Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Journey of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and His Companions from Florida to the Pacific, 1528-1536 by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

Harrowing trek across the American continent
In 1527, Spain sent a party of 600 soldiers and colonists to America to explore Florida and the Gulf Coast. The voyage was led by Pánfilo de Narváez and thus dubbed the Narváez Expedition. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was named treasurer and second in command of the expedition. After stopping at established Spanish settlements in Hispaniola and Cuba, the party’s ships entered Tampa Bay in April 1528, where a group disembarked and began exploring the Florida coast on foot and horse. Through a series of unfortunate events and poor decisions, the landing party became separated from their ships, never to see them again. If they ever hoped to return to civilization, their only recourse was to head West towards Mexico in hopes of reaching existing Spanish settlements. Very few members of the Narváez expedition survived this arduous journey, but Cabeza de Vaca was one who did, making it all the way to the California coast and down to Mexico City. Afterwards, he wrote a narrative account of his journey from memory. This work was originally published in Spain in 1542 as La relación de Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. The English translation by Fanny Bandelier was published in 1904.

Cabeza de Vaca’s account is a harrowing story of death and deprivation in which scores of Spaniards succumbed to starvation, drowning, disease, and cannibalism. The way he tells it, one would think there was nothing to eat in America in the early 16th century. Even the Indigenous populations he encounters are mostly struggling for existence. Cabeza de Vaca and his companions encountered numerous Native peoples, some hostile and some friendly. The hostile tribes killed his countrymen or enslaved them for years, while the friendly Indians sometimes nearly worshipped the Spaniards as faith healers and messengers sent by the gods. Cabeza de Vaca’s encounters with Native tribes are the most interesting and valuable aspect of his narrative. Though not without his Christian prejudices, Cabeza de Vaca shows a curiosity, sensitivity, and tolerance toward Native American cultures that was a marked departure from the prevailing genocidal attitude of the conquistadors and early missionaries toward the Indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. As the prototypical anthropologist of the New World, Cabeza de Vaca left behind an invaluable document of the state of Native civilizations at this early period in colonial history.

All his merits as an explorer and observer, however, do not make Cabeza de Vaca a great writer. As read through Bandelier’s translation, this is often a convoluted and confusing text. It must always be kept in mind that Cabeza de Vaca wrote this account from memory, years after the events depicted, which calls its accuracy and reliability into question. Also, most of the places he explored were unnamed at the time, making it difficult to tell exactly where many of the events he relates took place. The names he gives for the Native tribes may be questionable as well. Probably the best way to read this work would be in a recent, heavily annotated edition, where one might get the benefit of professional anthropologists’ and geographers’ insights, as opposed to the public domain text by Bandelier, which provides very little historical context.

Nevertheless, Cabeza de Vaca’s journey makes for a fascinating read, both as a historical document and as an exploration adventure story. This is a must-read primary source for anyone interested in Native American history or Spain’s colonization of the New World.
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Monday, August 23, 2021

The Cossacks by Leo Tolstoy

Love and war in the Caucasus
Leo Tolstoy’s novel The Cossacks was originally published in 1863 under the title of Young Manhood. That choice of title would lead one to believe that this book could perhaps be seen as a continuation of Tolstoy’s earlier trilogy of three novels entitled Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. Like those three previous novels, The Cossacks is a semi-autobiographical work based on Tolstoy’s real-life experiences. Since this novel is told in the third person with fictional characters, one would assume it is only loosely based on his own life. The love triangle around which the story revolves may be pure invention. Tolstoy did serve in the military during the Caucasian War, however, and his memories no doubt contributed to his vivid depictions of the sights and sounds of the Caucasus and the culture and lifestyle of its inhabitants.

Like Tolstoy, the novel’s protagonist, Dmitry Andreich Olenin, was a bit of a hellraiser in his youth. Olenin apparently made love to a woman he didn’t actually love, and his reputation has been tarnished by the scandalous affair. Fed up with the gossip and pettiness of Moscow society life, Olenin decides to retreat into the rural countryside. He enlists for military service in the Caucasus, where the Russians and Cossacks are fighting the Chechens. An independently wealthy gentleman jaded by big-city life, Olenin has all sorts of romantic notions about the Cossacks and their “simple” way of life. He boards with a Cossack family and to some extent “goes native,” befriending the Cossacks and embracing their lifestyle. His new friends can’t help but view him as an outsider, however, because of his wealth and upbringing. During the Caucasian War it was common for Russian officers to take up with Cossack girls. Burned by his past, Olenin resists this temptation for a more monastic lifestyle. Among the family he boards with, however, is the town’s loveliest maiden, Maryanka, and Olenin can’t help having his head turned by this enchanting young woman.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Russian authors were the most ardent proponents of realism and the foremost practitioners of the genre. Tolstoy expertly applies the realist lens to Cossack society and the Caucasus environment. This novel, however, still has a touch of Victorian romanticism about it. The rural setting is very idyllic, the love affairs somewhat idealized, and the depictions of the Cossacks come across as bucolic stereotypes. Maybe that’s because of the time period in which it was written, or perhaps because so much of the story is told through the eyes of Olenin. Though the story is related in the third person, Olenin’s perspective amounts to an unreliable narrator, his vision colored by his disappointment in Moscow society and his longing to find a place where he belongs. The reader never really feels like he fits in this environment, however, which was probably Tolstoy’s intention.

The Cossacks is a very good novel, perhaps one of Tolstoy’s best. I may have enjoyed it more had I not recently read Mikhail Sholokhov’s Cossack epic And Quiet Flows the Don and its sequel The Don Flows Home to the Sea. These twentieth-century novels by the Soviet Nobel laureate are masterpieces of realism that surpass Tolstoy’s Cossacks in just about every aspect. In the roughly 70 years between Tolstoy’s and Sholokhov’s books, realism became grittier and more brutally frank. As a result, Sholokhov’s Cossack novels approach the apex of the art form, achieving a literary artistry almost on a par with Tolstoy’s magnum opus War and Peace.

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Friday, August 20, 2021

The Evolutionist at Large by Grant Allen

Insightful observations of Darwinism at work
Science writer and novelist Grant Allen was born in Canada but emigrated to England as a teenager, where he remained the rest of his life. As a science writer, Allen was kind of like the Carl Sagan of the late 19th century, but instead of educating the public on astronomy, physics, and Einstein’s relativity, Allen concentrated on biology, evolution, and Darwinism. At that time, the theory of evolution was still relatively new and needed secular evangelists like Allen to make it accessible and palatable to the masses. His book The Evolutionist at Large, published in 1881, proves that Allen still has a thing or two to teach the science-savvy reading public of today.

The Evolutionist at Large consists of 22 short essays that originally appeared as newspaper columns in the St. James’s Gazette. Each brief chapter is written in the first person, and usually starts with Allen and his dog strolling through the English countryside, where they chance upon an interesting specimen of flower, snail, butterfly, or other class of wildlife. From there, Allen elaborates on the specific characteristics of the creature in question and how it illustrates the process of evolution at work. Some of the topics include the differing developmental strategies of fruits and nuts, the scent-based intellect of ants, and the influence of butterfly psychology on the color of flowers. Although I am a firm believer in evolution and consider myself pretty well versed in biological science, Allen’s 140-year-old essays consistently made me view the workings of nature in surprising new ways. His writing calls to mind the work of Sir David Attenborough in his television nature documentaries or his books like The Life of Birds.

Even if you already know everything Allen has to say about evolution, the book is still a beautiful piece of nature writing. Because Allen’s audience is the general reading public, the writing is very clear and accessible. He uses hardly any scientific jargon, except for the occasional Latin species name. He doesn’t dumb down the vocabulary at all, however, so his prose displays the verbal erudition typical of nineteenth-century texts. Allen was one of the Victorian Era’s most outspoken freethinkers and challenged religion and superstition in all of his works, including his fiction. Here he not only trumpets Darwin’s system of evolution but also blatantly illustrates how evolutionary evidence refutes the idea of intelligent design. Allen is very forthright about his atheism, which makes one wonder how he managed to slip these articles into a London newspaper of the 1870s.

The Evolutionist at Large proved a very pleasant surprise. Nineteenth century writing on nature often tends to be very poetic and romantic in nature, emphasizing man’s contemplation of the wild as a sort of spiritual experience. Allen’s take on nature, however, is firmly grounded in science and empirical observation, like a simplified version of the scientific travelogues of Darwin or Alexander von Humboldt. On the other hand, like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Allen still manages to convey the wonder and inspiration of the natural environment all around us. Nature lovers and freethinkers alike will enjoy this insightful book.
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Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Through the South Seas with Jack London by Martin Johnson

I sailed with Adventure
When word got out that Jack London was building a yacht with the intention of sailing around the world, hundreds of fans and would-be adventurers wrote to the famous writer to apply for a spot on his crew. As the 45-foot boat finally set sail on April 23, 1907, one of the chosen applicants on board was 22-year-old Martin Johnson of Independence, Kansas. Johnson was signed on as ship’s cook, despite having no culinary experience. Later Johnson would assume the role of engineer, and he also served as London’s photographic assistant, developing all of the author’s photos as well as many of his own. In its two years at sea, the Snark underwent many crew changes, but Johnson was the one sailor who stuck it out with London from start to finish. After sailing to Hawaii, the Marquesas, Tahiti, the Solomons, and many more islands in the South Pacific, the voyage came to an end in Australia due to London’s medical problems. Johnson writes about his experience of the trip in his 1913 book Through the South Seas with Jack London.

London published his own account of the journey, The Cruise of the Snark, in 1911. While London’s book is written as a series of magazine articles, Johnson’s book is more of a straight-up memoir. I didn’t care so much for London’s account of the expedition. His ego often gets in the way, resulting in self-praise and pretentious prose that only make the travelogue duller. Johnson relates many of the same events that one finds in The Cruise of the Snark, but his writing is clear, engaging, and free of ostentation. He comes across as a very likable guy, one the reader would gladly accept as a traveling companion, and he conveys the average Joe’s wonder at exotic locations and peoples in a way that the larger-than-life London could not. While London and his wife are off having dinner with the king or governor of whatever island the Snark is visiting, Johnson is frequently living the life of a common sailor, hanging out with the locals, or merely exploring the sites—activities which make for a far more interesting travel memoir. Though Johnson’s account is not free of romanticization, and one can infer that he withheld some racy details from the prudish American reading public, his telling of the tale feels more honest and authentic than London’s.

One caveat is that on a few occasions Johnson uses racial labels for Blacks and Asians that are no longer acceptable (not the n-word, but in the same ballpark). Given the time period, one could safely say he just didn’t know any better. For the most part, he speaks favorably of other races and demonstrates an openness towards diverse cultures and perspectives. Johnson actually comes across as less of a racist than London, probably because Martin doesn’t share Jack’s superiority complex. Johnson only uses the term “savages” when he is speaking about actual cannibals, which is an improvement over most white writers of his day.

The Snark may not have made it all the way around the world, but Johnson did, and then some. Johnson’s voyage with London was but the first step in a life filled with adventure. Martin and his future wife Osa would become celebrities through a series of wildlife documentaries and travel films shot in Africa and the South Seas. After Martin’s death, Osa’s autobiography I Married Adventure was a bestseller in 1940. The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas, is devoted to artifacts from the couple’s adventures.

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Friday, August 13, 2021

Benito Cereno by Herman Melville

Suspense on a slave ship
Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno was first serialized in three issues of Putnam’s Monthly magazine in 1855. It was later included in Melville’s 1856 short story collection The Piazza Tales after being slightly revised. It is this latter version that I read. Melville loosely based his novella on actual historical events.

In 1799, Captain Amasa Delano (a real historical figure) of the American sealing ship Bachelor’s Delight anchors his ship in the bay of Santa Maria, on the coast of Chile. He notices the approach of a second ship moving in a peculiarly listless manner, as if in distress. To investigate, Delano boards the ship, named the San Dominick, and is met by its captain, a Spaniard named Benito Cereno. The ship’s primary cargo consists of over a hundred Black slaves, who are watched over by what appears to be an understaffed crew of whites. Unlike just about any slave ship I’ve ever heard of, the slaves are not chained up below but rather allowed to move freely about the deck. Delano, however, doesn’t seem to find this unusual. Cereno explains that a combination of bad weather and illness has reduced both crew and cargo. He needs food and fresh water to continue his journey to a safe and sizable port. Delano agrees to supply the San Dominick with provisions. He is troubled, however, by the odd behavior of Cereno, who exhibits poor social graces and a lack of gentlemanly breeding bordering on outright rudeness.

This novella is notable for its depiction of slavery and its questioning of white Americans’ attitudes towards the slave trade and African Americans. Melville’s narrative illuminates the arguments over slavery that would soon lead to the American Civil War. I have always been impressed by Melville’s lack of racism compared to other white writers of his era. Whether he’s describing the native islanders in Typee or characters such as Queequeg, Daggoo, and Pip in Moby-Dick, Melville consistently treats people of color with dignity and respect. In Benito Cereno, the African slaves are seen indirectly through the eyes and attitudes of Delano and Cereno, who often view the Blacks with fear and mistrust. Through plot details and third-person narration, however, Melville reveals his own sympathies towards the Africans who have been stolen from their homelands and subjugated by an oppressive system.

