For the Love of Folk

Musical reads inspired by the return of the N.C. Folk Festival


Compiled by Shannon Purdy Jones

Culturally speaking, perhaps no loss in the pandemic has been as marked as the eclipse of live musical performance.

Something indescribable happens when people come together to make and witness music, a joyous spark that cannot be replicated even on the most well-executed Zoom concerts. Which is why we at Scuppernong Books are thrilled about the return of the North Carolina Folk Festival. We will never again take for granted coming together to enjoy live music with our community. September 10 – 12, we’ll see you downtown, where we’ll be masked up and singing off-key. Until then, get inspired by these musical reads that span the gamut from folk to pop, to rock and beyond.

Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk by David Menconi (UNC Press, $30) David Menconi spent three decades immersed in the state’s music, where traditions run deep but the energy expands in countless directions. Menconi shows how working-class roots and class rebellion tie North Carolina’s Piedmont blues, jazz and bluegrass to beach music, rock and hip-hop. From mill towns and mountain coves to college-town clubs and the stage of American Idol, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk, Step It Up and Go celebrates homegrown music as indigenous to the state as barbecue and basketball. Spanning a century of history from the dawn of recorded music to the present, and with sidebars and photos that help reveal the many-splendored glory of North Carolina’s sonic landscape, this is a must-read for every music lover.

Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary by Sasha Geffen (University of Texas Press, $18.95) Why has music so often served as an accomplice to the transcendent expressions of gender? Why is music so inherently queer? For Sasha Geffen, the answers lie in music’s intrinsic ability to express the subliminal, which, through paradox and contradiction, allows rigid gender roles to fall away in a sensual and ambiguous exchange between performer and listener. Glitter Up the Dark traces the history of this gender fluidity in pop music from the early 20th century to present day. Starting with early blues and the Beatles and continuing with performers such as David Bowie, Prince, Missy Elliott and Frank Ocean, Geffen explores how artists have used music, fashion, language and technology to break out of the confines mandated by gender essentialism and to establish the voice as the primary expression of gender transgression.

Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967–1975 by Richard Thompson with Scott Timberg (Algonquin Books, $27.95) In this moving and immersive memoir, international music legend Richard Thompson recreates the spirit of the 1960s, where he found — and then lost, and then found! — his way again. Known for his brilliant songwriting and haunting voice, Thompson is also considered one of the top 20 guitarists of all time. In his long-awaited memoir, the British folk musician takes us back to a period of great change and creativity, both for himself and for the world at large. During the pivotal years of 1967 to 1975, just as he was discovering his passion for music, Thompson formed the band Fairport Convention with some schoolmates and helped establish the genre of British folk rock. That led to a heady period of songwriting and extensive tours, where he crossed paths with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. But those eight years were also marked by upheaval and tragedy. Then, at the height of the band’s popularity, Thompson left to form a duo act with his wife, Linda. And as he writes revealingly here, his discovery and ultimate embrace of Sufism dramatically reshaped his approach to music — and, of course, everything else.

The Mbira: An African Musical Tradition by Māhealani Uchiyama (North Atlantic Books, $14.95) In this accessible overview steeped in history and tradition, teacher and student Māhealani Uchiyama offers insights for learning all about the mbira, a wooden soundboard with hammered metal keys. In traditional Zimbabwean culture, playing the mbira is a spiritual practice that bridges worlds. Supplemented with 32 images and a glossary of terms, this book covers, among other things: codes of conduct for respectfully playing the mbira and for taking it up as a practice; how the mbira can connect people severed from their African roots; and how appropriation and commodification have contributed to the mbira’s popularization around the world.

Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting by Mary Gauthier (St. Martin’s Essentials, $27.99) Mary Gauthier was 12 years old when she was given her Aunt Jenny’s old guitar. Music gave her a window into a world where others felt the way she did. Songs became lifelines. One day, she told herself, she would write her own songs. Sadly, Gauthier’s dream faded, overshadowed by her struggle with addiction for a decade. It wasn’t until she got sober that her purpose became clear: not only did she still want to write songs, she needed to. Today, Gauthier is a decorated musical artist with numerous awards and recognition for her songwriting, including a Grammy nomination. In Saved by a Song, Gauthier pulls the curtain back on the artistry of songwriting. Part memoir, part philosophy of art, part nuts-and-bolts of songwriting, her book celebrates the redemptive power of song to inspire and bring seemingly different kinds of people together.

Bessie Smith: A Poet’s Biography of a Blues Legend by Jackie Kay (Vintage, $16.95) Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee and orphaned by the age of 9, blues singer Bessie Smith sang on street corners before becoming a big name in traveling shows and eventually catapulting into fame. Known for her unmatched vocal talent, her timeless and personal blues narratives, her tough persona and her ability to enrapture audiences, this blues Empress remains both a force and an enigma. In this remarkable book, Scotland’s National Poet Jackie Kay blends poetry, prose, fiction and nonfiction to create a unique biography and a personal story about one woman’s search for recognition.  OH

Shannon Purdy Jones is store manager and children’s book buyer at Scuppernong Books.

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