Our Collection

Guitar and Pen: Books on Popular Music and Musicians

by Sara Holliday, Events Coordinator/Head Librarian's Assistant

The Library has been collecting music books from very early in its nearly 260-year history. Charles Burney’s four-volume A General History of Music was often used by patrons in our 1789-92 first charging ledger. Given the overall strengths of the collection, it’s no surprise that we boast an excellent section on historic European, sacred, operatic, and theater music, both for general reading and for reference. But as I like to tell prospective members, there’s at least a little bit of everything in the stacks, and our holdings on popular music of all genres offer a lot of treasures. These are some of the Stack 12 and neighboring items I’ve enjoyed in the past few years.

The Blues

Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues | Elijah Wald (2004) 780.921 J
One of the most insightful writers on music today, Wald explains why genre histories are both bunk and kind of handy, while demythologizing and remythologizing iconic acoustic bluesman Robert Johnson, he of the meeting with the devil at the crossroads. An essential book for anyone interested in the blues and the kinds of music that spring from it.

Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music | Ted Gioia (2008) 780.973 G
While I would not recommend this as strongly as the Wald, it’s a very readable broad introduction to the birth of the blues and to its many unforgettable creators and characters.

Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues | Paul Oliver (1990) 781.5 O
The major statement from the preeminent scholar of the British blues boom. Oliver's work, revised here from the original 1960 edition, taught all those classic rockers who loved the blues about the world that birthed them. This is not a survey of artists or styles; instead, it's a history of Black America, from slavery through the early Civil Rights Era, as told through blues lyrics. The British Oliver approaches the subject in comparatively unbiased, unapologetic, thorough but very readable fashion. 

Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock 'n' Roll | Larry Birnbaum (2013) 784.6 B
Birnbaum’s staggering 463-page opus is a Mardi Gras pageant of just about everybody who made a record from 1930 to 1954 and how all of them influenced each other (and their successors). Glance through it to discover that if you like big-band swing, you also want to listen to boogie-woogie piano or why country music by white people and blues music by black people aren’t such different things as you might think. Be prepared to take notes, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a cover-to-cover read.

Crossroad Blues: A Nick Travers Mystery | Ace Atkins (1998) F A
This entertaining novel overstates its gritty juke-joint atmosphere a bit but provides an intriguing revisionist perspective on the acoustic bluesmen and their world. Probably best if you’ve already become familiar with the Delta artists, perhaps through one of the books above.

Rhythm & Blues and Soul

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion | Robert Gordon (2013) 780.65 G
Hold on to your green onions: this is an essential book to understand the music of the 1960s and 70s. It’s an absolutely true cliché that the rise, rise, and fall of Stax Records in a Memphis slum is a microcosm of America—creativity, self-invention, identity struggle, and all. Big personalities like Otis Redding, Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper, Isaac Hayes and David Porter, and unexpected Stax founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton abound. Toe-tapping guaranteed.

Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom | Peter Guralnick (1986) 784.6 G
Less high-concept than the title suggests, this book shines with its author’s love of classic R&B and soul. Rather than grind out a guide or history, Guralnick sketches portraits of the central artists and their most important songs, demonstrating in the process why they are central and important—among them Ray Charles defying all limitations, James Brown working harder, and Solomon Burke crowning himself king. Good for the beginner in the genre or anyone who has begun to listen and wants to learn more. Works best as a companion volume to Gerri Hirshey's Nowhere to Run.

Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music | Gerri Hirshey (1984) 784.6 H
Rolling Stone contributor Hirshey road-trips to look for America with both the big names (Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross) and a stunning lineup of truth-telling lesser-knowns from Martha Reeves (as in "and the Vandellas") and Sam Moore (as in "and Dave." Everyone, even James Brown's dad, opens up to her about gospel and blues and how their offspring, soul, shook the hearts of black and white fans for more than two decades. Highly recommended in a dyad with Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music.


Life Flows On in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History | Robert V. Wells (2009) 784.4 W
I got surprisingly caught up in this small but dense look at times and places in American history that generated, popularized, or were influenced by classic folk songs. A series of unique windows into how real people lived in the past.

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña | David Hajdu (2001) 920 H154 P
A vibrant look at the major players in Greenwich Village’s early Sixties folk community in all their ups and downs, righteousness and backstabbing, as they set out to change the world with guitars and harmonicas.

When We Were Good: The Folk Revival | Robert Cantwell (1996) 784.4 C
Starts off like the great saga of the Fifties and Sixties folk revival, but quickly becomes a confusing academic examination of motivations and social categories. Try Positively 4th Street or Singing Out: An Oral History of America's Folk Music Revivals (2010) by David King Dunaway and Molly Beer instead.

Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie | Ed Cray (2004) 92 G9848 C
An excellent, complete portrait of the ornery but lovable American troubadour, his times, places, and music, including many surprising perspectives on his politics and sources of inspiration.

