Arkansas Literary Festival: Ian S. Port
Rock and Roll Electrifies an Instant Classic, The Birth of Loud
The Birth of Loud is an unforgettable journey through the golden age of rock and roll, peopled with working class heroes, rebels, and eccentrics. Author Ian S. Port uses the parallel lives of guitarist Les Paul and music engineer Leo Fender to trace the process of the invention of the “loud” electric guitar. Through the jangle and buzz of this story of dueling strings comes a much larger story about how these guitars both served and shaped a musical revolution.
Vivid writing brings previous decades to life
The genius of Port’s book, though, is in the lively, vivid writing that frequently thrusts you straight into a past you can touch and hear and taste, with dusty backyards, greasy food, and hormones aplenty.
Here’s Port’s description of the young Les Paul:
“At fourteen, he often performed solo at a barbecue stand outside of Waukesha, in a dirt parking lot where the customers, chewing drippy beef sandwiches in their cars, made a captive audience.”
The style is equally compelling when Port pulls back for a wider view to depict the influence of Bob Wills on American music:
“His style of music, known as ‘western swing,’ was a curious combination of hillbilly tunes layered over a rollicking jazz beat: white American melody and black American rhythm. It was music for dancing, and as its popularity grew . . . it needed to get louder. Which is how Bob Wills came to rely on Leo Fender.”
Gripping narrative of electric guitars also captures a cultural earthquake
The Birth of Loud moves fast, with expert rhythm created by Port’s years as a music journalist. In sync with today’s reader, Port is not afraid to move through modes both casual and lyrical. This is history writing at its best: a major cultural change captured with narrative panache that makes it gripping and fun to read.
Writing this good doesn’t happen overnight. “From concept to execution, it took four years,” Port said. “The main body of the research and writing lasted three years.”
Port has played the guitar since he was 10, but describes himself as a hobbyist. His passion for musicianship and music is clear, though, in his hope for what readers will gain from the book.
Rock and roll is a wider, more diverse, and more radical thing than our stereotypical ideas of 4 skinny white guys in a band.
“I hope they’ll see that rock and roll is a wider, more diverse, and more radical thing than our stereotypical ideas of 4 skinny white guys in a band,” Port said. “Yes, there were the skinny white guys, but then there was also Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters and so many others, and all those diverse influences are why our music sounds the way it does now.”
Port felt that capturing the differences of previous cultures was his central challenge in this project. “The hardest part was trying to convey early on just how different our culture was in the time before rock and roll,” he said. “All over the country, there were very different music scenes that varied greatly by region. So my goal was to show these different music scenes that were fractured and regional, and what that would have sounded like to the people who played the music and the people who were listening.”
Just two boys kneeling on dirt roads, inventing the future of music
As a biographer, Port enjoyed exploring the raw, boyhood confidence of Les Paul and Leo Fender. He admires the pluck that fueled their early musical inventions—boyish experiments as raw as wiring together tin cans to form a primitive telephone. “That spirit of getting down-in-the-dirt with tin cans as telephones appeals to me so much because of how capable these two boys were,” Port said. “They didn’t think there was anything that they couldn’t do. And I think that was a product of their time—the confidence they had in their unlimited potential.”
In the end, Port found that the lives of these two guitar men offer valuable insight for readers from all backgrounds. “Leo Fender and Les Paul show that success can mean different things at different points in life,” Port said. “Both men died successful in their own eyes, but for both Leo and Les there were times at which they felt they had completely failed and didn’t see any hope of recovery. And I think that’s something to take away, as our own lives may go through those same revolutions of failure and success. Neither failure nor success is permanent, and there’s always a chance for change.”
A tribute concert loosely inspired by The Birth of Loud will feature Isaac Alexander and Joshua Asante, guitars in hand, followed by singer/songwriter Bonnie Montgomery and her guitarist. 10:30 pm, Friday, April 26, Four Quarter Bar.
Curious about what all the fuss is over two kinds of electric guitar? Or, maybe you already know, and you just want to hear some of the great guitar songs of all time? Find our CALS playlists for Les Paul guitar and Fender Stratocasters here:
Ian S. Port is an award-winning writer and music critic whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Village Voice, The Threepenny Review, and The Believer, among others. He is also the former music editor of the San Francisco Weekly. A California native and lifelong guitar player, he now lives in New York with his wife, Lindsay. The Birth of Loud is his first book.