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Against Musicians' Biographies

We should listen to the life of a song, not its singer

Hulton Archive/Getty

"Water Boy” was already an old song when the folksinger Odetta performed her version of it at Carnegie Hall in 1960. Originating with African American convicts in Jim Crow Georgia, or so the story goes, the song’s lyrics give voice to parched laborers as they call for water and defend the value of their work. “There ain’t no hammer / that’s on this mountain / that ring like mine,” Odetta sang, and in her meaty contralto, the claim acquired echoes of Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman” speech (“Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted … and no man could head me”). Halfway through her performance, Odetta added a vocal accent to her strumming and singing: a sharp, guttural Waow!, mimicking the sound of hammer striking rock that’s heard on field recordings of prison work songs. Part snarl, part half-swallowed scream, the sound Odetta made got a little louder and longer each time. By the end of the song, it verged on a roar.

Odetta is less well known today than her folk-revival compatriots Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte. Bob Dylan credited her with igniting his interest in the genre. Martin Luther King Jr. is said to have called her the “queen of American folk music.” She sang “Oh Freedom” at the March on Washington in 1963. Yet there is no biography of her, no feature-length documentary or biopic. Anyone who seeks out the music she recorded over her half-century-long career is obliged to listen without a very detailed picture of the life she lived. This is an injustice. But it’s also an opportunity.

Songs can and often do outlive their singers. Streaming services like YouTube and Spotify, with their unprecedented access to vast searchable archives, allow a new way of listening: Instead of tracking an individual artist over a necessarily brief slice of time, we can follow particular songs across decades, chart their transit from one generation to the next, opening up different vantage points on history. “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” was first recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1927 and again by Mavis Staples this year. The seventeenth-century English ballad “Matty Groves” had by 1800 morphed into the Appalachian “Shady Grove.” Each new version carries traces of where the song has been before and perhaps even an anticipation of where it might go next. When we listen to all of this, tuning in to form and flux over the years, we get an encounter with music that places us both in and out of time, revealing how the present is entwined with the longue durée of history and art.

Greil Marcus takes this form of listening to marvelous extremes in his two most recent books, last September’s History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs and this fall’s Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations. As their titles suggest, these books track the journey of individual pieces of music across time: A representative chapter title is “‘All I Could Do Was Cry’: 2013/1960/2008.” Wildly, lyrically, Marcus writes in Three Songs of seemingly “authorless” compositions—songs by no one that belong to everyone, that change as they appear and reappear with new interpreters. “Breaking and entering,” he explains, “the song can retrieve its words from your subconscious; notes can compose a melody you sense but don’t hear.” In this alluring mystico-musicology, songs bend singers to their disembodied will, not vice versa: “The song writes itself,” and a particular singer may just stumble into “something the song always wanted to say.”

It was the 1920s when “Water Boy” became a staple of concert singers’ repertoires. An arrangement for voice and piano was published in 1922, and Paul Robeson recorded it three years later; he said he hoped that by singing this song he could show his audiences a shared core of human emotion transcending racial difference. It’s less clear whether the mid-century swing-band arrangements were all motivated by the same wish, and Jimmie Rodgers’s country music version of 1957 sounds so laid-back, it’s not evident it had any motivation at all. But “Water Boy” endured, and if its history seems to partly bear out Marcus’s idea about the power of songs over their singers, it also shows us something more: A song is never just having its way with a singer. Musicians are always doing the work of performance, of rewriting a song in real time.

The opera-trained Americana singer Rhiannon Giddens recorded a version for her debut solo album this year, changing its title to a single word, “Waterboy,” so it feels more like a nickname or term of endearment. Last February, she belted out her version on Late Show With David Letterman. It’s a brilliant performance. “If you don’t come right here,” she sings fiercely, “I’m gonna tell your pa on you.” There’s impatience in her voice—a woman who’s had it up to here with the son she’s calling down for dinner, let’s say. But at the same time she sounds terrified: What if the boy she calls isn’t answering because he can’t, because something horrible has happened to him?

If Giddens were to tell us in a memoir that she’d been thinking about her own child when she sang, it would make the line a poignant narrative moment. But really, what would that reveal that we don’t know from her performance? It might risk drowning out other information we already have: Michael Brown’s mother in tears at a press conference last summer; Mamie Till choosing an open coffin for her son in 1955; Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot protecting his mother in an Alabama café in 1965, days before marchers massed in Selma.

A singer of mixed African American, Native American, and Caucasian ancestry, Giddens is occasionally asked in interviews to offer up a personal explanation for her connection to the music she sings. On NPR’s Morning Edition last winter, Renee Montagne asked, “I know you’ve recorded songs in Gaelic. Is that your tradition?” You could hear Giddens kind of sigh—OK, here we go. “That whole idea of, is it my culture—you know,” she replied, “it gets asked of me in a way that white people who do blues music don’t get asked. I don’t know all of my genealogy, but my point is that if music speaks to you, I think that you have the ability to do that.” And she’s right to push back; when she sings Scottish folk, audiences don’t need a genealogical chart to know they’re witnessing something extraordinary.

These days we’re afflicted with not a scarcity but a glut of biographical information about musicians. 2015 alone has seen documentaries on Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and Nina Simone, in addition to tell-all memoirs by Kim Gordon, John Lydon, Carrie Brownstein, and many others. There’s some great writing in these books, but some unfortunate lily-gilding as well: “With those opening lines, ‘I am an antichrist / I am an anarchist,’” Lydon tells us of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” that “I wasn’t trying to set myself up as some kind of bogeyman.”

The present avalanche of documentaries and memoirs seems to insinuate that the music isn’t enough, that our encounters with songs aren’t complete until we know what the musician was thinking the night they cut the track. But biographical details, especially sources that seduce us into thinking we’re getting the true story of somebody’s inner life, aren’t necessarily the best way to hear a song or the history it carries in the present. The most powerful experiences we have with music often happen when we come into direct contact with the music itself, when the individual performer seems to fade into the background and we find ourselves confronted with a note or a feeling or a hiccup in the rhythm that knocks us over; when what we hear isn’t just one artist’s story that we can identify with or not, or pity or envy or disdain, but something broader and deeper; when the music’s core, its durable form, comes sharply into focus.

When Giddens reaches the line “All the way to the jail,” history floods in, strong and wide. In the 1920s version of “Water Boy,” the line was “Back to the jail,” a clear explanation about convicts toiling on a roadside for the day. A young, Alabama-born singer who’d trained as a classical vocalist before joining the San Francisco folk circuit, Odetta first recorded the song in 1953 and ’54, as the Supreme Court was starting to consider Brown v. Board of Education; when she sang that line as “All the way to the jail” in 1960, listeners might have thought about the students being dragged away from Greensboro lunch counters. These days, as Giddens sings the line, she reels back into a hushed vibrato, and her magnetic hauteur crumples for a moment. What’s stunning about her singing in 2015 is not how different it might have sounded to a listener half a century ago, but how it might sound nearly the same.