And Oxford Americanize your ears.
By Jeff Sharlet
Every year I plug the annual Oxford American Southern Music Issue here on The Revealerbecause A) I love it; B) I usually have a piece in it, which is independent of me loving the only music magazine that always cares as much about the words on the page as the notes in the song. Editor Marc Smirnoff created the first Southern Music issue ten years ago as the anti-Rolling Stone. What that meant to Smirnoff was “music writing that tried, perhaps foolishly, to tap into the cosmos, much as the music we love does.” Tap into the cosmos? That sounds like some kind of religion. Feels like it, too—the only religious writing I’ve ever done, I think (as opposed to writing about religion)—was about music, and most of it was for Oxford American. In fact, editor-at-large Paul Reyes—a Cuban-American from Miami, which is to the South as Motown is to the Midwestern sensibility—first recruited me after he read something I’d written about religion. He asked me to write about Al Green, once the sexiest man who ever sang bare-chested, now besuited and addressed as “Reverend.” This year, I got Dock Boggs, who pawned his banjo and spent thirty years hiding out from his music in church until it finally caught up with him and took him to his grave.
“It’s not altogether surprising,” writes Peter Guralnick in his cover story on Jerry Lee Lewis for this year’s double-CD, 10th anniversary special music edition, “that Jerry Lee Lewis’ art should ultimately rest on the same act that he has carried on his whole life, the same one on which so many other prodigious artists from John Donne to Little Richard have been suspended: a teetering balance between the sacred and the profane. Clearly the music of the church was a source of inspiration to him: it is at the heart of rock & roll.”
It’s there in the blues, too, and jazz, in country by the bucketful, rounding out hip hop, all over soul, the blood of R&B. It was Pythagoras who figured it all out, according to Van Dyke Parks, the master musician who contributes a foreword to Oxford American’s giant new Book of Great Music Writing: “How we could sing to the Gods and each other by codifying the modes. Some modes were rosy (‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ Ionian). Some were blue (‘My Yiddishe Mama,” Aeolian, now the modified Hungarian minor’).” And some are simply cosmic, not for the Gods or us, but by self-declared gods, such as Sun Ra’s “Travel the Spaceways,” from Oxford American’s 2006 sampler, or “Heat,” by Betty White, who with her 30-years-younger partner Elton reinvented herself in old age as a near-naked goddess of sex singing, replicating as purely as she was capable of – metaphorically, that is – the essence of orgasmic true love. “They were so horny,” writes novelist Kevin Brockmeier of Betty and Elton, the hedonistic saints of the Little Rock of his youth, “and they were so beautiful, and you never know if somebody is falling.”
That last phrase means something deep about Betty and Elton, and sex and love and probably religion, too, but you’ll have to tune in to find out. (That means buying it – the magazine’s accountant embezzled $100 k, and now they need to make some money.) There’s a lot of religion in this issue and on the two CDs that come with it, from Jerry Lee’s tightrope to the demons of Dock Boggs, a country blues singer from the 1920s whose music was so dark his songs would cast a shadow in a coal mine; from those who left religion for the rewards of soul, such as The “5” Royales (“The Slummer the Slum,” 1958) to those who never felt like they had to choose, such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe (“Rock Me,” 1941). If you know who these artists are, you need this magazine for the stories by writers such as Greil Marcus, Ron Carlson, Clyde Edgerton, and Patricia Spears Jones; if your first response to names such as Furry Lewis, Snookum Russell, The Insect Trust, Cousin Emmy, and Love… With Arthur Lee is “Who?” you need it first for the CDs, a guided tour through the spaceways of forgotten (or never really known) Southern sounds. “Everybody—believers in the Book of Revelation, the elderly, atheist Jews—is welcome to come,” as Mike Powell writes here of Sacred Harp singing. “No experience necessary, with singing or God.”