on 10 January 2010
Review of "LOST HIGHWAY" by Peter Guralnick.
Published by Canongate Books Ltd, 2002 ISBN 1841 9528 26
Peter Guralnick is an author who has cornered the market in some of the more obscure byways of the genesis of 20th century American popular music, particularly the blues, country and soul music fields. There is a growing literature in this area today, and this is one of the earliest books to take a musicological approach to something considered throwaway.
The book itself is a straight reprint of the edition published in 1979, so it takes one some time to get one's bearings as the articles, written in the present tense, relate to the author's overview of the scene in the 1970s.
His genius is in unearthing performers who did not make it, but who were great stylists of their chosen form in their own right, as well as more established performers who exhibited their own form of genius in the music they chose to play.
Structurally the book is a collection of essays written for the book on significant performers in Guralnick's eyes. From today they are a mixture of performers who have lasted the course, and others who have faded from view. So, for example, there are essays on Deford Bailey, Charlie Feathers, Sleepy LaBeef and Mickey Gilley interspersed with ones on Elvis, Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings. In soul and blues there is Rufus Thomas, Bobby Bland and Howlin' Wolf, among others.
In Guralnick's musical world all roads flow to, through, and out from the sessions at Sun Records where Sam Phillips (who is one of the dedicatees of the book) and Elvis synthesised and popularised the above forms of music popular in the American South from the 1930s and `40s. Add gospel to this mix, Elvis's favourite music, and you have all the ingredients for a musical form which is not dead yet.