The Tangled Roots Of American Jazz, Blues, Rock, & Country Music

By Gene Santoro. Oxford Univ. 312 pp. $32

Over the last 30 years, a quiet revolution has been going on in American music. Refusing to be limited by the categories in which performers traditionally have been marketed, a generation of critics, historians and musicians has been exploring the breadth of musical styles and cultures that have interacted in this country. Peter Guralnick began in the early 1970s with books that put Elvis Presley, Howlin' Wolf and Merle Haggard side by side and insisted that, whatever their differences, they were all building on a shared foundation and formed parts of an overlapping tradition.

Musicians had already been making that point in various ways, most obviously the late Ray Charles, with his genre-smashing forays into blues, jazz, pop and country. But it is easy to forget how many barriers still existed. Although Bob Dylan's iconoclastic embrace of rock 'n' roll at the Newport Folk Festival has been cited ad infinitum, he shocked far more of his followers with the smooth stylings of "Nashville Skyline"; in the 1960s, Joan Baez and the Beatles were twin poles of a collegiate culture that still tended to think of Nashville as a bastion of dumb redneck music.

Neither folk nor rock could long afford that sort of snobbery, though, since both were deeply rooted in the world that Nashville continued to represent. By the 1980s, "roots music" had become a standard term, and musicians like Doug Sahm, Joe Ely, the Blasters and Lucinda Williams had forced their fans to accept country, rock, blues and various traditional folk styles as inseparable parts of the same vernacular American reality.

Gene Santoro's new book sets out to add jazz to that mix -- a surprisingly rare exercise. Among jazz critics, Nat Hentoff and Ralph Gleason have written about country music, folk and rock, but by and large their colleagues have stuck to jazz, while critics in other areas have been intimidated by jazz's reputation as a complex style that, like classical music, can be discussed only by experts. Santoro's qualifications are excellent, since he is both biographer of Charles Mingus and a far-ranging pop/roots critic. Unfortunately, Highway 61 Revisited is by no means the book he could have written.

Santoro's title and introduction promise a searching overview of the cross-fertilizations among American vernacular styles. Instead, he presents a miscellaneous collection of book and record reviews, interviews and profiles he wrote for the Nation and other magazines over the last decade or so. Some are reworked, but no attempt is made to link the disparate strands -- and boy, are they disparate: The "Postwar Jazz" section is what it claims to be, but a section titled "Rebirth of the Blues" includes chapters on quartet gospel, the Greenwich Village folk revival, Willie Nelson, Motown and Lenny Bruce, while a section supposedly devoted to the garage band ethos includes Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris and the Firesign Theatre.

If we forget the framing device and just treat this as a somewhat revised collection of Santoro's recent pieces, it has many strengths. His chapter on the arc of Bob Dylan's work is excellent, as is his piece on the Blues Project, the largely forgotten idols of his teenage years. Interviewing Max Roach, he sets a tone that has Roach expounding on everything from early bebop to Willie Nelson, Andres Segovia and Ravi Shankar, and he shows equal sensitivity and sharpness in encounters with Sonny Rollins and Cassandra Wilson. Indeed, when he focuses on postwar jazz or on artists like Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, with whom he passionately identifies, Santoro is an engaged and insightful writer, and his wide-ranging tastes illuminate odd and interesting facets of his subjects.

Unfortunately, there are serious weaknesses as well. Santoro is a cultural critic, not a historian, which is to say that his opening chapter on Louis Armstrong cites Walt Whitman, Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. DuBois and Hegel in the course of five lines on the first page, but twice misidentifies "Twelfth Street Rag" as composed and popularized by Jelly Roll Morton, who never even performed the piece. Such errors are scattered through the book: Picking four artists to exemplify Moe Asch's Folkways Records stable, he inaccurately includes Burl Ives; he refers to a Nat Cole hit of the 1930s, though Cole first recorded in 1940; a sketch of Gerde's Folk City mislocates the club geographically and gives a misleading list of its key performers; and so on.

These are minor errors, taken one by one, but they are symptomatic of an approach that values theorizing over fact-checking, and a lack of rigor that might be acceptable in magazine pieces but is inappropriate in a book-length exploration of American music. Comparing his introduction with what follows, one can only conclude that Santoro planned to write a major work that would trace the "tangled roots" he highlights in his title, showing connections across time, place, genre, race and class, but that he didn't find the time and was forced to fall back on this loose anthology, with no opportunity to do deeper research or to write connective material.

The book's final section drops all pretense of following the original theme. It is titled "Possible Futures," but there is no discussion of country, rock, R&B or hip-hop -- indeed, it barely ranges outside New York, and the only non-jazz figure included is Ani DiFranco. Had he written an essay on America's musical future, Santoro would certainly not have limited his view to his local jazz scene and one folk-rocker. Maybe someday he will write that essay, and the book that goes with it. In the meanwhile, this is a decent sampler of his work and should be read and appreciated as such. *

Elijah Wald is a musician and writer whose books include "Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues" and "Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerrillas."

From left: Louis Armstrong, Woodie Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson