Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Sweet Air: Modernism, Regionalism, and American Popular Song

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Sweet Air: Modernism, Regionalism, and American Popular Song

Article excerpt

Sweet Air: Modernism, Regionalism, and American Popular Song. By Edward P. Comentale. Music in American Life. (Urbana and other cities: University of Illinois Press, 2013. Pp. xii, 274. Paper, $28.00, ISBN 978-0-252-07892-7; cloth, $90.00, ISBN 978-0-252-03739-9.)

In this eloquently written book Edward P. Comentale accomplishes what he sets out to do--"to disentangle vernacular music from certain romantic myths of origin and identity and explore its inherent modernism," particularly through attention to "what seem to be the most impersonal aspects of musical production--the sensual qualities of sound (timbre, tone, duration), the formal dimensions of song (lyricism, refrain, genre), and the various technological modes of reproduction and transmission (songbook, radio, records, television, etc.)" (p. 7). While such a project of demystification might have bogged itself down in a cranky demolition job worthy of the Frankfurt School, Comentale avoids this outcome even as he challenges the dreamy concept of vernacular music as "authentic" cultural expression (p. 9). His aim--through chapters focused on the Delta blues, early country music, Woody Guthrie, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly (spanning roughly 1910 to 1960)--is to examine "the aesthetic gestures of rural and working-class artists" in an "age of high capitalism" as negotiations of "the everyday experiences of industrialization and commodity culture" (p. 9).

Most engagingly, the musical utterances are often brought into conversation with other literary, artistic, and analytical modes of modernist expression: hence, Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) informs discussions of Delta work songs, Charley Patton, Son House, John Lee Hooker, and Ma Rainey (among others); Fiddlin' John Carson, the Delmores, the Vagabonds, and the Carter Family reflect "the aesthetic peak of modernism" in a fashion similar to T. S. Eliot and William Faulkner, sharing a "formal irony" through which "the very alienation and critical negativity of modernity always also implies the possibility of cultural restitution" (p. …

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