In Conversation with David Wondrich
An interview with the author of Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924
Molly Sheridan: So, I was reading a bio of you online and you were described as a lapsed English professor, currently a specialist on ragtime and cocktails, and that how you got to be so was a long story. So I wanted to know if you could give me a sort of short version of how you ended up a journalist with such interesting specialties…
David Wondrich: Well, in my 20s I was a college drop out and I was a rock ‘n’ roll musician, and then I went back to school in my late 20s and I ended up studying comparative literature. I finished my undergraduate degree and couldn’t find a job so I started grad school. They basically paid me to go to school, which was very nice of them, so I figured I would just study the weirdest stuff I could find because, you know, it was their dime. [laughs] I studied all kinds of ancient languages and stuff and I thought that was very fun, but when I finally got finished with that I couldn’t find a job either really. I mean, I got a job as an English professor but it wasn’t a very fun one. Meanwhile I had started, just to blow off steam, writing about music a little bit and that was the genesis of this book. It was probably about 1996 and I had written some things for a ‘zine on old jazz and stuff like that. I met somebody at a party and he said I’m an editor. Why don’t you turn it into a book? And I said ok, sure. Little did I know it wouldn’t come out until 2003, but eventually it did.
Molly Sheridan: So how much time did you actually spend working on this book then? Was it a delayed publication or were you just finishing it piece by piece?
David Wondrich: Little by little. It was a labor of love-there was no money in it. I started working on it while I was a professor and then I kind of shelved it. Meanwhile, I fell into writing about cocktails-I don’t think you can do it any other way-and I wrote a book on that for Esquire. And finally [Chicago Review Press] told me I’d better finish [Stomp and Swerve] now, so I did.
Molly Sheridan: Do you feel there’s a void in your life now that you don’t have this project?
David Wondrich: Yeah, it’s really weird. I don’t know what music to listen to. I’ve got all this really old music because I was pretty obsessive about collecting it all on CD. But I don’t know what to listen to at this point. I’m thinking Doo-Wop.
Molly Sheridan: There you go. When I read books dealing with music that most people haven’t had the chance to hear, I’m always wondering…is there any plan to put a companion CD out with this? Because I wanted to hear this music while I was reading.
David Wondrich: There is one, yeah. It just came out. You can get it at www.archeophone.com. We couldn’t get everything, but we tried to get at least some of the songs that I mention and we found a bunch of stuff that I didn’t mention that’s just as cool.
Molly Sheridan: How did you find and listen to most if this while you were researching?
David Wondrich: Well, some of the stuff is on CD reissues that I bought here and there. A lot I got collectors to burn for me or tape for me, because when I started nobody was burning anything. That was a good chunk of some of the really rare stuff. And some of it is on LP reissues, so you know it’s just here and there basically.
Molly Sheridan: Books that come out on any kind of historical music topic, they’re often written in an academic environment for fellow academics. The voice in your book is very inviting to a general reader, very conversational and filled with slang and funny asides. How did you decide to adopt that casual voice for this project? I get the impression that that’s maybe just your natural writing style…
David Wondrich: Yeah, it kind of is. When I was in academia I was writing academic stuff and I really didn’t enjoy it at all. This project was sort of about blowing off steam-let me write like I talk to my friends was the idea. The amusing thing is that this turns out to be much harder to do I think. I wish all academics would write like that. At least try to, because with most academic writing you rely on jargon and set phrases and you don’t really have to think about stuff that much. This way you kind of have to think everything over again.
Molly Sheridan: Do you think it will hurt the book at all, that people might not take it seriously?
David Wondrich: I think some people won’t, definitely. I wish everyone would take it seriously, but it had to be written the way it was. It goes with the music. This kind of comes to the reasons that I got out of academia as well, because it’s so sterile. It’s addressing a small number of people who already know what you’re writing about and I wanted to reach out to people who didn’t know this stuff. Basically I wanted to write it in American. I think a lot of music writers who write very academic stuff have sort of PhD envy. They want to sound smart so they use a lot of jargon and convoluted language.