While the meanings and motives behind the novella may deserve praise and admiration, the narrative itself can make for a somewhat tedious and disappointing reading experience at times. Melville errs on the side of too much descriptive minutiae, calling to mind the more verbose writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Joseph Conrad. In the first half of Benito Cereno in particular, Melville repetitively emphasizes the “peculiar” behavior of the title character, describing every twitch, blink, and bead of sweat until the plot positively crawls.

The second half of the story is a marked improvement in pacing. The whole plot trajectory, however, seems intended to deliver a climactic surprise, but I could see it coming from the very beginning. Perhaps it was Melville’s intention that the reader would always be two steps ahead of Delano in solving the riddle of Benito Cereno’s unusual behavior, but if so it considerably lessens the impact of the plot’s eventual revelations. Other than Moby-Dick, Benito Cereno may be the Melville work that has received the most acclaim from critics and literary scholars. This may have much to do with its historical commentary and Melville’s enlightened views on race. Judging by storytelling alone, however, I didn’t find this novella as compelling as Moby-Dick, Typee, or Bartleby, the Scrivener.
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Wednesday, August 11, 2021

The Shameless Diary of an Explorer by Robert Dunn

Miserable Mt. McKinley expedition, with anti-Semitism
Robert Dunn was a journalist, born in Rhode Island and educated at Harvard. After gaining some travel experience in Alaska, he accompanied Dr. Frederick Cook on his 1903 expedition to climb Mt. McKinley, now known as Denali, the highest mountain in North America. Dunn chronicled the journey in his 1907 book The Shameless Diary of an Explorer. In his introduction, Dunn states that his intention was to write an honest account of wilderness exploration, one unencumbered by romantic baggage and phony heroism. Perhaps this asserted frankness is what Dunn means by “shameless.” He certainly doesn’t sugar-coat his narrative of the trip. In fact, he has very little good to say about Alaska or his traveling companions.

Cook’s team was not the first to attempt to climb McKinley. By 1903, however, no one had yet charted a successful route to the summit. After debarking from a steamer at the coastal village of Tyonek, Dunn and company spend half the book just getting to the base of the mountain, a tedious and arduous journey. Day after lugubrious day Dunn’s diary tells of trudging through muddy tundra and sucking swamps, fording countless streams and rivers—always wet, always filthy, plagued by mosquitos, always irritable. The six men in the company soon grow to dislike one another, or at least Dunn despises the rest, which is all you hear about. Dunn may have accomplished his goal of brutal frankness, but the resulting narrative leaves little for the reader to enjoy. I could have used just a touch of that romantic heroism he worked so hard to eschew.

Dunn says he was appointed by Cook as second in command of the expedition. He also served as geologist, but barely mentions geology. Another team member was a botanist, but if there was a scientific purpose to this expedition, it is not revealed by Dunn’s narrative. Climbing the mountain was the primary goal, and mostly what the reader gets is an account of the drudgery and misery involved in working towards that end. The best this book has to offer is a few passages of natural description that somewhat convey the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness. Most of the time, however, Dunn seems more concerned with ostentatious verbage than with educating the reader, so his prose is often annoying and frustratingly difficult to decipher.

Cook’s name is never mentioned in the book; he is only referred to as “the professor.” Dunn may have changed the names of the other four members of the expedition as well, in order to give himself free rein to speak poorly of them. The impression one gets, however, is that Dunn is the last person with whom you’d want to climb a mountain. He speaks as if he were a genius with all the answers, while the rest of the group are a bunch of idiots. In doing so, he reveals the ugliness of his own personality. It is often apparent that he would rather complain than contribute. In addition, Dunn makes comments that reveal him to be a racist and an anti-Semite. One of the team members was Jewish, and Dunn never lets you forget it. He has nothing good to say about the guy, and attributes all the man’s faults to his ethnicity. In 1903, it was not uncommon for white writers to extoll the glories of the Anglo-Saxon race while propagating stereotypes of everybody else. Jack London or John Muir may have had the literary talent to partially offset such antiquated bigotry, but Dunn does not. Plenty of explorers and nature writers have penned travelogues of Alaska. Don’t waste your time reading this one.
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Monday, August 9, 2021

