CM . . . . Volume XX Number 23 . . . . February 14, 2014
Legends, Icons & Rebels is a hard book to classify. It works as kids' guide to rock n' roll, as a gorgeous hardcover coffee table book on music history, as an art book, as a compilation album with massive liner notes or just a refresher course on the musical hell-raisers of the twentieth century! As he and his group, The Band, did in his the legendary film The Last Waltz, Robertson and his co-conspirators bring us a parade of musical legends that encompass a huge swath of music history. Unlike that Martin Scorsese directed documentary, here Robertson really sticks clearly to his curatorial role, only offering a single vignette that begins each entry. The rest of the text come from Guerinot, Levine and Robertson's own son, Sebastian. In creating this book, the group of men came together to share ideas and arguments in a collaborative process that Robertson compares to The Band's working methods.
The kid-friendly package this team has put together is comprised of far more than just the written word; not only have they assembled an impressive team of visual artists to create a two-page splash for each music artist, but they have compiled a two CD set of songs that covers every artist herein. It's probably difficult to imagine the work it would have taken to compile this collection in this day and age where embattled record labels try to squeeze every cent out of licensing. One has to imagine that only the wide admiration for Robertson's work, not to mention the extensive industry connection of his co-writers, could make such a feat possible.
The array of genres Robertson and company have surveyed here is deeply impressive. In these vibrant pages, we have country (Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams), soul (Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield), Rock n' Roll (Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Elvis Presley), R&B (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder), jazz (Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald), not to mention big band-swing related artists like Frank Sinatra, Louis Jordan and Nat King Cole. Reggae is represented here by Bob Marley, funk by James Brown, ambitious pop by The Beatles and the Beach Boys and singer-song-writers by Carole King and Joni Mitchell. Finally, the artist who Robertson helped tear down the walls between rock, blues, folk and pop, Mr. Bob Dylan, gets the final chapter here.
In picking 27 artists to cover one hundred years of recorded music, the list of arguable omissions is understandably lengthy. I'm sure when the authors gathered together, names like Duke Ellington, Woody Guthrie, Harry Belafonte, The Everly Brothers, Miles Davis, Leadbelly, Smokey Robinson, Lou Reed and Neil Young and a thousand others came up. Geographically, the authors chose to limit the musicians to primarily American with a lone Canadian, a single Jamaican and four lads from Liverpool representing the rest of the world. An omission that does stand out is the lack of any straight-up blues artists; no Robert Johnson, no Muddy Waters, no BB King, a decision that likely stems from the paucity of young-adult friendly themed songs in the blues canon. The other omission that bears mentioning is the exclusion of any artist born after 1950. The result of that chronological cut-off is no Bruce Springsteen, no Clash, no Ramones, no Prince, no Nirvana, no Jay-Z or White Stripes (though I'd like to think Guerinot put in a good word for Social Distortion who have recorded for his label, Time Bomb Recordings). While space constraints must necessarily have required strict limitations, the visual image of the timeline of debut recordings in the appendix coming to a dead end in 1968 does reinforce certain stereotypes of Baby Boomer cultural myopia.
Whatever critiques spring to mind, the most important thing is that this book was made because Robertson, the younger, pointed out to his father that in working with children he found that kids "didn't respond to the average pandering children's music as they did to really good songs performed by great artists." While music made for children can be a wonderful thing, it is my experience that curating music for children from all over the pop canon results not in more musically literate children but in a greater sense of shared culture for all concerned. And with Legends, Icons & Rebels, Robertson and his collaborators have made a bold argument for a shared musical language among the generations.
Jeff Nielsen teaches high school English in Lorette, Manitoba and had been known to claim that "music ruined my life".
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