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PETER GURALNICK

PETER GURALNICKThe Blues has changed enormously on its journey from its origins as a local ethnic folk form, to its current situation as the foundation of almost all popular Western music. With his wise analysis of the American scene in times of great change, Peter focussed attention on the music that gave disenfranchised people a vocabulary to express their experience and their ambitions. Expressing the thoughts of many others, he wrote, ‘I tried to repay a little of the enormous debt I owed to these musicians for opening up my universe.”

Peter Guralnick was born in Boston Mass. in 1943, and had early ambitions to be a writer. While still in his early 20s, two volumes of his short stories. ‘Almost Grown’ (1964) and ‘Mister Downchild’ (1968) were published by Cambridge Press. He also contributed articles on music to local magazine Boston After Dark, and later to Living Blues and Rolling Stone. Just as he graduated with a Masters Degree in Creative Writing in 1971, several of his profiles of Blues artists were collated into ‘Feel Like Going Home’, a Blues History which showed how the music had developed over time. The empathy he showed to the artists he wrote about, told a story much deeper than superficial facts: for instance, Robert Pete Williams‘ heart-rending story stands for generations of poor, black Southern citizens, and the songs that were written about them are pure black oral history. A similar approach in ‘Lost Highway’ saw Peter exploring the itinerant lives of Blues and Rockabilly musicians published in 1981 and five years later, his ‘Sweet Soul Music’ told the story of collaboration between black and white musicians that desegregated music in advance and in parallel with the civil rights movement. This completed a trilogy which gave us a powerful insight into the American music that gave people from outside the mainstream (young / black / rural / unconventional) a voice in greater society, which then moved on into world culture.

Research is the key to insightful writing, and Peter used the technique of hanging around, his subjects for a long while, almost disappearing into the background and observing ‘the worlds within worlds’, rather than relying on formal interviews. This allows his viewpoint to be both personal and colloquial, and he expresses his genuine enthusiasm without ever using gushing prose. During the 80s, he published ‘A Listener’s Guide to the Blues’, an extended essay, ‘Searching for Robert Johnson‘ and a novel, ‘Nighthawk Blues’. In 1988, he went with Sam Phillips to a party to honour Elvis’s birthday, and an acquaintance with Col. Tom Parker led Peter to begin his biography of Elvis. It emerged in two parts: ‘Last Train to Memphis’ (1994) documented the rise of ‘The King’, and ‘Careless Love’ (1999), analysed his sad decline.

Peter helped Martin Scorsese adapt ‘Feel Like Going Home’ into a film as part of his admirable TV series The Blues, co-wrote documentaries on Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips, and won a Grammy for his liner notes to ‘Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club’. Peter’s biography of Sam Cooke, ‘Dream Boogie’, published in 2005, tells the story in relation to the turbulent times of social change, and he is currently working on a biography of Sam Phillips. He is also Writer in Residence at Vanderbilt University.

Peter once said, “My aspiration is to write something that will last and convey some human truth.” Job done!