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August 19, 2008

Book Notes - Amanda Petrusich ("It Still Moves")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

I had been looking forward to Amanda Petrusich's book, It Still Moves for several reasons. Her magazine pieces in Paste, the Oxford American, and other periodicals are some of the best music journalism published in mainstream media these days, her articles and reviews at Pitchfork are always worth reading, and her Nick Drake: Pink Moon book was one of my favorites in Continuum's 33 1/3 series of books on seminal albums.

It Still Moves, subtitled "Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music," is an ambitious project, musical and cultural criticism combined with travel writing. Petrusich is up to the task, and her travels weave an essential sense of place into her exploration of the evolution of Americana music.


In her own words, here is Amanda Petrusich's Book Notes essay for her book, It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music:

It Still Moves is a travelogue about “Americana” music, tracing the sound (and the notion) from its earliest incarnations (Delta blues, Appalachian folk) through its newer, more contemporary forms (everything from Cracker Barrel to Garth Brooks to Animal Collective). It seemed obvious to me from the start that this story was very much about the road – about movement and discovery and escape and what we think of when we think about America. Luckily for me, that allowed me to combine two of the world’s most freeing pastimes: driving and listening to records. I hope you’ll think of this mix as a road story, too – it’s got some of my all-time favorite tracks, as well as a few examples of the incredible ways in which Americana music has reinvented itself and endured.


1. “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” – Sister Fleeta Mitchell and Rev. Willie Mae Eberhart
This song opens Dust to Digital’s “The Art of Field Recording” – a new boxed set of blues, spirituals, ballads and other traditional American folksongs, collected by the folklorist Art Rosenbaum – and it’s so good that I was stuck on the first track for days. Fleeta Mitchell has been blind from birth (incidentally, she went to school with the bluesman Blind Willie McTell); Willie Mae is her roommate, and a reverend at the Gospel Outreach Church. My favorite part is how impatient Fleeta sounds at the beginning: “Start. Start!” she spits at Rosenbaum.


2. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” – Leadbelly
I first heard this song when I was 13 years old; Nirvana covered it for the now-defunct “MTV Unplugged” series. Wrapped in a nubby green cardigan, Kurt Cobain sang it with his eyes closed and his face down, surrounded by candles. It took me weeks to dig up the original: I’d never heard anything so sinister. “In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine, I would shiver the whole night through,” Leadbelly bellows, voice deep and crackly.


3. “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” – The Carter Family
When pressed, I usually cite “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” as my very favorite song. Maybe someday someone will write a better one. When I was traveling across the south for It Still Moves, I was lucky enough to visit A.P. Carter’s grave, high on Clinch Mountain, directly behind the little white Mount Vernon United Methodist Church. I was genuinely surprised by how overwhelmed – how thankful and spooked – I felt, curled up in that little patch of freshly mowed grass, running my fingers along the edge of his tombstone.


4. “St. Augustine (A Belly Full of Swans)” – Califone
Califone synthesizes elements of traditional Americana in really strange and compelling ways, mixing in broken synthesizers and other bits of (modern) detritus. I love how this song sounds: creaky, weird, beautiful.


5. “Hooves” – Bowerbirds
6. “Flume” – Bon Iver
7. “Resurrection Fern” – Iron and Wine
8. “Abraham Lincoln” – Holopaw

These are four newer bands that are doing similar work – all four are on independent record labels, and play to young, “hip,” mostly urban, mostly white audiences. So, it’s not so dissimilar, demographically speaking, from the first folk revival of the 1960s. This is what I think of when I think of the new wave of folk music: deeply dark (but very lovely) acoustic songs with minimal production, and lyrics that nod (quite literally, in some cases) to the landscape.


9. “That’s All Right” – Elvis Presley
Even though I’ve got a soft spot for “Suspicious Minds,” this is still my favorite Elvis song. It’s his very first single for Sun Records, recorded in Memphis in 1954, with Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on bass. The way Elvis’ voice somersaults on the chorus – it makes my belly flip. If you take a tour of Sun Studios today, they let you snap a picture of yourself with Elvis’ big silver microphone stand (which is dorky, but also genuinely moving, too – there are an awful lot of ghosts in that room).


