On The String: Peter Guralnick Reflects On Chronicling The Blues And Its Descendants

Jan 14, 2021

When he was more or less 15 years old, about the time he determined to be a writer of novels and stories, Peter Guralnick fell entirely in love with the blues. “I lived it, breathed it, absorbed it by osmosis, fantasized it – don’t ask me why,” he writes in opening chapter of his new book. And then he devotes hundreds of pages to what becomes a pretty good discourse on why indeed.

This youthful epiphany came around 1960, when it was hard to find recordings of or read about first-generation Delta and Piedmont blues artists, but on the other hand, many of them were alive and cycling around the folk revival circuit. Boston-born Guralnick was able to see Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt, as well as the rootsiest of rock and rollers, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley among them. They say write what you know, or at least what you’re coming to know, so Guralnick found himself applying his daily writing discipline to stories he was reporting alongside the stories he was making up. He sought entrée into a cloistered and mysterious world, and he found himself invited in. 

“All I can say is, it was a deep feeling, the naked passion, the sense that what's being expressed is just something that's coming just out of the person, you know, without mediation,” Guralnick tells me about the music in Episode 155 of The String. “And I discovered that in short order in many other kinds of music, like soul.” Indeed, he wrote defining profiles of Solomon Burke, Ray Charles and Otis Redding. And he heard the blues in country music as well. So after publishing two volumes of short stories, and his attempts to sell a novel weren’t going well, an editor suggested he collect his non-fiction into the volume that became Feel Like Going Home: Portraits In Blues, Country and Rock ‘n’ Roll in 1971. Over the next 15 years, alongside extensive magazine work, he produced his key collection on country music – Lost Highway: Journeys & Arrivals Of American Musicians (1979) and Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm And Blues And The Southern Dream Of Freedom (1981). All are considered essentials in any Americana library.

From there, his books became vast, definitive biographies, including two volumes on Elvis Presley (Last Train To Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley in 1994 and Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley in 1999).  In the 2000s he completed books on singer Sam Cooke and record producer Sam Phillips.

The new collection is something of an amalgam of his whole journey, and it is, the 77-year-old Grualnick says, as close as he’ll ever get to writing a memoir. He opens by describing his discovery of the blues and establishing that Looking To Get Lost is about creativity, the “imaginative impulse that drove them all” (as well as himself). We read astonishing insights about the birth of bluegrass from Bill Monroe, who loses some of his famous diffidence in Guralnick’s presence. The author traces the formative years of Delbert McClinton, picturing the road house blues environment where he spent decades becoming a late-life icon. There is pathos in the story of Joe Tex, an artist who should have become a big country star but whose career always seemed relegated to the margins by the Nashville establishment, except for his ardent champion the publisher Buddy Killen. The story of songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller takes us into a side of the commercial music business we don’t often think about, while the chapter on Doc Pomus reveals a key underground song-crafter of the country-soul movement that connects many more famous dots. And there is a long (75 page) but rich essay on the little-known northeastern country singer and songwriter Dick Curless, whom Guralnick describes in a late-life recording session as “supernal…exalting in every way. It was as a memorable a musical experience as I've ever had, as I’ve ever witnessed.”

All the while, the author writes in his signature style, which is restrained and straightforward with flashes of colorful descriptive prose and an ear for the asides and gestures that reveal character and context. He also writes in Looking To Get Lost about several prose writers he’s admired and spent time with, including Southern novelist Lee Smith and mid-20th century English author Henry Green. I’d never heard of the latter, but by the end of the chapter, a personal memoir of an intimidating and exalted meeting with his hero, I felt like I knew him well.

As for issues close to his beat, Guralnick is skeptical of the concept of cultural appropriation as it’s regularly defined in contemporary discourse. As a white kid who began to flow easily in the overlapping, mutually-influencing worlds of blues, soul and country music from the 1960s on, he’s more likely to define the racial injustices that beset Black artistry in a larger context. “So I think that the target should be shifted to some degree. And it's a vast political target,” he says. “And it's one that has to do with class as much as race, but totally to do with both of them. And ultimately with a system, with a capitalist system, in which inequity is not accidental, but is the goal.”

And we also talk about Peter’s particular path, in that for all his writing for elite publications, he’s never been a staff writer and never wanted to be. He’s been doggedly independent for fifty years. “The only definition of success is that you can afford to do what you want to do.” he says. “I mean, if you can't afford to do what you want to do, then you have to figure out a different way. It's not a question of the money you make or of how you're perceived in the world. It's a question of having the resourcefulness to be able to figure out how to do the things you want to do and survive. But for me, it was very important. I didn't want to be, you know, a staff writer, I didn't want to be part of anything I wanted to write about the things I wanted to write about.”

Visit Peter Guralnick’s author website here.