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The Music Biographer Peter Guralnick’s New Book Covers Many Subjects — Including Himself

Guralnick is excellent on first listening to the Robert Johnson album “King of the Delta Blues Singers.” No one had prepared him; he’d read nothing about Johnson; there hadn’t been any reviews or publicity. Few of us get to experience art so innocently any longer. There were few if any music magazines to write for in the mid-1960s. When they started to spring up — the first issue of Crawdaddy! appeared in 1966 — Guralnick’s byline was ready.

He worked in bookstores and wrote for The Boston Phoenix, the city’s late, lamented alternative weekly. He wanted to be a fiction writer and wrote many unpublished novels. He found himself teaching classics at Boston University and hanging around blues clubs.

He came to realize that he liked nighthawking and did not want to “spend a lifetime teaching English in a muted, well-bred academic setting. And so my fate was sealed. It involved an admission I had never wanted to make: that I was drawn not just to the music but to the life.”

Guralnick is a good quoter of other writers. Albert Murray, in a letter to his friend Ralph Ellison, lets fly, writing: “That goddamned Ray ass Charles absorbs everything and uses everything. Absorbs it and assimilates it with all that sanctified, stew meat smelling, mattress stirring,” guilt, violence, “jailhouse dodging,” secondhand American dream material, “and sometimes it comes out like a sermon” and sometimes it comes out like Count Basie but better. Whew!

Murray had a jitterbugging critic’s full-tilt mind; Guralnick is more pensive. He’s better on the details of the lives of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Monroe than he is on, let’s say, how they tapped into the collective hillbilly subconsciousness. Lester Bangs wrote that Elvis replaced “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” with, and I am paraphrasing, your place or mine?

It’s a cliché to remark that a book sent you running back to its subjects’ work with fresh eyes. But Guralnick’s book contains good endnotes, replete with savvy song recommendations. I’ve been slowly compiling a Spotify playlist.

There’s a land mine or two in these endnotes. About Haggard, Guralnick writes: “We’re talking about someone whose oeuvre could qualify for a Nobel Prize.” I’m a fan of Haggard’s; I was lucky to see him on his last tour. But the only way to respond to an assertion like Guralnick’s is to say: No, it couldn’t.

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