Holiday gift guide: Five new books featuring Minnesota music

Five books covers collaged together
Clockwise, from top left: Covers for 'Folk Music: A Biography of Bob Dylan in Seven Songs' by Greil Marcus; 'Tits on the Moon' by Dessa; 'Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, But Enough' by Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre ; 'The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music' by Tom Breihan; 'New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets by Women Composers' by Terri Lyne Carrington (ed.)
Clockwise, from top left: Yale, Rain Taxi, Button Poetry, Hachette, Berklee Press

Michaelangelo MatosDylan HicksAli Elabbady and Macie Rasmussen | The Current

With clubs and parties finally open full-time again, this was a bountiful year to go out and experience music in the Twin Cities. It’s also been a good year to read books by and about local artists, old and new.

The Current has gathered a handful of worthwhile titles from 2022 that, in ways large and small, spotlight homegrown talent—good gifts for the music lover in your life, local or otherwise. They’re presented alphabetically by title. -Michaelangelo Matos

Folk Music: A Biography of Bob Dylan in Seven Songs by Greil Marcus (Yale)

Local angle: A look at Dylan’s artistry that’s heavy on his time in his home state, with the assistance of a complete run of the Minneapolis folk ’zine Little Sandy Review.

The best line in this book occurs late, and it’s short: “Within a day, the first cover version appeared on YouTube.” There it is: a modern, working definition of folk music, just like the title says.

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Greil Marcus is discussing the “Murder Most Foul,” which had hit the Internet with an outsized splat in 2020. “Folk music,” after all, refers to a process as much as a style — people take songs that have become common coin and proffer their own versions, or variations. That’s what has long fascinated Marcus about Bob Dylan, and it’s what he concentrates on in his, his fourth book about the singer.

I know, I know — four books on any topic beggars just how much somebody has left to say about them. But while this is in no real sense a biography, despite its subtitle, the clue in what makes the book work is in the title itself, because Folk Music is, more than anything Marcus has ever written, a portrait of the scene from which Dylan sprang. And it feels personal, even if the author doesn’t appear in its pages as anything more than a specter.

In 2002, Marcus answered a question in an online exchange about which records he’d include in an updated version of his discography at the end of Stranded, an anthology he’d edited. Among them, he wrote, were “much early commercial folk: I’d add the Kingston Trio’s ‘Tom Dooley’ and Peter Paul & Mary’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’ and ‘Too Much of Nothing’ — I was much too cool to mention them the first time around.” So there’s a sense in which he’s coming back to an era he’d seen but not really written about. (Marcus has long told the story of seeing Dylan for the first time when Joan Baez brought him out during one of her shows.) Here, he does — abetted by a complete set of Little Sandy Review, the folk zine published from the University of Minnesota campus in the ‘60s, from which he filches particularly juicy bits.

The most resonant part of the book, though, is one of the most counterintuitive. “Desolation Row,” nearly 12 minutes long, ends Highway 61 Revisited as a monument, the first of his big, bank-vault-sized album closers. (Two more, “Ain’t Talkin’” from 2006’s Modern Times and “Murder Most Foul” from Rough and Rowdy Ways, also get their own chapters.) So much to dig into, such rich imagery, such a big-deal song — and Marcus takes on only the first line: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging.” He goes into the horrifying history of public lynchings as family affairs—because if you weren’t at them, what kind of person were you? And he implicates his own parents and possibly Dylan’s in the process. A pop song, he’s telling us, can lead absolutely anywhere, even when we’d prefer it didn’t. -M.M.

New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets by Women Composers by Terri Lyne Carrington (ed.) (Berklee Press)

Local angle: A crucial new jazz songbook, featuring Minnesota native Maria Schneider.

The old standards — jazz originals and American Songbook nonperishables, most of them written before 1970 — remain foundational and obligatory for many jazz musicians as interpretative vehicles and bandstand lingua franca. All but a few were written by men, an imbalance perpetuated by the male-dominated “real books” often used by players to build or refresh repertoire.

New Standards, a new set of lead sheets edited by the drummer, composer, and educator Terri Lyne Carrington, might help nudge set lists toward gender equity while it uncovers and elucidates unusually eclectic pieces. Selections include representatives of early recorded jazz (Lil Hardin Armstrong), the relatively few women whose work is often interpreted (Mary Lou Williams, Carla Bley), and some of the leading lights of today’s scene, including Cécile McClorin Salvant and recent MacArthur fellow Tomeka Reid.

Big-band modernist Maria Schneider, who was born in Windom, Minn., and attended the U of M, is rightly included — “Choro Dancado” is beautiful even without Schneider’s colorful orchestrations — as is a handwritten graphic score for two composed-but-open themes from Fly or Die by the late Jaimie Branch, whose career blossomed in Chicago and who had a loyal Twin Cities following.

Some of the material gathered in New Standards is straight-ahead, some avant-garde; some of it manageable for intermediate players; some of it imposing. And unlike most songbooks, New Standards surveys the varied approaches to preparing a chart: uncluttered chords and melodies; melodies whose harmonies are implied; blueprints as experimental as the music they produce. -Dylan Hicks

Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, But Enough by Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre (Button Poetry)

Local angle: A guidebook, told numerous ways, for how artists might help fight fascism by a local poet, artist, and educator.