The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger | Alec Wilkinson (2009) 92 S45164 W
This lovely single-sitting read shows both the calmly heroic young man who fought for the best in his country in war and peace and the elder statesman of American folk surrounded by his musical descendants. Also see David King Dunaway’s How Can I Keep from Singing (1981) and Pete Seeger: In His Own Words (2012).

Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music | Rob Young (2010) 784.4 Y
This very interesting but oddly microscopic book resurrects lesser-known musicians who deliberately flouted the record business, locating them in the tradition of Victorian fairy-spotting and Morris dancing. The more mainstream topic of British folk music’s reclamation by artists like Donovan is barely addressed.

Vintage Rock

All Shook Up: How Rock ‘n Roll Changed America | Glenn C. Altschuler (2003) 784.6 A
A very good basic introduction to the first generation of rock & rollers, black and white, and why their music caused so much teenage frenzy and so much parental despair.

Rave On: The Biography of Buddy Holly | Philip Norman (1996) 780.921 H
Norman, one of my favorite music writers, reveals rock & roll’s founding martyr to be a fully rounded artist who left an enormous—and fun!—legacy in only 22 years. Also an excellent general perspective on the recording and marketing practices of the period.

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994) 92 P934 G and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (1999) 92 P934 G | Peter Guralnick
Elvis lives in these incredibly comprehensive volumes, with the first covering his tragic childhood and sudden launch into greatness, and the second detailing his long, sad decline. Guralnick clearly interviewed everyone who ever met Presley, especially the circle of close companions with whom he shielded himself from the world. An unbeatable portrait of the glorious, frail King, his records, and his era. (Thanks to Katie Fricas for this one.)

Classic Rock

Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977 | James Miller (1999) 784.6 M
Though pessimistic about the music’s commercial future, this book gives an excellent grounding in the origins of rock, highlighting hidden-treasure pioneers like Wynonie Harris, and how they seeded the sprawl of styles of the Sixties and Seventies.

The Beatles: The Biography | Bob Spitz (2005) 780.921 B
Carrying it around will give you a backache, but it will also teach you all the generally established facts about classic rock’s number-one band, with particular emphasis on their impact in America, in surprisingly digestible form.

The Beatles All These Years: Volume 1: Tune In | Mark Lewisohn (2013) 780.921 B 
You may think this massive volume is much more than you need to know about the Beatles (and it's only volume 1 of a projected 3!), but in fact it turns out to be just the right amount. Lewisohn's fluid writing packs in an incredible amount of reliable detail while neglecting none of the personalities, the drama, or the fun. John, Paul, George, Ringo, Aunt Mimi, Pete Best, Herr Koschmider, Brian Epstein and dozens more shine through - and prove afresh why they matter.

John Lennon: The Life | Philip Norman (2008) 92 L567 N
One of the definitive Lennon biographies. Norman, who worked with the Beatles as a journalist, keeps to a British perspective and to the less controversial sides of many complex stories. A superb introduction to Lennon’s wartime childhood and family struggles, with enough relevant observations about his musical output to serve both the casual and the dedicated fan. Also worthwhile is Norman’s Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation (1981). Still a fair overview, this was the first general book on the band to be published after Lennon’s death ended any chance of their reunion. Albert Goldman’s widely discredited The Lives of John Lennon should never be read except for train-wreck value.

Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney | Howard Sounes (2010) 92 M1243 S
A respectable and informative biographer, Sounes unfortunately comes off as the only person on the planet who doesn’t like Paul McCartney, finding nearly all his post-Beatles work trivial and his enthusiasms for touring and animal rights egotistical. But there is much to appreciate in his clear treatment of thorny subjects like the Beatles' breakup and the musical involvement of Linda McCartney. For more Paul and friends, see the gorgeous Linda McCartney’s Sixties: Portrait of an Era (1992).

Mick Jagger | Philip Norman (2012) 92 J248 N
A mere scribble next to his Beatles work, Norman’s take on the Rolling Stones’s iconic front man is still worth reading for his unshockable narration of much-mythologized stories, letting the music, rather than the scandal, lead the way. Pair it with the much more tabloid-ripped Dance with the Devil: The Rolling Stones and Their Times by Stanley Booth (1984) for a different version.

Life | Keith Richards with James Fox (2010) 780.921 R
The rock & roll pirate’s much-discussed memoir is probably the most enjoyable read on this list (at least for its first two thirds). Remarkable both for its narrator’s inimitable voice and the fact that he (apparently) remembers so much of his wild, frightening, hilarious past. As a complement and corrective, there’s Victor Bockris’s workmanlike Keith Richards: The Biography (1991).

Sway: A Novel | Zachary Lazar (2008) F L
An impressionistic portrait, beautifully written, of the decadent side of the Sixties and the continuum between the playfully gothic (Kenneth Anger’s strange films and the Stones’s flirtation with Satanism) and the truly evil (the Manson murders).

Who I Am: A Memoir | Pete Townshend (2012) Lobby
Mr. Townshend, creator of most of the musically ravishing and psychologically challenging works of The Who, saves his transcendence for his music. His intelligence and skill with language—he authored a collection of stories in 1985—make his prose a pleasure to read, but his self-blame for his lack of discipline, drug use, and ill treatment of friends and family gets tiring. He does unpack many of his striking songs in wonderful detail. When you forget why you used to like him, listen again to “Let My Love Open the Door.”

Clapton: The Autobiography | Eric Clapton (2007) 92 C5896 C
He may be God to electric blues fans, but the reclusive redefiner of rock guitar seems prouder of his years clean and sober, and of his mentoring of others, than of his many musical achievements. This tempers the otherwise compelling tales about his youth, apprenticeship to such greats as Muddy Waters, his dominance of Sixties and Seventies rock, and especially his romantic and regrettable relationship with Pattie “Layla” Boyd.

No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan | Robert Shelton (2011) 92 D9965 S OVERSIZE
How to get at the famously compelling, contradictory and elusive personality behind “Like a Rolling Stone,” “The Times They Are A’Changin’,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”? This image-filled compilation by Shelton makes a good starting point, with the caveat that Shelton, while a distinguished music journalist, was part of Dylan’s circle and lacks a certain objectivity.


This is Reggae Music: The Story of Jamaica's Music | Lloyd Bradley (2000) 781.5 B
The astonishingly rich panorama of musicians and fans who turned a slender thread of R&B into a unique and internationally loved art form. Reggae is Jamaica, says Bradley, and he provides enough of the island country's character and context to bring to life all those inspiring, acute lyrics about freedom, social justice, and spirituality. 

Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley | Timothy White (1983) 780.921 M
This first major-publisher book about the incomparable reggae master benefits from precious, rare interviews with him and his family. Otherwise, it feels the need to introduce Rastafarianism for Dummies (useful) and to emphasize Jamaica's unrests (should have been another book) while shortchanging everything about the actual music and why and how Marley created it.


Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation | Jeff Chang (2005) 780.973 C
A great achievement, this substantial and intelligent volume introduces the colorful characters and locations of early rap and hip-hop and justifies the major place in history of creators like Public Enemy. I confess that I still prefer classic rock and R&B, but this book provided the tools for appreciation of the dominant genre of the Eighties and Nineties.

Everything Else

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to BeyoncéBob Stanley (2014) 784.6 S
An exciting, necessary, user-friendly overview of almost everything happening in music in the last 60 years. Stanley considers "pop" music to mean anything that was popular with any noticeable group of people, providing a new and wise view of genres you know and a handy introduction to those you don't. A broad familiarity with what's been on the radio in English-speaking countries the last few decades helps; I did get a touch bogged down in the chapters where I'd never (yet) heard any of the singles. Includes possibly the best short piece about the Beatles that I've ever read.

In the City: A Celebration of London Music | Paul Du Noyer (2010) 780.942 D
Why does “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” both honor and insult old London town? What’s the ongoing appeal of The Beggar’s Opera? The full sweep of sounds from one of the world’s cultural capitals is squeezed into this too-brief volume, from medieval faires to The Clash and beyond. The bite-size chunks available here about music hall impresario Charles Morton, Ivor Novello, Noel Coward, Lionel Bart, Ray Davies, Paul Weller, and their many neighbors—studded with journalist Du Noyer’s personal anecdotes of the stars—give a tantalizing start to an enormous subject.

Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music | Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor (2007) 780.937 B
Why does Leadbelly seem like the real thing, while Lady Gaga is clearly just putting on an act? How come Bob Dylan's 'Lay Lady Lay' might be art, but its neighbor on the charts, the Archies' 'Sugar, Sugar' is merely entertainment? Barker and Taylor get deep into the psychology of judging and liking (or discounting) popular music based on a sense of authenticity. A tremendously valuable book for anyone listening to anything between Jimmie Rodgers and Kurt Cobain.

The Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan | Ian C. Bradley (1984) 782.6 S, 2 vols.
This is the only G&S reference book the general fan or performer needs. Bradley presents a strictly accurate text of each opera with precise and affectionate notes to clarify all the antique words and in-jokes.

A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert & Sullivan | Gayden Wren (2001) 782.6 W
Nothing wrong with enjoying the bards of good Queen Victoria for their collection of fluffy ditties, but veteran director and performer Wren reveals the surprisingly sophisticated structures and emotions hidden among the wit. A gently scholarly examination, not a biography, the book also makes it clear how William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were talented artists individually but an enduring powerhouse as a team. Full disclosure: I’m married to the author.