Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Thulani Davis and Secret History of Women’s Writing Album Liner Notes

If it is Grammy season, It is time for annual attention, which many see as the recording academy’s long-term and well-known diversity challenges, its preference for rewarding black artists in the “niche” rather than mainstream classes, and its poor track record The contribution of women is acknowledged. Board.

But while the most discussed categories have remained the subject of scrutiny in recent years, the question of representation of awards can be felt in ballots, including low-voting contests. Here is a prime example: Best album notes. Since its inception in 1964, this Grammy has been awarded to a total of three women. The first polymathic artist and critic was Thulani Davis, who broke the glass ceiling in 1993 when he won With her dazzling and comprehensive essay Faith Franklin Boxing Set “Queen of Soul – Atlantic Recordings

Her notes for that collection, a symphonic The social and cultural dimensions of the queen of souls, as well as her rendering of uniqueness, are characteristic of Davis’s many gifts A stint as a poet, playwright, screenwriter, librettist, novelist, and art journalist whose stint in The Village Voice in the 1970s and 80s paved the way for a generation of Black culture critics. “I’m trying to twist forms,” ​​she said during a video interview last month.

The bending is evident, especially in his new collection of poetry, “Nothing But the Music”, the volume of condensed, black music’s subjectivity, quantitative dispatches from revolving sites of conflict and change. Like his musical critique, Davis’s poems are simultaneously intimate and captivating, with the depth and grandeur of black social and cultural life in space and time. They are a style of writing which, for him, is closely related to each other. Davis says she considers the poem to be “another form of liner notes”. Both are “an invitation to experience music.”

The originality that Davis brought to the style of the note, no doubt played a part in his Grammy success. But it did not open fluggets for other women writing liner, a persistent inequality that largely went unnoticed in a relatively obscure category. Liner notes emerged in full in the mid-1950s with the rise of 33 a disc as an advertisement. They were printed on the sleeve – the very “lining” of the record – and transformed into decades that turned into a showcase for the occasional critical critical profile of an artist’s ambition; Attention to the occasion of the album; Record making discovery; Or Essay on the vision of the work as a whole.

In the post-World War II “Golden Age” of criticism of jazz music, Nate Hentoff, Ralph J. Figures such as Gleeson, Leonard Feather, and Ira Gitler evoke an eccentric body of notes that look vivid on the modern jazz canon. The rise of rock music criticism created his class of writers – crossover figure Glance (founder of Rolling Stone), Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, and Lester Bangs – who wrote notes capturing the intensity and outrage of his trademark prose. But even in the ’60s and’ 70s, artists who saw themselves (John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Sun Ra and Frank Zappa, among them) wrote or wrote about their own releases, the so-called Easter eggs here and there at their most Passionate fans left. .

The distinct cultural conservatism of Grams has always held its hold on the note category. The nomination greatly skewed toward detailed, well-tailored essays in the early years by critics and scholars who wrote accompaniments for jazz, classical, and Native American recordings. And from time to time, “prestige” and memorials have been in favor of releases – most notably the Boomer nostalgia boxed sets and landmark reuses that feature music giants (Louis Armstrong, Billion Holiday, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, eccentric monks, Sam Cook, Let’s talk to the long-standing legacy of) Charlie Parker); Game-changing label (Paramount, Stakes); And historical collections (minstrel music archives, folk collections, regional music collections).

Davis’ essay, “Aretha Franklin, Do Right Diva,” is a standout on this list of Grammy winners. Written from the point of view of a black feminist critic, her notes seamlessly navigate the many dimensions of Franklin’s influence as an artist – incorporating the scale of her heritage, the socio-historical import of her Atlantic recordings. And exposed everyone with their stunning aesthetic innovations. Integrity and intelligence to feel similar to Aretha’s singing.

“I decided to be a prism,” Davis said, artistically portraying all the different shades of light from a lifetime of listening to this woman, and I felt that other people had experienced her with me. Had shared about. “

Twenty-three years before Davis’ victory, Joan Baez was the first woman to receive a nomination for the notes that came with her country LP, “Davids Album”. (She lost to Johnny Cash, who famously wrote notes for Bob Dylan’s 1969 “Nashville Skyline”). During the intervening decades, the women received few nominations for classical releases, but the popular music liner notes Be heavy on men.

