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Sweet Air

Sweet Air: Modernism, Regionalism, and American Popular Song

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Sweet Air
    Book Description:

    Sweet Air rewrites the history of early twentieth-century pop music in modernist terms. Tracking the evolution of popular regional genres such as blues, country, folk, and rockabilly in relation to the growth of industry and consumer culture, Edward P. Comentale shows how this music became a vital means of exploring the new and often overwhelming feelings brought on by modern life. Comentale examines these rural genres as they translated the traumas of local experience--the racial violence of the Delta, the mass exodus from the South, the Dust Bowl of the Texas panhandle--into sonic form. Considering the accessibility of these popular music forms, he asserts the value of music as a source of progressive cultural investment, linking poor, rural performers and audiences to an increasingly vast network of commerce, transportation, and technology.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09457-6
    Subjects: History, Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. INTRODUCTION From a Basement on Long Island to a Mansion on the Hill
    (pp. 1-28)

    Traditionally, in books of this sort, this is the place where the author establishes his authenticity. This is my chance to display some musical cred—my personal intimacy with the blues and country and redneck rock and roll. At the very least, I let you look at my record collection—bootlegs and all—so you know you’re dealing with a guy who knows his stuff. But, hell, unlike Robert Palmer, I’ve never sat in Muddy Waters’s kitchen dining on shrimp and champagne. And unlike Guthrie P. Ramsay, I’ve never sung gospel with a South Side Holiness choir. Unlike Adam Gussow,...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Lord, It Just Won’t Stop! Work and Blues in the Industrial Delta
    (pp. 29-71)

    In the opening scene of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, the Thomas family wakes to find that a hungry rat has invaded their dingy one-room apartment. Mother and sister pick up their skirts, screaming, while eldest son Bigger grabs a skillet and takes aim at the beast. The rat is ultimately bested, but the battle leads to a heated dispute about money troubles and Bigger’s ability to support his family. The rent’s due, jobs are scarce, and the Relief’s about to cut them all off. Mother tells her son, “We wouldn’t have to live in this garbage dump if...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Thought I Had Your Heart Forever: Death, Detachment, and the Modernity of Early Country Music
    (pp. 72-116)

    So I walked down to the local store and picked up all seven volumes of Fiddlin’ John Carson’s Complete Recorded Works (1923–34). And, yes, I listened—with my earbuds in—to 156 ballads, minstrel songs, reels, agrarian anthems, and rustic hymns. And like many others, I quickly learned that listening to the oft-proclaimed “Father of Country Music” can be a painful experience. His fiddle scratches back and forth across the strings like some rusty lathe blade, moving in seemingly random, often brutal motion. His voice is at once reedy, mealy, and sharp; most lines are choked and garbled, but...

  8. CHAPTER THREE A Rambling Funny Streak: Woody Guthrie, Revolutionary Folk Song, and the Migrant Art of the Refrain
    (pp. 117-159)

    The nearly miraculous climax of Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory takes place at the Ace High bar, where a down-and-out Guthrie and his partner Cisco Houston are playing for chips in front of a “pretty low” crowd. After surveying the rather grim mood at the bar, the two musicians launch into a set of comic verses about the brave boys fighting the good fight abroad:

    Lord, it’s stormy on that ocean

    Windy on th’ deep blue sea

    I’m gonna bake them Nazis a chicken

    Loaded full of TNT!¹

    The music stirs the weary listeners to laughter and then clapping, singing,...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Four Elvises: On the Dada Possibilities of Midcentury Rock and Roll and Modern Fan Culture
    (pp. 160-204)

    So the artist goes shopping. With his belly full of wine and sandwiches, he heads down Fifth Avenue and enters the showroom of the J. L. Mott Iron Works. He wanders over to the bath section and eyes the fixtures on display—sinks, tubs, toilets. He fingers the white rims, notes the play of light and shadow, looks cautiously into a pipe. There, at the end of the aisle, he spies the one he wants, a flat-back “Bedfordshire” urinal—smutty and sleek. His friends help him haul it back to Fourteenth Street and lift it onto a pedestal. They play...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE ( )
    (pp. 205-244)

    I’ve never been to Lubbock County, but I’m sure it must be beautiful—nothing but blue skies, open fields, and long, long roads. I imagine an immense space carved up in abstract strokes, broad swaths of color and clean, stark lines—a quiet geometry of work and rest, pain and hope. At least that’s what I hear when I listen to the songs recorded in the tidy little studio designed by Norman Petty, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Lubbock proper. When Petty bought the building in the mid-1950s, it was still being used as a country store, but the enterprising...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 245-264)
  12. Index
    (pp. 265-274)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 275-285)