WHAT'S SURPRISING about Amanda Petrusich's book is how little she actually struggles with the questions she poses, or discovers in the process. Despite logging thousands of miles on the trail of American Music, despite whispers of awareness that could have lead her to more profound questions or different conclusions and despite her strong background as a music writer, It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music fails to discover anything new or bring about a convincing conclusion.
The author sets out on a literal journey in support of an intellectual one, driving around the country to birthplaces of various strains of American music and the shrines that have risen in their honor to find what would be the next kind of musical expression to be synthesized of our past and present: the next genuine musical Americana. It's a quest for authenticity over marketing, for expression informed by culture rather than commerce.
And Petrusich is well prepared to take this up. A staff writer at Pitchfork, senior contributing editor at Paste and a pop-music critic at The New York Times whose work has appeared in Spin and The Village Voice, she's got the chops. She has an easy style too, which makes the book engaging. To wit, her observation when she arrives at Sun Studios: "Everything feels big, connected to the rest of the universe by millions of little invisible strings, stretching through the open bedroom windows of gangly teenagers sewing patches on their backpacks, glaring at their parents, and playing air guitar."
Most of the history she traces, though, is pretty well-known. She hits Beale Street in Memphis, the aforementioned Sun Studios and Graceland. She illuminates the differences among Delta Blues, Chicago blues and Mississippi Hill Country Blues, with its debt to fife and drum music. But she grants just two paragraphs to the most intriguing bit of this history - that vestiges of that latter tradition could be heard in the North Mississippi region of Holly Springs at the Turner Family Picnic, with its goat roast and drum line featuring melody from homemade cane fifes and similarities to drum and dance ensembles in West Africa.
It's also disappointing that Petrusich doesn't grapple much with questions that likely come into the head of anyone who seriously thinks about the questions in the book; for example, what is folk music, what qualifies something as Americana and what about hip-hop? Born out of poverty in a DIY context in response to neighborhood conditions, hip-hop (as opposed to commercial rap) is a kind of 20th-century urban blues. Kids tinkering in garages created its defining instrument, the turntable, and told their neighborhoods' stories at self-organized parties in vacant lots and abandoned buildings. But the only nod she gives to hip hop is to acknowledge that while it's no less American than, say, Old Crow Medicine Show and sells many more records, mass-marketed hip-hop is over-produced, narcissistic and escapist.
Her quest for the next American music ends with genre-bending free folk - bands like the Fruit Bats and the Castanets. It's not a bad conclusion. But once again, it seems like black folks aren't getting their due.
IT STILL MOVES By Amanda Petrusich Faber and Faber, 2008 304 pages, $25