Authoritarianism and fascism are potentially closer with every election, executive order, or U.S. Supreme Court decision. What role do artists play in forming an effective response? Consider the Minneapolis recording artist, educator, and poet Kyle “Guante” Myhre’s Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, But Enough. Along the lines of the Notorious B.I.G.’s instructional "Ten Crack Commandments,” it’s set up as a step-by-step booklet for artists to make positive change.

Through a sci-fi-like, post-apocalyptic diary, the book follows two main characters. A robot by the name of Gyre and his traveling apprentice Nar’ryzar “Nary” Crumbeaux travel through different villages, and run across exiled rebels, robots, and storytellers, told through various methods of poems, conversations, transcripts, and sketches.

Wonderfully illustrated by Casper Pham — whose illustration in the book carries remnants of ‘80s Disney works meets C.S. Lewis with faint nods to Anime — Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, But Enough is aimed towards aspiring artists. It digs into the art they make, and how it can be used to tear down antiquated notions of supremacy and fascism. The captions on some of Casper’s illustrations reinforce the need for that art: “We have to tell our stories. We have to listen to one another's stories.” 

Considering Guante’s past ruminations on these same topics on albums like You Better Weaponize and An Unwelcome Guest, most notably Guante’s “To Young Leaders,” we should consider this book another tool to help artists tailor their art to help reimagine the world. -Ali Elabbady

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music by Tom Breihan (Hachette)

Local angle: One of the 20 hits covered here is “When Doves Cry.”

Since January of 2018, beginning with Ricky Nelson’s 1958 “Poor Little Fool,” Stereogum editor Tom Breihan has set upon the task of reviewing every U.S. No. 1 from Billboard’s Hot 100, well over a thousand records, in a dedicated space titled “The Number Ones.” (As of this writing he’s up to 2004.) It can be brash — Breihan always includes his scores for any other Top 10 hit that comes up — but it’s also become a reliably well-researched and smartly argued look back at the hit parade, even when I find the author’s conclusions baffling (“Hey Ya!” is at least a 7), if not insane (“How You Remind Me” is, if it is very lucky, a 2).

In the Stereogum column, the scores are the point. In Breihan’s new book, The Number Ones, they're not. It’s also a completely other beast — a through-composed book that attempts to tell the story of pop in total, lo these 60 years, through the lens of the charts. Plenty of people have written musical histories in a similar manner — in particular, the late Ed Ward’s two-volume History of Rock and Roll, published in the late 2010s. But Ward’s narrative unspooled like a ticker-tape, whereas Breihan tells a story that doesn’t seem to have a cut-off date.

That means the classic story of Motown, focusing on the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go,” is as legible as the far more tangled tale of Soulja Boy Tell’em’s “Crank That,” where a teenager from Atlanta turned himself into a pop star using the most basic of mid-’00s Web tech: “Really, all my MySpace views came from SoundClick, and all my YouTube views came from MySpace. They fed off each other.” Breihan’s chapter on “When Doves Cry,” smack in the book’s middle, won’t teach your nearest Prince scholar too much. But his gregarious telling is generous and full of love, and he draws lines back and forth between chapters with generous aplomb. If you have a BTS-besotted teenager in your life — the last song of the 20 he writes about is “Dynamite” — this is an ideal way into the larger story of pop, and all its relations. -M.M.

Tits on the Moon by Dessa (Rain Taxi)

Local angle: The Doomtree alum and solo phenom offers a stage-tested chapbook.

Released in October, Dessa’s booklet Tits on the Moon is poetry for those who enjoy turning quotidian experiences into philosophical ideation. If you’ve been to one of Dessa’s shows, you may have already heard one or two of these pieces between songs; now they’re available in print.

At only 22 pages, the book has a modest word count, but the dense ideas take up space. Like her rapping and songwriting, Dessa’s eloquent words don’t contain fluff, complicated metaphors, or jargon. An interspersed theme that pops up is the way that humans relate to their own corporeal form — whether that’s dissociation from the body or an intimate relationship with it. Most notably, she includes a stage diving how-to guide, sharing treasured memories of feeling the weight of one’s body on top of hands and surrendering control. There’s also simple humor at times, such as calling tomatoes microaggressions and serving the hot take that the ability to curl your tongue is not important.

Dessa says these poems have come in handy when a live show goes awry. Spoken word fills the downtime while bandmates solve issues. Maybe this collection will be just the right last-minute gift for a loved one when you’re in a pinch. -Macie Rasmussen 

Even more holiday gift book ideas:

Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records by Jim Ruland

The Dylan Tapes: Friends, Players, & Lovers Talkin’ Early Bob Dylan by Anthony Scaduto

Her Word Is Bond: Navigating Hip-Hop and Relationships in a Culture of Misogyny by Psalm One

Maybe We’ll Make It by Margo Price

More Real Life Rock: The Wilderness Years, 2014–2021 by Greil Marcus  

The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan