By Ron Jacobs
December 11th, 2020
Every human culture included and includes music. This makes music culture universal. The other so-called cultural universal is language. Anthropologists and others may debate which came first, music or language, but the meaningful fact for this reviewer is that every culture includes music. This elemental truth is significant no matter who Bob Dylan sells his songs to, whether traditional tunes have a composer or whether sampling is protected by copyright laws. It is significant precisely because music exists across time, utilizing pitches and rhythms that exist in nature and, if one believes in such things, are part of a divine eternal presence. Even before the first flute made from a reed or an animal bone, humans produced music with their voices and their hands. Like birds, they created songs. Going a human step further, those songs became more once the mystery of rhythm was solved.
These are the fundamental premises of journalist and stringed instrument player Richard Manning’s eminently readable and fascinating new book If It Sounds Good, It is Good: Seeking Subversion, Transcendence, and Solace in America’s Music. To be honest, the title is slightly misleading; this book is about more than just American music even though its primary focus is on the Delta blues, hillbilly hollers, gospel exhilarations and the miscegenation of them all. Manning discusses the psychology of music and its potentially healing medicine. He also shares stories about women and men he has encountered through playing music and all that can become associated with that practice. Throughout the text, a thread develops linking US history, politics, loves and hatreds together like a river and its tributaries or a highway and the roads that feed into it as the asphalt meanders across the country east to west or north to south.
As even a dilatory read of US cultural history reveals, certain highways that crisscross the north American continent are not only legendary, they were instrumental to various periods of that history. Two that come easily to mind are Route 66 and Highway 61. For the purposes discussed here and in Manning’s text, it is the latter which is most important. Not only is Highway 61 part of the title of a Bob Dylan album and a song, it is the road that links the Mississippi delta to the north and vice versa. People and their music that traveled along this road define much of what is considered roots American music; the music that oozes much of what is identified with the US of A. Slavery, Jim Crow, industrialization, hard times, the open road, loose women and easy men, union battles and corporate greed—the whole shebang, as it were. Grateful Dead and Kerouac biographer Dennis McNally covered this highway and its meaning in greater detail in his 2015 masterwork On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom. Manning includes that text in his bibliography. The highway’s essential role in the drama of US history carries on.
Manning plays guitar. Like many musicians, he tends to downplay his abilities. However, his writing on the subject reveals both a theoretical and practical understanding of the guitar and banjo that requires many intimate hours with both instruments. Hours of practicing scales, mimicking songs and setting said instrument down in frustration after wrestling with a particularly difficult syncopated riff or the like. As someone who has played different instruments over their life—none beyond apprentice ability—its fairly clear Manning is many many measures into a journeyman’s practice. It would make sense that Manning’s playing adds to his understanding of the music and its origins; the musical comprehension that resides in his fingers deepens the intellectual perspicacity assimilated from his reading and travels. In addition, so does his playing enhance the songs he has heard over the years at festivals, campfire picking circles, clubs, bars, living rooms and in multiple recorded forms. Knowing how to play a minor third, a major or minor scale or a Phrygian mode on an instrument does much to augment one’s understanding of what one is hearing in a song that utilizes them.
The story of US roots music—old-timey, blues, western swing and gospel—is the story of the colonization of the United States; by British exiles, refugees, convicts and other Europeans, then by African slaves brought across the Atlantic in chains and sold to mostly wealthy men with no acknowledgement of their chattel’s humanity. The songs are songs about brutality and love, racism and murder, sex, drugs and drink, the land’s beauty and its destruction. They are the story of this nation, its faults and ideals sung and played by poor folks in the streets of its cities, the hollers of its mountains, its churches and schools, at its protests and its wars. The songbook from which he draws—unwritten and written—is the most complete (and arguably the most accessible) of all books about US history. Unfiltered and told from every perspective humanly possible, always changing yet always intact, this history in song is as contradictory and conflicted as the people of which it sings. Richard Manning begins his text with a story about rabblerousing musician Utah Phillips’ banjo player. After an intellectually stimulating journey through the valleys and mountains, rivers and woods, city streets and backwoods roads muddied and dusty, he ends his book with a story about that same rabblerousing musician’s banjo player. It’s one hell of a trip.