As some of you may know, I’ve mentioned in a couple of posts that I’m obsessed with music, so it shouldn’t be surprising that lately I’ve been reading a number of books about musicians, as well as a dose of modern fiction.
The Land Where the Blues Began by Alan Lomax
Working with the Library of Congress and several other institutions, famed musicologist Alan Lomax was commissioned to research the history of the Blues in America. Starting the project during the height of Jim Crow laws, Lomax not only vividly describes encountering racial biases and culturally ingrained suspicions about Blacks and Whites mixing socially, but also vividly describes the plantations, levee camps, prisons, railroad yards, hard drinking and hard living and poverty that often influenced these musicians – in their own words.
At one point, Lomax spent some time trying to find Robert Johnson – yes, that Robert Johnson – only to find out from Johnson’s mother that he died a short time before. Lomax describes how Johnson’s mother spent the entire conversation bitterly lamenting that the Blues was evil. It fits in with the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil, so he could be the best guitar player of his era. Also a very cool moment comes when Lomax talks about the first time he met Muddy Waters before anyone ever heard of him.
Giants of Jazz by Studs Terkel
Sometime after I graduated from NYU, I had spent a few months as an intern at the New Press, and I had the opportunity to briefly meet Mr. Terkel at a book release party for his Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and a Hunger for Faith . I managed to read a fair amount of his work much later, including Giants of Jazz. The book briefly profiles some of most legendary names of jazz – Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman and a few others. Telling their stories in their own words, the book reveals little known details about these artists and their lives. As I had read the book, there were a few things that struck me as fascinating. A number of the artists openly admitted experiencing moments of doubt after suffering some major setback or dealing with some degree of failure early in their lives and careers, and how they overcame their failures. Interestingly, most of the artists owed their successes to someone being encouraging and helpful in times of need.
The book probably paints the most colorful portrait of Louis Armstrong’s boyhood that I’ve ever encountered. You can almost picture him goofing off with his friends in New Orleans and adoring his hero, Joe Oliver, who later became a mentor and father figure to the young Armstrong. I never knew how Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker first met and started to collaborate with each other. (It turned out that they knew of each other through reputation and through some mutual friends.) Duke Ellington revealed how daily life inspired his compositions, and how he then encouraged the members of his orchestra to compose songs – in fact, “Take the A Train,” Ellington’s signature song wasn’t written by Ellington but by Billy Strayhorn, who Ellington personally invited to be part of his orchestra. I didn’t even know that and I bet you didn’t either!
Calling Mr. King by Ronald De Feo
I received an advanced galley copy of this one at BookExpo America. This novel is a darkly comic story of an incredibly effective, American-born assassin, working and living in Europe, who becomes increasingly distracted and develops an unlikely passion in Tudor-era architecture and art while still having to conduct the business of murder-for-hire. De Feo manages to capture the psyche of a man desperately trying to be someone and something else, against all odds. De Feo’s writing style reminds me a lot of Martin Amis – both seem to have the ability to see the absurdity in modern life and poke fun at our lives. It’s also exceptionally well-written and very funny. I do a lot of reading while listening to music on subway trips across the city, and there were several passages where I had laughed so loudly that a few people looked at me strangely.
William Helms is an Editorial Assistant at AMACOM. He performs administrative tasks such as preparing contracts, but does editorial work, such as developing manuscripts. His first signed book is due out Spring 2012. Previously, he was an Editorial Assistant at Hippocrene Books, a midtown Manhattan and Jamaica, Queens-based, family owned, independent publisher of bilingual dictionaries, language guides, travel books and international cookbooks. He also did some freelance writing for a couple of publications namely Shecky’s and their now defunct Bar, Lounge and Club Guide, an Astoria, Queens-based publication Dish du Jour and music journalism and criticism for Long Island City, Queens-based Ins&Outs Magazine. He also started doing some occasional music writing for Glide Magazine, a great music magazine online. Check the Author Guidelines for Book Proposals on our website if you are considering pitching a book to Will.