Two of the greatest female critics of this century have performed rock beat by legendary music critics: Holly George-Warren (Janice Joplin, “The Pearl Sessions”) and Amanda Petrich (for Bob Dylan, “Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series” Volume 13). / 1979–1981 “); Mari Evans, poet and author of the Black Arts Movement, took her notes for “The Long Road Back to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music”.

The only other black woman to win in this category, Los Angeles music critic and cultural historian Lynell George, Sees this gender imbalance as being more widely involved in the art-writing profession. “I’ll show up to interview a musician after a sound check,” she said, and security would ask if she was a singer, unable to imagine that she was a writer. George reiterated his ability to buck the grandeur of those expectations: “I’m the one who’s going to tell the damn story.”

George’s victory came in 2018 for his dazzling notes, which featured Whiskey a Go Go: The Complete Recordings, performed by Otis Redding. In a phone interview, George called it the “360 immersive experience”, which draws you into the thick of the Sunset Strip in April 1966, when the soul philosopher Redding, dying for a pop crossover, in a three-night run. Pigeon a place still immersed in the isolation of social Los Angeles. George, a crosser of black life in the city, knew that the story of these shows could not be victorious. She voices a diverse cross-section of people on the scene: composer Ru Cooder, for example, from the point of view of her dressing room; And Paul Body, a teenage fan too young to enter, who was seen on the pavement outside.

Rock and roll hall of fame Joni Mitchell remains the most famous woman to win the award, with colorful, visionary notes from her career-spanning 2014 collection “Love Has Many Features”, in which she plays the finished version of her “Court & Spark” album (1974) Huh. ) For a small group including David Geffen and Dylan. “I was so proud of it – my first band!” Mitchell writes with a candor and allows these notes with ease. “Bob used to pretend to be asleep and when the last note faded, Jiffen charged the fee.” Reading the room’s gender dynamics well at the time, she concludes Kisagoi: “I think I’m Jackie Robinson.”

Like Davis and George’s work, Mitchell’s contribution to the genre is reminiscent of how writing about records from marginalized vantage points provides new ways of listening to sounds. These are projects that break the “old boys’ network” of writing liner notes, as jazz historian Maxine Gordon calls it, claiming the rights of a female listener.

Gordon, whose 2020 note has been re-released for Shirley Scott’s 1975 album “One for Me” (which Gordon also executive produced) for the musician as well as the woman Emphasizes the importance of a role that one gets in the studio to write their own story. In an interview, she recalled Scott, known as the “Queen of the (Hammond) Organ”, recounting how, at some points in her career, “someone wrote liner notes that someone had to deal with.” – Did not give up, and never spoke to me. They never asked me. “

The ability to take a complex snapshot of a particular recording and then explore the thick circles of its resonance beyond the studio makes notes still matter and why these female writers value them so deeply. “We lose so much,” Gordon said, “from not being able to read recordings and personnel history.” This, for her, is one of her concerns about being lost in our streaming culture – “I want to know who’s playing.” George Conners: Recalling his childhood fascination with notes in Stevie Wonder’s 1970s albums, he referred to “the joy of reading the acknowledgment and the whole life of the production, what happens behind the music.”

Without the recognition of those women documenting the musical spirit, taking notes, and keeping scores, we ourselves lose an important part of the history of music as it was received and felt by female listeners – the sometimes invisible critic who, then Also, his own stories told him about the meaning of how and why it shaped his life and his communities. Davis, for her part, knew what was at stake all those years ago, when she stated in her Aureth Franklin essay that the singer needed to “get on hold” with “an interpretation of the lyrics.” .

She writes, “It has to be abandoned”. “You have to stand up and bear witness, offer a broken part of your heart.”

Daphne A. Brooks William R. Kenan Jr. is Professor of African-American Studies at Yale University. She is the author of “Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound” (Harvard University Press, 2021).

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