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Beck Explains 'Song Reader' Project

Sheet-music album seeks connection with early pop music

November 14, 2012 10:50 AM ET
Beck
Beck
Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

To experience Song ReaderBeck's upcoming album of sheet music, listeners will have to play it themselves. It's part of an effort to reconnect with an earlier era of pop music, the singer and songwriter explains in an essay for The New Yorker essay. "The culture was closer to its folk traditions, to the time of songs being passed down. The music felt like it could belong to almost anybody," Beck writes.

The singer describes where he got the idea for Song Reader and how it developed over a period of years. Initially, he and author Dave Eggers had discussed a sheet music project for Eggers' magazine McSweeney's, and the idea evolved as they sifted through old sheet music, absorbing the aesthetic. "I wondered if there was a way to explore that world that would be more than an exercise in nostalgia – a way to represent how people felt about music back then, and to speak to what was left, in our nature, of that instinct to play popular music ourselves."

The rise of recorded music changed how listeners interacted with the songs they heard, and transformed what used to be a more interactive process. "Learning to play a song is its own category of experience; recorded music made much of that participation unnecessary," he writes.

Though Beck acknowledges that some people will dismiss the project as "a stylistic indulgence, a gimmick," he writes, "I think there’s something human in sheet music, something that doesn’t depend on technology to facilitate it – it's a way of opening music up to what someone else is able to bring to it."

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Song Stories

“San Francisco Mabel Joy”

Mickey Newbury | 1969

A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

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