10. “Get Rhythm” – Johnny Cash
I love the spaciousness of early Sun singles – they’re so incomparably airy, you feel like you could jump right through them. This is a great pep-talk track; Cash’s vocals are goofy and quivery and entirely convincing.


11. “New York Town” – Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
12. “This Land is Your Land” – Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie is a legend in his own right, but it’s still remarkable to trace the lines from Guthrie to Elliott to Dylan to subsequent generations of folksingers – it’s extraordinary how one man’s vocal style could penetrate the next half-century of folk music so thoroughly.


13. “Lost Highway” – Hank Williams
14. “Omaha” – Waylon Jennings
15. “Jack the Knife” – Freakwater
16. “One Hundred Years from Now” – The Byrds

These are the songs I automatically think of when I hear the phrase “alt-country,” which is a genre that’s perennially (and unfairly) maligned (we should have stuck with outlaw country).


17. “New Partner” – Bonnie Prince Billy
In 2004, Bonnie Prince Billy (the Louisville singer and songwriter Will Oldham) issued an album of covers of his own songs, which he had previously recorded, sometimes with his brothers Ned and Paul, under the “Palace” moniker. The title – Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music – is based on an old country trope; the songs were buffed up by a crew of Nashville session players, infused with pedal steel and polished to a high shine. It’s a stark contrast to Oldham’s early Palace work, which was aggressively lo-fi, but it’s also a dazzling example of Oldham’s innate dexterity as a songwriter.


18. “Hellhound on my Trail” – Robert Johnson
19. “Devil Got My Woman” – Skip James

Along with Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Skip James are two of my favorite Delta blues singers. “I’ve got to keep moving, I’ve got to keep moving, blues falling down like hail,” Johnson wails. There’s something so desperate and vehement in his voice – in James’ voice, too – that’s terrifying and engrossing and entirely inimitable.


20. “Sherburne” – Alabama Sacred Harp Singers
Sacred harp has been around since the late 1800s, and is a four-part a capella singing tradition that was designed to make church hymns accessible to congregations who couldn’t read sheet music. There’s something really simple and honest about sacred harp singing – there’s no melisma or grandstanding or complicated solo bits, and it’s inherently participatory, designed for singers more than listeners (that doesn’t mean listening isn’t fun).


21. “Sinner, You Better Get Ready” – The Monroe Brothers
I love this old gospel song because it’s so grim and threatening: “Sinner, you better get ready, the time’s a-comin’ when the sinner must die.” The Monroe Brothers began as a trio – Birch, Charlie, and Bill Monroe, on fiddle, guitar, and mandolin – performing traditional gospel songs in the early 1930s (Birch eventually dropped out; Bill Monroe went on to develop – and perfect – bluegrass music).


22. “I Wonder as I Wander” – John Jacob Niles
This guy’s voice can be a real room-clearer: It’s preternaturally high and warbly and deeply, deeply disconcerting. When I was on a research trip to Lexington, Kentucky – where he was living when he died – I saw a collection of his handmade instruments and other carvings, which were truly breathtaking.


23. “Who Could Win A Rabbit” – Animal Collective
24. “The Body Breaks” – Devendra Banhart
25. “Blue Ridge Mountains” – Fleet Foxes

Again, three newer bands who are twisting Americana into new and unfamiliar shapes. Animal Collective remind me of John Jacob Niles; Banhart sounds like the minstrel singer Emmett Miller; Fleet Foxes’ a capella harmonies seem directly inspired by shape note tradition. It’s thrilling to see ancient American folksongs reworked to such stunning ends.


Amanda Petrusich and It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music links:

the book's page at the publisher

CMJ Staff Blog interview with the author
GalleyCat profile of the author
Idolator 2007 mixtape by the author
Metromix Louisville interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musician and author essays in favor of Barack Obama's bid for the US presidency)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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