Truth by Emile Zola

Liberals vs. reactionaries in schools and courtrooms
Emile Zola’s final novel,
Truth (Vérité in French), was completed shortly before his death in September 1902 and published posthumously the following year. Truth is the third novel in Zola’s Four Gospels series. (At the time of his death he had not begun writing the projected fourth novel, Justice.) Each novel in the series features one of the Froment brothers—Mathieu, Marc, Luc, and Jean—as its protagonist, each of whom is faced with one of four social issues that Zola felt must be resolved in order for France to achieve its potential and live up to the Revolution’s promise of “liberté, egalité, fraternité.” Zola used these novels not only to illustrate in great detail the evils and ills facing French society in his day but also to spell out his own utopian vision of an ideal France. Thus, all three of Zola’s final novels begin in his characteristically dark and pessimistically critical fashion but ultimately conclude with surprising messages of optimism.

As the novel opens, Marc Froment, a schoolmaster in the small town of Jonville, is visiting his wife’s family in the nearby town of Maillebois. At the time, each town in France had its Catholic school and its secular public school. Marc runs the secular school in Bonville and is on friendly terms with his counterpart in Maillebois, a Jewish schoolmaster named Simon. One morning Simon’s nephew is found murdered, and Simon is charged with the crime, even though evidence points to the likelihood that one of the religious brothers at the parochial school is the killer. The Church launches a cover-up to protect its reputation. Marc, who has devoted his whole life to teaching his students to pursue truth, becomes the most outspoken proclaimer of Simon’s innocence. The legal proceedings prove divisive within the region, pitting conservative and anti-Semitic citizens against the community’s more liberal Republican members. The majority of the populace refuses to see the truth of Simon’s innocence, including Marc’s wife and her family.

The Simon affair is an obvious metaphor for the Dreyfus affair, the real-life criminal case in which Zola had recently played the part of Marc Froment. Both cases involved anti-Semitism, but the Dreyfus affair was a military scandal while the Simon affair is a religious scandal. As he has done in other novels, Zola uses the fictional affair to attack the Church, but here he specifically focuses on the contrast between religious and secular education. In Zola’s view, the latter option is the only means to an enlightened populace and an egalitarian future. He condemns the Roman Catholic Church as the deliberate sower of ignorance and superstition, the enemy of knowledge and progress, and the betrayer of Republican ideals.

Zola’s last novel is also his longest. It is comprised of 16 chapters, each as long as a novella. Lengthiness in itself is not a fault, but this book does feel overly protracted and repetitive. Like the other Gospel novels, Fruitfulness and Labor, Truth spans the better part of a century and features scores of characters over four generations. The story takes place in four or five different towns, each of which has its confusing roster of schoolmasters, clergymen, and politicians. Zola could easily have pared the narrative down and still made his point effectively. From a literary standpoint, this isn’t his most compelling novel, but as a freethinker I admire the audacity of his strident arguments against religion and his condemnation of reactionary ignorance and deceit. Though Truth was written over a century ago in a foreign land, it is easy to see parallels between this story and the state of America under and since the Trump administration. It is a shame Zola never got to finish his Four Gospels, but Truth is a commendable capstone to a stellar career.
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Friday, August 6, 2021

Bread of Love by Peder Sjögren

Elegiac Swedish war novel
Bread of Love, a novel by Swedish author Peder Sjögren, was first published in 1945. An English translation by Richard B. Vowles was published in 1965 by the University of Wisconsin Press as part of their Nordic Translation Series. Eleven books from that series, including this one, can be read online for free at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries website.

Sjögren’s novel takes place during the Finnish Continuation War of 1941 to 1944, a conflict that formed part of the Eastern Front of World War II. During that conflict, Sjögren volunteered to serve with Finns and Germans in combatting the Soviet Union, and some details of the novel reflect his own wartime experiences. The story is told by an unnamed narrator who travels to the home of his fallen comrades’ mother to explain the circumstances behind the deaths of her two sons, a pair of brothers with whom he served. The war story is thus told through flashbacks and sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks. The narrator is one of a troop of 20 soldiers holed up in underground burrows beneath the ice and snow. Their entrenchments are surrounded by enemy mine fields, so every foray into the surrounding wintry forests brings the possibility of instant death, in addition to the lethality of the unrelenting cold. The plot concentrates on the narrator and three of his foxhole-mates, two of whom are the brothers in question, plus a Russian prisoner named Plennik whom they capture and befriend.

