Of all my favorite books, my real favorites are the ones that tackle a subject through lists or surveys or encyclopedia-style entries.
Several editions of Morton and Cook’s Penguin Guide To Jazz shaped my understanding of jazz; Roger Ebert’s Great Movies books and David Thomson’s Have You Seen… are my touchstones for thinking about movies. I could probably name another dozen such books that have influenced me over the years.
All of them take a ‘bootstrap’ approach to their subjects – you get a little of the big picture as the author deals with each specific artist or album or movie. By the time you’re done, you have built up a fair amount of understanding. Call it learning by bricolage.
A book to add to the list is Will Friedwald’s newly published Biographical Guide To The Great Jazz And Pop Singers. I know Thomson has a similar book that deals with the movies, and I assume Friedwald’s book is in that tradition. Calling it a ‘biographical guide’ lets the author cast a wide net. It says ‘I’m starting with notes about specific singers, but I have the flexibility to take interesting side trips,’ or as Friedwald puts it in his introduction: “this current work is driven, to a degree, by songs.”
Biographical Guide concerns the great singers of jazz and pre-rock and roll pop, with asides on the blues, country and Bob Dylan. Friedwald is (forgive the pun) pitch perfect – of Barbra Streisand’s version of “Cry Me A River,” he writes:
The damage she threatens is more physical than emotional. This isn’t a song about heartbreak and disillusion, this is a song about calling 911 and filing a restraining order.
He sums up Julie London with economy:
Yet London was a credible singer – a respectable middleweight, whose many albums are worth our attention forty to fifty years after the fact – both in spite of and because of her technical limitations.
And Bob Dylan, playing “Ring Them Bells” from the album ‘Oh Mercy’ is:
…a man sitting alone in a church and praying by himself.
I’m not doing justice to his writing with these brief excerpts, but trust me, Friedwald has an abundance of a thing you want from a critic, the ability to put into words what you feel, but can’t quite articulate. Too many books, even about subjects near and dear to one’s heart, seem a little like homework. You need to read them in an orderly way, letting one chapter build on the previous. This is more like a commonplace (for a full explanation of the commonplace, read this note) – something to dip in and out of, and make fresh connections with. It’s a great way to learn.