Faber and Faber,
2008. 304 pp. faber.co.uk
Review by Evrim
Music writer Amanda
Petrusich's latest book, It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the
Search for the Next American Music presents a study in which a musical tradition
is explored in terms of its cultural links, asking how American folk music or
Americana music was affected by particular regions and the life prevailing there.
Petrusich, a senior
contributing editor at Paste Magazine and a staff writer for Pitchforkmedia.com,
is not a newcomer when it comes to studying music through the stories of its
creators, the stories of their lives and of their cultural milieus. Her first
book, Pink Moon, is a short book about Nick Drake's 1972 album. In her
second book, It Still Moves, she undertakes a more challenging topic.
She tries to identify that what is Americana, what it sounds like, how it transformed
and how it affected the contemporary American music. She not only details the
rich history of American music exploring what is the American character in different
genres like gospel, bluegrass, county, folk, and rock, but also examines the
effects of all these genres on American music in the twenty-first century.
As the name of
the book evokes, it is a road story; according to her, "Where music comes
from - the landscapes and faces and churches and industries and seasons that
create and preserve certain systems of sound- is the real story." Supposing
that "[e]very good story about America is also a story about the road,"
with her Honda Civic she travels around the country telling us the musical history
of each state she drops in. Among her stops are Memphis, Mississippi, Nashville,
Kentucky and Brooklyn, where she lives. The structure of the book shows us that
it is a travelogue: fifteen chapters, each dedicated to one step of her travel.
Her road trip enables
her to discuss bands and artists from Elvis Presley to Iron and Wine, the Carter
Family to Animal Collective, Johnny Cash to Will Oldham. She not only tells
their stories and talks about the peculiarities of their music but also looks
for traces that connect them.
One of the peculiar
characteristics of Petrusich's style is that at the beginning of each chapter,
the reader gets to learn how her visits got started, which roads she took, how
the landscape was, even what she ate for breakfast and if she was satisfied
with it. Then comes the history of the place and, finally, the depiction of
the important musical centers in it. All along, personal experiences intertwine
with the musical information.
for creating an atmosphere and enabling the reader to get to know the places
she is talking about. This surely facilitates comprehension of what kinds of
lives these musicians lived, how their surroundings affected their music and
Americana music in general, but the style has its disadvantages, too. A good
cultural study does not necessarily mean a good musical study. While it is not
surprising that, being a music journalist, she does not write with an academic
language, the lack of technical information becomes a problem. There is not
any musical analysis in the book beyond using some adjectives to define the
timbre of a singer's voice or sound of a band. Petrusich herself admits that
she focuses not on "studio settings or guitar pedals or synthesizer type
or whether or not something has been recorded in 3/4 time" but rather on
The lack of the
musical analysis is one of the main weaknesses of this kind of popular music
study from outside of academia. Since neither the authors nor their readers
have a background in music theory it may seem proper, but defining the transformation
in music is quite difficult and problematic without musical examination. One
expects some musical analysis and musical evidence when the author tried to
connect to each other many different musicians from different periods in American
that depict the cultural milieus of the studied music is certainly revealing,
but from the ethnomusicologist's point of view, there seems to be an important
story untold: the story of the ethnic background. Perhaps it is because of what
Petrusich has in mind. In an interview by Judy Berman, Petrusich says that the
world we live in is a digitalized one and in this digitalized world people tend
to forget about humane relations. "Americana appeals in the way that it
feels more authentic, a little bit tied to a place," she adds. She seems
to have this image of "the small and humane American town," usually
southern. Throughout the book, she tries to revive this nostalgic feeling of
the American town with its humane values, the American people sharing a history
and a music. She gives the impression of looking more for a nostalgic tradition
rather than for divergences.
also seems to be in line with one of Petrusich's highlighted claims that "most
traditional Americana music is produced without much concern for its commercial
potential." The American folk musicians, in the eyes of Petrusich, do not
bank on big paybacks.
Whether this image
of the American folk musician is completely true or, in part, built on the image
of Petrusich's nostalgic America, the American folk music does have its industry
even though it may not have as much share as the other music industries in the
market. Petrusich's interesting and detailed account of the folk music industry
is a valuable source. The reader can find an entire chapter devoted to the recording
company Smithsonian Folkways.
Readers with a
technical background and interest may find Petrusich's book directed too much
to the lay reader. To include everyday life in historiography is not a novelty
per se, and Petruisich gives a humane touch to the stories she tells, invigorating
her history of Americana music.