Sjögren illustrates the hardships of winter warfare in boreal regions with details that ring true to reality, as only one who experienced such conditions firsthand could. The story, however, is hardly indicative of the typical soldiers’ combat experience. The yarn that Sjögren weaves is a romantic tale that often harkens back to life and love before the war. Despite the bookending narrative framework involving the narrator and the mother of the two deceased soldiers, the real protagonist for much of the book is the Russian prisoner. At times Sjögren inserts suggestions of supernatural forces toying with the destinies of man, which divert the narrative from the realm of realism into the world of fable.

Sjögren repeats the mistake made by many modernist writers of wartime novels by making the narrative just too poetic to evoke the visceral experience of its setting. Certainly some soldiers who fight in armed conflicts do possess artistic souls, so one can’t be too surprised when the narrator describes frozen corpses or the sound of gunshots with the sensitivity of a lyrical poet. The delicate artfulness of Plennik’s love story, however, with its fairy-tale romance, dream sequences, and siren songs, does clash with Sjögren’s gritty scenes of the brutality and filth of war. It’s as if Sjögren, belying the indiscriminate killing of modern warfare, went out of his way to find the most complicated and operatic ways for a small group of soldiers to die. The result is a story that never feels grounded enough in reality to do justice to either the soldier or the lover.

Nevertheless, if you are interested in Scandinavian literature, Wisconsin’s Nordic Translation Series is a good place to look. Rather than Bread of Love, however, I would recommend The Great Cycle by Norway’s Tarjei Vesaas, Kallocain by Sweden’s Karin Boye, or People in the Summer Night by Finnish Nobel laureate Frans Emil Sillanpää.

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Monday, August 2, 2021

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music by Carla Jean Whitley

No insider information, just recycled quotes
I was a fan of the Muscle Shoals sound even before I knew what it was. This unassuming region in the northwest corner of Alabama produced some of the best rock and roll records of the 1960s and ‘70s. Though the area has been home to dozens of recording studios, two companies in particular are responsible for the lion’s share of gold records to come out of the Shoals. The first was FAME studios, founded by Rick Hall. The second was Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, founded by four of Hall’s session musicians who struck out on their own. Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), David Hood (bass), and Jimmy Johnson (guitar) comprised the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, affectionately nicknamed the Swampers, as mentioned in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” These four musicians have played on hundreds of albums and singles by a diverse roster of artists that includes Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Traffic. Carla Jean Whitley’s 2014 book Muscle Shoals Sound Studio focuses mostly on the Swampers’ recording career, but also touches upon the broader history of the Muscle Shoals music scene as a whole.

If you’ve already seen the 2013 documentary feature film Muscle Shoals, then you already know most of what Whitley has to say here. In fact, I would recommend anyone see that film rather than buy this book. Whitley herself devotes a chapter to the film and references it frequently throughout her book. While the film features interviews and anecdotes from those who actually worked on the hit records, Whitley’s book contains almost no behind-the-scenes information of recording sessions whatsoever. A glance at the bibliography indicates that she only interviewed a handful of people, none of them rock stars. The bulk of her sources are magazine and newspaper articles, websites, and blogs. Thus, the text is largely a collection of quotes, most of which are merely people making general statements about how great it is to record in Muscle Shoals, without any personal reflections about their time spent there. Whitley has opted not to use notes in her text, so almost every paragraph is a quote followed by “so-and-so told Rolling Stone,” “as reported in Billboard magazine,” etc. Whitley is an editor for Birmingham magazine, but her prose doesn’t even measure up to a good magazine article. Instead, it reads like a research paper cobbled together for an undergraduate college course.

Something this research paper really could have used is an appendix. How about a comprehensive list of the albums and singles the Swampers worked on? It would be interesting to see not just the big-name artists but also some of the lesser-known figures who have recorded at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Instead, Whitley mostly talks about the same artists covered in the documentary film but offers less detail.

The glory days of Muscle Shoals basically ended in the 1980s, so the last few chapters of this book come across as rather depressing. The Sound Studio became a museum, which suffers from underfunding. The Black Keys recorded an album in Muscle Shoals and then complained that the experience was no big deal. Numerous small studios have sprouted up, mostly catering to unknown up-and-coming artists. Whitley tries to put a hopeful spin on all this, but instead the book really ends on a downer.

As a fan of the music discussed, I liked reading this summary account of Muscle Shoals history well enough. I can’t really say, however, that I learned a lot that I didn’t already know.

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