Writing about popular music has not always been the most esteemed vocation. It’s been famously likened to “dancing about architecture,” a bon mot that’s been attributed to everyone from art-rocker Laurie Anderson to comedian Martin Mull. Frank Zappa once described music journalism as “people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.”1 And David Lee Roth, the erstwhile lead singer of Van Halen, once remarked that the reason critics liked the bookish singer-songwriter Elvis Costello’s music so much is because he looked like them. Chronicling pop has historically been something of a thankless chore, even as it’s also been a pretty fun one.

At least two of the above quips find their way into Eric Weisbard’s remarkable new work, Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music. (I didn’t see the Zappa quote, but it’s possible I missed it.) Songbooks is essentially an annotated bibliography...

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