The Oxford American's 13th Annual Music Issue: Incredible

EntertainmentMusicArts and CultureWilliam FaulknerIke TurnerBo DiddleyRobert Johnson

Holy mackerel. The Oxford American’s annual music issue is always good, but this new one -- number 13 -- is a staggering piece of work. Possibly the best-ever stocking stuffer for the music nerd in your family. (It’ll pretty much fill up a stocking good.) It’s a head-shaking feat that the staff at the OA can pull off this mix of advanced-calculus-level music-writing and deep-diving obscure archive-digging compilation assembly. This year’s issue focuses on the state of Mississippi. (Last year year was Alabama, and I think this is only the second issue devoted to one specific state -- can’t wait until they get to Georgia and North Carolina.) With writers like David Gates, Roy Blount Jr., Jack Pendarvis, Rosanne Cash, Nick Hornby, Oliver Wang, Peter Guralnick, and poet Yusef Komunyakaa (!) it’s totally worth the $11 tag for brain-tickling reading. But the righteous music featured in 27-track accompanying CD is basically the most awesome mix you’re likely to acquire anytime soon.  

Editor Marc Smirnoff wisely frames the issue by stressing that there’s no hope of even scratching the surface of Mississippi’s musical depth in one issue of a magazine. As he points out Elvis (“King of Rock”), Hank (“Father of Country”), Robert Johnson (“King of the Delta Blues”), Sam Cooke (Forefather of Soul), and countless other giants like Son House, Ike Turner and B.B. King, just to cherry-pick a few, were all born in the Magnolia State. And so Smirnoff says the OA (whose original home was Oxford, Mississippi) stands in awe of the state’s musical riches. You should, too.

Mississippi is a vast and deep place -- and if you’ve never had the pleasure of tooling around Tupelo, Vicksburg, Hattiesburg, Jackson and Oxford, I suggest you plan a road trip. You don’t need to be a fan of William Faulkner or the Delta Blues to practically feel you owe it to yourself as an American. If you can’t do that, this is a pretty good substitute.

There are some names on the CD that you will recognize, like Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf, and some you might recognize, like academic composer (and teacher of Stephen Sondheim) Milton Babbitt and wide-ranging entertainer and bluesman Jim Jackson. You might know Jackson’s “Old Dog Blue,” featured on this CD, from the version known as “Old Blue” that the Byrds did on their Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde record. This is perhaps the most moving song ever written about a dead pet dog (sorry “Old Shep”), and Jackson’s performance is practically shamanic in its seeming ability to communicate to beyond our realm. Some of the artists, like, say, the Germans (a post-punk band from Jackson) or disco singer Fern Kinney, I’m betting you never heard of.

I’ve only just cracked into the thing, flipped through the pages, looked at the contributors, read a few of the pieces (Guralnick’s essay on Howlin’ Wolf and Sun Studio’s Sam Phillips is a perfect dual portrait, and David Gates’ piece on the Mississippi fiddle music of Carter Brothers and Son and how Ralph Peer and others recorded and marketed regional music -- old time, blues, etc. -- in the 1920s and 30s is presents a startling contrast to the level of knowledge we have about recording artists from the more recent past). I scoped out the list of artists on the compilation, listened to the CD one time through, but I can see it’s gonna keep me busy well into the new year.  

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