Robert Cantwell’s If Beale Street Could Talk: Music, Community, Culture is an old-growth forest of words and ideas: a dense terrain that is difficult and at times impossible to navigate, replete with disparate micro-environments that exist independent from one another. The reader spends most of his time in near-darkness, grasping for the nearest branch, blind but for the occasional ray of sunshine that pierces the forest canopy and illuminates the path ahead.
Cantwell’s introduction explains that this collection of essays focuses on three main themes: music, festivity and culture. Advance press for the book and even the book’s title itself could lead the casual browser to suppose that this book will have a great deal to do with the first theme. In truth, music gets short shrift here — a shame, since some of Cantwell’s most vivid, original and memorable writing is on that subject. The grab-bag of essays in Beale Street hang together loosely, aided little by shadowy “subject” groupings (Part 1: Darkling I Listen; Part II: Feasts of Unnaming; and Part III: The Parallax Effect).
The book’s first few essays deliver on the promise of the theme of listening, as Cantwell writes about the paradoxes of American folk music (“Darkling I Listen: Making Sense of the Smithsonian Folkways Anthology“), the auditory and cultural differences between analog and digital recording (“The Magic 8 Ball: From Analog to Digital”), and, in one of the standout essays of the collection, the meaning of the sounds of blues music (“If Beale Street Could Talk: A Reflection on Musical Meaning”).
The eponymous essay showcases all of Cantwell’s strengths as a writer. He begins with a simple childhood memory of listening to a blues record (Diana Washington’s “Long John Blues”), quickly ties it to the larger framework of the baby-boom generation, and dives into an exhaustive analysis of what he calls “roots” music: “blues, rockabilly, and rock-and-roll, old-time music and bluegrass”.
Cantwell gives not only a clear and concise look at how and why roots music gained cultural significance in the mid-20th century; he goes beyond that to write eloquently and passionately about the actual sound of the music itself, and unfolds the layers of meaning in those sounds, recorded and played back in specific ways, at specific moments in time. After densely packed pages of analysis, Cantwell blissfully and quite suddenly breaks through the thicket of theory, describing “a trailing double helix of twin cornets — King Oliver and Louis Armstrong — [who] cruise the after-midnight pavements of ‘Canal Street Blues’ as Honore Dutrey’s trombone shines like a headlight on their wet, crawling surfaces”.
Skillfully playing personal narrative against scholarly erudition and poetic expression, Cantwell is equally at home among these varied verbal landscapes, revealing his unique and seemingly boundless talent.
But the inclusion of “The Invisible Science: The Spirit of Calculation” in this section is difficult to fathom. A fascinating essay in its own right, in which Cantwell meditates on the cultural significance of timekeeping and other scientific processes, “The Invisible Science” feels out of place not only in this section of the book, but in the book as a whole, having little to do with his promised themes. Similarly, Cantwell’s treatment of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” in “The Annual Dance” is a peerless example of literary criticism, but it seems a strain to place this narrowly focused interpretation within the context of Beale Street. To be sure, Cantwell writes about festivity and even music as he analyzes Joyce’s writing, but it is more a study of language than it is an independent treatise on the cultural meaning of festivity.
The disparate roots of these essays cause other dizzying contrasts. In “The Spirit of Calculation,” the reader is expected to be familiar with Lacan, Milton, Dryden — even Lewis Mumford, for whom no first reference is given — and many other sages with whom Cantwell appears to be on a comfortable last-name basis. Pages later, in the subsequent essay, “Folk Festivals and the Representation of Folklife”, the reader is treated to a discourse on the Red Scare that assumes no prior knowledge of such an event. Cantwell pedantically informs us that, in the 1950s, “certain political opportunists, notably Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, had found it expedient to exploit a national paranoia” and target suspected American Communists for persecution.
Beale Street is, at its heart, a book about folklore that has been stretched to accommodate other outlets for Cantwell’s talents, but one that would have been stronger with a more narrow focus. When Cantwell writes about folk festivals, the Smithsonian Folkways Anthology and Woody Guthrie, his particular talent shines brightly. But when this collection digresses down other intellectual roads, it implausibly suggests that there will be readers with a depth and breadth of intellectual curiosities to parallel Cantwell’s own. If there are such readers, they must surely be few and far between.