“Songbooks” sounds straightforward. Weisbard has gone back and reread more than 150 volumes, classics and oddities of American music writing. In chronological order, he chews through biographies, memoirs, song collections and academic studies, from William Billings’s “The New-England Psalm-Singer” (1770) through Jay-Z’s memoir “Decoded” (2010).
There are pauses along the way to talk about books such as Louis Armstrong’s “Swing That Music” (1936), Woody Guthrie’s “Bound for Glory” (1943), LeRoi Jones’s “Blues People” (1963), Greil Marcus’s “Mystery Train” (1975) and Kitty Kelley’s blistering 1986 tell-all biography of Frank Sinatra.
Weisbard reshuffles the canon, paying close attention to Black, gay and other voices that have often been pushed to the margins. “Nothing looms larger in American music than African American music,” he writes, “real, racially fantasized and one-drop-rule conjoined, from blackface minstrelsy to spirituals, ragtime, jazz, blues, rock, soul, hip-hop and E.D.M.”
Via Anthony Heilbut’s book “The Gospel Sound” (1971), he writes about how gospel music has been the blues, in a way, for gay men and lesbians. A chapter is titled “Finding the Blackface in Bluegrass.” He discusses the work of some of his favorite younger critics, including Jessica Hopper, Amanda Petrusich and Zandria Robinson.
He considers fiction. About Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” (1900) he observes that, even though there’s little music in it, the novel “revealed more than any previous book about the longings urban pop addressed.” Weisbard refers to Jonathan Lethem, the culture-saturated Gen X novelist, as “the greatest used bookstore clerk of all time.” Lethem’s eventual biographer should nick that title.