The Rose and the Briar edited by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus (Norton, 406 pages, $26.95); Brother Ray by Ray Charles and David Ritz (Da Capo, 364 pages, $16.95 paper). Truly great music books don't necessarily announce themselves with philharmonic fanfares, three chords from a rock band at DC-10 volume or tattooed, pierced appearances on Letterman, Leno and Regis and Kelly. Sometimes, they just show up at the best book stores waiting patiently for music lovers hungry for revelation.
These are two of the year's great music books at least three times over. And yet one is a perfectly timed reissue of a 1978 autobiography updated by its co-author. And the other is just another in that increasing modern wonder -- an anthology in which wonderful writers of all stripe were invited to roam at will around subjects that have captivated and even captured them completely.
The autobiography is "Brother Ray," the Ray Charles memoir published back in the late 1970s when his beloved history didn't necessarily inspire instant genuflection. If you want to know how much you're missing from Taylor Hackford's well-told, brilliantly acted "Ray," pick up "Brother Ray." The 180-degree difference in tone will wallop you right on Page 4 (when the still-sighted child asks the "Daddy" he barely remembers if he and his Mama were going to "play") and continue to do so with its tough-mindedness, candor and no small carnality. Comparing the tone of "Ray" to "Brother Ray" is almost like comparing Thomas A. Dorsey's "Precious Lord" to Ray Charles' "What'd I Say." It's an indispensable antidote to a good but reverential hit movie.
I love "The Rose and the Briar" as I have few other music books of the past few years. It's a total original -- two terrific writer/editors asking critics and daring writers to investigate the entire history of the American ballad, from rock critic Dave Marsh's surprising tribute to the romance of "Barbara Allen" to a poem by Paul Muldoon and Howard Hampton's essay on Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska."
Writers being writers, none of those here come at their wildly disparate subjects with anything resembling a conventional angle. Which is to be expected when you're dealing with such thorny sorts as critics Ed Ward and Ann Powers, Joyce Carol Oates, Wendy Lesser, John Rockwell, Luc Sante, R. Crumb, Paul Berman, Sarah Vowell. Absolutely nothing about "The Rose and the Briar" is ordinary, including Columbia/Legacy's separate anthology of the songs discussed. It's impossible not to learn or be utterly delighted with something within.
-- Jeff Simon