Molly Sheridan: Being that our readership includes a lot of people who write music, what do you think that an audience like that can take away from reading about this time period and the developments that happened?
David Wondrich: I think really the most interesting thing for them about that period is really, how do I put this, is kind of the foment that was going on…If you think about ragtime for instance, which is really the heart of the book, it was a music that was in part composed. People might have improvised when they played but a lot of it was written, and it’s a sort of invigorated composed music. At the same time it’s popular and yet it’s intelligent and the composers, the people who were writing it, they were aiming at popularity. They were aiming at white popularity as much as possible, but at the same time they were trying to make the music as intelligent as possible. And I would love to see more of that kind of generosity, of that kind of reaching out. I would hope that that would be an inspiration.
Molly Sheridan: Obviously a lot of research went into this project. I’m always curious, in a situation where you’re probably digging through all sorts of old texts and recordings, what were some of the things that surprised you? Facts, anecdotes, anything…
David Wondrich: Well, in a way it’s like the whole thing surprised me because when I started out to write it I was going to start in 1917, with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and that was going to be the beginning…
Molly Sheridan: And that turned out to be almost your end date…
David Wondrich: I know! Every time I went back to it I found somebody who was doing it earlier. And you know some of these records are astounding. There’s this one that’s sort of offensive called “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” In a way it’s less offensive than it sounds, but it’s still offensive. But on the record the banjo is just out of control. This guy is just thrashing the hell out of it and it’s so exciting. You just can’t believe that this was on record in 1899. It just rips out of the speakers at you. And there’s a lot of stuff like that, that’s just really exciting when you hear it. I tried to get some of that on the companion CD. The one I regret that I couldn’t get is this thing called “Swim Along” which is by Will Marion Cook. He was a black composer and he also wrote Coon songs and musical theater. There’s that great interaction between composition and folk music again. But he recorded this vocal piece of his in I think 1914. It’s got to be one of the rarest records out there but it’s just amazing. You hear it and it’s like every kind of American music wrapped up in one. It totally swings. I wish I could get a copy of it for the next companion CD.
Molly Sheridan: This books often refers to the balance, or lack of, between white and black American culture. You’re obviously white. Do you think that had an impact on the book? I know you talk about even your use of the very racially-charged language of the day…
David Wondrich: It was always in my mind, put it that way. I tried not to let it stop me from saying what I thought needed to be said. It’s embarrassing to use the language and it feels wrong, but at the same time you have to talk about this kind of stuff.
Molly Sheridan: Actually what really shocked me were a few of the posters that you reproduce in the book, and the caricature of the black face; it’s stunning.
David Wondrich: I know. I tried to not whitewash over anything. I tried to make sure that kind of the savageness of it was brought up and I tried to remind people of that as much as possible while talking about it. I didn’t want to just ignore it, because then you’ll never get beyond it.
Molly Sheridan: It’s a powerful reminder. So, now the fun question. What’s your next music project that we can look forward to?
David Wondrich: That’s a good question. Well, my next project is something on the sporting life in the 19th century.
Molly Sheridan: So it sounds like you’re pretty entrenched in this time period then.
David Wondrich: I’m just really interested in it because it’s when America came together as modern America and yet it could have gone very differently. It’s really just a lot of fun. It’s much more wide open. There was a lot more individual freedom of expression of thought than there seems to be right now. But the next music one…I’d like to do something on the music from 1925 to 1931 and just really focus on that golden age of pop recording in America. That’s when everything was great.
Molly Sheridan: Was it really great, or is it really more the nostalgia that we have for it?
David Wondrich: Well, I think it was really great actually. I mean, there was some crappy pop then too, but for the first time you were getting blues and hillbilly music and jazz. They were all developing really fast and on record. Record companies were sending out field units. In my book I just stop right at the beginning of this. Over the following few years until the Depression killed the record industry they were just finding all these geniuses who had always been there but who had never been recorded before. All of the sudden it’s all on record. You’ve got Duke Ellington starting off in 1925. So it’s a really cool period for that and it would just be fun to write about. It’s very easy to be enthusiastic.