If it’s Grammy season, it’s time for the annual consideration paid to what many see because the Recording Academy’s longstanding and well-known variety challenges, its preponderance for awarding Black artists in “niche” slightly than mainstream classes, and its poor observe report acknowledging the contributions of girls throughout the board.
But whereas probably the most talked-about classes have remained the topic of scrutiny in recent times, the query of illustration on the awards could be felt throughout the poll, together with much less starry competitions. Here’s a major instance: best album notes. Since its inception in 1964, this Grammy has been awarded to a complete of three ladies. The first was the polymathic artist and critic Thulani Davis, who broke that cup ceiling in 1993 when she received for her luminous and sweeping essay accompanying the Aretha Franklin boxed set “Queen of Soul — The Atlantic Recordings.”
Her notes for that assortment, a symphonic rendering of the social and cultural magnitude of the Queen of Soul’s craft in addition to her iconicity, are attribute of Davis’s many presents as a poet, playwright, screenwriter, librettist, novelist and humanities journalist whose tenure at The Village Voice within the 1970s and ’80s blazed a path for a technology of Black tradition critics. “I’m trying to bend the forms,” she mentioned throughout a video interview final month.
That bending is clear, significantly in her new assortment of poetry, “Nothing But the Music,” a quantity of lyrical dispatches from dense, swirling websites of Black musical conviviality, wrestle and transformation. Like her music criticism, Davis’s poems are concurrently intimate and panoramic, reverberating with the depth and grandeur of Black social and cultural life throughout house and time. They are genres of writing that, for her, are intently linked to at least one one other. Davis says she thinks of poetry as “another form of liner notes.” Both are “an invitation to experience the music.”
The originality that Davis delivered to the notes style little doubt performed a job in her Grammy breakthrough. But it didn’t open the floodgates to different ladies writing liners, an ongoing inequity that has largely gone unnoticed in a comparatively obscure class. Liner notes emerged in full within the mid-1950s with the rise of the 33 ⅓ disc as a type of promoting. They had been printed on the sleeve — the very “lining” of the report — and reworked within the many years that adopted right into a showcase for typically masterful essential profiles of an artist’s ambition; meditations on the event for the album; explorations of the making of the report; or essays on the imaginative and prescient of the work as a complete.
In the post-World War II “golden age” of jazz music criticism, figures like Nat Hentoff, Ralph J. Gleason, Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler generated prodigious our bodies of notes that provide vivid takes on the trendy jazz canon. The rise of rock music criticism produced its personal class of writers — the crossover determine Gleason (a founding father of Rolling Stone), Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs — who wrote notes that captured the depth and convictions of their trademark prose. But the ’60s and ’70s additionally noticed artists themselves (John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Sun Ra and Frank Zappa, amongst them) writing about or alongside of their very own releases, dropping so-called Easter eggs right here and there for his or her most obsessive followers.
The Grammys’ attribute cultural conservatism has all the time held its grip on the notes class. Nominations skewed closely within the early years towards detailed, well-tailored essays by critics and students who wrote accompaniments for jazz, classical and roots Americana recordings. And throughout time, “prestige” and commemorative releases have been favored — particularly boomer nostalgia boxed units and landmark reissues that talk to the longstanding legacies of musical giants (Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, Thelonious Monk, Sam Cooke, Charlie Parker); game-changing labels (Paramount, Stax); and historic collections (minstrel present music archives, folks anthologies, regional music compilations).
Davis’s essay, “Aretha Franklin, Do Right Diva,” stays a standout on this listing of Grammy winners. Written from the vantage level of a Black feminist critic, her notes effortlessly navigate the various dimensions of Franklin’s affect as an artist — encompassing the size of her legacy, the socio-historic import of her Atlantic recordings and her astonishing aesthetic improvements, all conveyed with the type of sincerity and intelligence of feeling akin to Aretha’s singing.
“I decided to be a prism,” Davis mentioned, “articulating all the different colors of light from a lifetime of listening to this woman, and what I thought other people had shared with me about experiencing her.”
Twenty-three years earlier than Davis’s win, Joan Baez was the primary lady to obtain a nomination, for the notes accompanying her personal nation LP, “David’s Album.” (She misplaced to Johnny Cash, who famously wrote notes for Bob Dylan’s 1969 “Nashville Skyline.”) During the many years in between, ladies acquired just a few nominations for classical releases, however standard music liner notes remained overwhelmingly dominated by males.
