Book review: Restless Giant, an imperfect history of Hill & Range
“Behind every great fortune is a great crime.”
— Balzac, paraphrased
Limited exposure to business histories suggest they come in two flavors: morality tales (see: Madoff, Bernard) about the rich gone wrong, and amorality tales about how the rich got rich. History, as they say, is written by the victors.
That a biography of one or both Aberbach brothers needed writing is clear to anyone who has dabbled in the history of popular and roots music, for there, in the margins, lurks the enormous empire of Hill & Range Songs which they created. Restless Giant took Bar Biszick-Lockwood 16 years to write, instigated by the death of its subject back in 1992, and with the permission of his widow, Susan. The danger of such an undertaking is revealed before one begins, for there on the credits page it reads: copyright 2010 by the Estate of Joachim Jean Aberbach. A deal has been made, then, and one can guess that Bar Biszick-Lockwood, then a young publishing assistant trained as a musicologist, took the project on as work for hire. That the final work presumably had to be approved by his widow, and the estate’s lawyers. It is something of a surprise that the University of Illinois Press would publish a book compromised on those terms.
Biszick-Lockwood has the sketches of an autobiography Aberbach left behind, access to his business records and some interviews to his brother to draw upon. She also is able to interview some of the artists he befriended and represented when Aberbach left publishing in the early 1970s to buy and sell modern art. From this she crafts what seems a solid history of publishing and its transitions pre- and post-World War II. She paints a concise picture of how the Aberbachs structured innovative deals and built their enterprise, at least from their point of view. And she does a first-rate job explaining BMI’s shaky beginnings.
Along the way are a couple of stumbles which a musicologist ought not to have made, nor, her editor. On p. 45 she writes, “That all modern American country and western music can be traced back to one of these two artists [Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family] whom he recorded in Bristol, Tennessee, during the 1920s is testament to Peer’s unique pioneering insight.”
Two problems with that, at least. First, modern country music, particularly by 1992 when the author began this project, had disavowed any knowledge of its roots. Second (to be brief), country’s roots go rather deeper than the Peer Sessions. Later, she refers to Bill Monroe’s work before 1945, including his duo output with brother Charlie, as “bluegrass.” Since bluegrass is not typically thought to have existed until Lester Flatt, Carl Scruggs, Cedric Rainwater, and Bill Monroe came together after World War II, that is, at best, a minority revision of accepted history and requires more explanation than offered. Or it’s a mistake that should have been fixed.
Those are both comparatively small things, a retired specialist’s nitpicking. And yet they are also alarm bells. Twenty-odd years in the music business and I cannot pretend to know a thing about publishing, except that there’s money in those big buildings. But when an author gets things I am familiar with wrong, it resonates badly.
The book finished I happened quite by accident upon an acerbic Facebook note from Kittra Moore, the wife of A Team bass player Bob Moore. I’ll not quote Kittra, but she argues forcefully that Aberbach cousin Freddy Bienstock — who brought Hill & Range songs to Elvis Presley’s sessions — was not all that and a box of chips. (Restless Giant does mention that Hill & Range made $400,000 a year in the early 1960s from Elvis’s dross. Why then, do we critics cavail against his output? It sold, everybody got paid.)
That’s what’s missing. Bar Biszick-Lockwood has written a kind of victor’s autobiography for Jean Aberbach. But it’s not a balanced history, offering no dissenting points of view. And in the end I don’t have any sense of who its subject really was. His career in modern art may merit a second volume, though it’s clearly not the author’s home turf and so it’s hard to tell. But a little bit is better than nothing, and Restless Giant is, at least, a beginning.