed to insinuate itself into the listening lives of many people over time. Often, what I’m quickly pointing to in these pages are subjects that I still think have some mystery left to them, a question we don’t so much want to fully answer as keep answering.

I am a strange human being in that I love music writing as much as I do music itself, love the quirky, cranky characters it attracts, love the contradictory nature of the enterprise (serious fun), love seeing how far writers of so many different identities can take particular subjects of so many different kinds. It’s more than clear now that popular music has amassed a literature, in the sense of multiple books on multiple topics. What this book is more concerned to promote is literature in the sense of a sentence or paragraph that makes an impression the way a lyric does, because the viewpoint is so singular, because it imparts a resonance.

All these years after the arrival of vernacular pop, we might feel more posthuman than we do like rock and rollers flocking to what the great critical explainer Robert Palmer called “The Church of the Sonic Guitar”. (See my entry on cyberpunk novels!) I accept that, but now we need to work out what comes next—and how that changes our views of the still powerful writing that came before. My hope is that by outlining American popular music’s literary past, and having the time of my life doing it, I can provide some inspiration heading forward.