This century’s ladies nominees have included two formidable veteran music critics working the rock beat: Holly George-Warren (for Janis Joplin, “The Pearl Sessions”) and Amanda Petrusich (for Bob Dylan, “Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981”); in addition to the Black Arts Movement poet and author Mari Evans, for her notes for “The Long Road Back to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music.”
The solely different Black lady to win on this class, the Los Angeles music critic and cultural historian Lynell George, sees this gender imbalance as one involving legibility within the arts-writing occupation extra broadly. “I would show up to interview a musician right after sound check,” she mentioned, and safety would ask if she was the singer, unable to think about she was the author. George relished the flexibility to buck the bigotry of these expectations: “I’m the one that’s going to be telling the damn story.”
George’s win got here in 2018 for her dazzling notes accompanying “Live at the Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings, Performed by Otis Redding.” In a telephone interview, George referred to it “360 immersive experience,” one which pulls you into the thick of the Sunset Strip in April 1966, when the soul thinker Redding, vying for a pop crossover, dove right into a three-night run at a venue that was nonetheless steeped within the segregation of social Los Angeles. George, a chronicler of Black life within the metropolis, knew the story of those exhibits couldn’t be a triumphalist narrative. She offers voice to a various cross-section of individuals on the scene: the musician Ry Cooder, for instance, from the attitude of his dressing room; and Paul Body, a teenage fan too younger to enter, who witnessed from exterior on the sidewalk.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Joni Mitchell stays probably the most well-known lady to win the award, with the colourful, visionary notes for her career-spanning 2014 assortment “Love Has Many Faces,” by which she recounts taking part in the completed model of her “Court and Spark” album (1974) for a small group together with David Geffen and Dylan. “I was so proud of it — my first band!” Mitchell writes with a candor and ease that permeates these notes. “Bob pretended to fall asleep and when the last note faded out, Geffen nodded feebly.” Aptly studying the gender dynamics of the room at the moment, she wryly concludes the anecdote: “I think I’m Jackie Robinson.”
Like Davis and George’s work, Mitchell’s contribution to the style is a reminder of how writing about information from the vantage level of the marginalized gives contemporary methods of listening to the sounds. These are initiatives that break the “old boys network” of liner notes writing, because the jazz historian Maxine Gordon calls it, by asserting the authority of the lady listener.
Gordon, whose notes for the 2020 reissue of Shirley Scott’s 1975 album “One for Me” (which Gordon additionally govt produced) emphasizes the significance of such a job for each the musician in addition to the lady who will get to write down her story within the studio. In an interview, she recalled Scott, often known as the “Queen of the (Hammond) Organ,” sharing how, at sure factors in her profession, “Somebody wrote liner notes that had nothing to do with anything, and never spoke to me. They never asked me.”
The capability to take an intricate snapshot of a specific recording after which hint the concentric circles of its resonance past the studio are causes notes nonetheless matter and why these ladies authors so deeply worth them. “We lose so much,” Gordon mentioned, from “not being able to read the history of the recording and the personnel.” This, for her, is certainly one of her issues about what will get misplaced in our streaming tradition — “I want to know who’s playing.” George concurs: Recalling her childhood fascination with the notes on Stevie Wonder’s 1970s albums, she cited the pleasure in “reading the acknowledgments and that whole life of production, what happens behind the music,” the “spirit” of all of it.
Without a recognition of these ladies documenting the spirit of the music, taking notes and maintaining rating, we lose a vital piece of the historical past of the music itself because it was acquired and felt by ladies listeners — the typically invisible critics who, nonetheless, have their very own tales to inform about its that means to them, how and why it formed their lives and their communities. Davis, for her half, knew simply what was at stake all these years in the past when she contemplated in her Aretha Franklin essay what is important to “come to grips” with that singer’s “power as an interpreter of lyrics.”
You must “give it up,” she writes. “You have to stand and testify, offer some broken heart of your own.”
Daphne A. Brooks is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of African-American Studies at Yale University. She is the creator of “Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound” (Harvard University Press, 2021).