A Hipper Grove Hits the Net


By Thane Peterson So, who knew country-music star Dolly Parton really was one of 12 children born dirt poor in a one-room cabin in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.? Or that jug-band leader Spike Jones once had a live goat in his band that was trained to bleat on command in the key C? Or that the rock group The Doors got its name from Aldous Huxley's book about hallucinogenic drugs, The Doors of Perception?

I culled all these facts from the Internet version of the second edition of the The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. In book form, The Grove, published in London by Grove's Dictionaries, is a behemoth set of 29 volumes that weighs 119 pounds and contains nearly 30,000 articles made up of some 25 million words. The new edition, which updates an earlier one published in 1980, is priced at $4,850. Yep, almost five thousand dollars. That makes it the type of reference work that until now most people could only afford to consult at their local library.

IT'S A KICK. But the Net version, up and running at www.grovemusic.com since mid-December, makes the whole shebang available at the click of a mouse. It's not cheap. Though you can get a 24-hour trial for free, subscribing costs $30 per month, or $295 annually. But if you're a music lover -- or, like me, someone who loves perusing reference works -- having this dictionary at your fingertips is quite a kick.

The Grove used to be a stodgy tome dedicated to long, turgid essays on classical composers and the esoterica of operatic arias. That's all still there. But this updated edition also has an incredible profusion of information about rock, jazz, folk, blues, country, and other musical styles -- quite a change. "We covered popular music in the last edition, but not in depth," as Laura Macy, an American born musicologist and grovemusic.com's editor, dryly puts it.

No, The Grove doesn't accept change readily. First published in 1878, it's one of those Victorian-era British institutions that made it through most of the 20th century without ever really entering the modern world, growing mustier and mustier with each passing decade. For instance, The Grove's editors waited to include an entry on the groundbreaking Austrian composer Gustav Mahler until 1940, three decades after his death. Even then, they hedged their bet by noting, "The final judgment on this fascinating personality has not been passed." It was a big deal that the 1980 version, the first attempt at modernization, included Elvis. So, in historical context, the latest edition is revolutionary.

BJORK, RAP, AND BLUES. The new New Grove actually makes a stab at being hip -- in a fussy, post-Victorian sort of way. The Icelandic rock star Bjork has her own entry. So do the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Meat Loaf, and the artist once again known as Prince (Britney Spears and the Spice Girls don't -- thankfully). Rappers Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dog, and Eminem are all mentioned in overview articles. And among late, great but little-known blues artists, you'll find biographies of Son House and Mississippi John Hurt. The jazz material, which was already substantial in the 1980 edition, also is much expanded, partly because in the interim, Grove published a jazz dictionary that it could draw on.

Doing a search for "Jones" gives you an idea of the variety of information you'll find on this Web site. Martin Jones, an English classical pianist, comes up first. Listed right after him is LeRoi Jones, the African-American poet and jazz critic (listed under Amiri Baraka, his African name). Quincy Jones, the American composer, producer, and music impresario, is also there. So are country star George Jones, actress and singer Shirley Jones, and Welsh-born pop singer Tom Jones, to say nothing of English conductor David Lloyd-Jones and English classical composers Sidney, William, and Robert Jones. And, of course, we musn't forget Spike Jones and his trained goat.

Not that the latest rewrite won't provoke controversy. The 1980 edition brought howls of consternation from musicologists who thought the modernization didn't go far enough. Notably there was a withering critique in The New York Review of Books by scholar and musician Charles Rosen, who lambasted it for lacking historical perspective and for being disconnected from social reality.

TCHAIKOVSKY REVISITED. In its approach to classical music, the latest version of The New Grove attempts to deal with some of the criticism. The entry on Tchaikovsky (which Rosen heavily panned) has been redone and no longer accepts the disputed theory that the composer committed suicide. For one reason or another, the biographies of Brahms, Haydn, Schubert, Schumann, Verdi, and Wagner, among others, also have been rethought and rewritten. To add social and historical context, there are essays on subjects such as "Nazism" and "Gay and Lesbian Music."

But adding popular music to the mix and putting the dictionary online opens up a huge can of worms. Obviously, we don't have the same historical perspective on Barbra Streisand and Dr. Dre that we have on, say, Brahms. Plus, now it won't just be musicologists who second-guess The Grove. Any schlub who listens to the radio is going to have strong opinions about the editors' judgments. I suspect that once people start looking at the site in detail, Internet message boards are going to buzz with gibes.

My opinion is that The Grove has barely scratched the surface in its coverage of pop music at this point. It's cool to find biographies of obscure blues artists like Big Bill Broonzy included, but who made the decision to leave out such greats as Howlin' Wolf and Mississippi Fred McDowell? And the discussion of bluegrass music -- one of the few original American art forms, after all -- is lamentable. The entire overview article is two paragraphs long and doesn't even mention the Stanley Brothers, two of the greatest bluegrass performers. And while we're at it, when the editors were choosing which Joneses to list, how could they leave out the great rock singer and songwriter Ricky Lee Jones?

GLARING OMISSIONS. Many of the pop-music entries also are pretty cursory, especially compared to the huge biographies and bibliographies devoted to classical composers. The short note on Bing Crosby doesn't even mention his son's allegations that the singer was a stingy, abusive misanthrope -- or that a new book about Crosby challenges those allegations. The discussions of Asian and European pop music are written in even more of a shorthand style. The past 20 years of Japanese pop music are summed up in a single paragraph. Edith Piaf rates an entry, but you'll find only glancing references to other great French postwar figures, such as Yves Montand, Charles Trenet, and the chanteuse known as Barbara.

Many of the entries have a fusty, condescending tone that can be pretty annoying. "Her outrageous appearance is misleading, belying considerable talent," notes the discussion of Dolly Parton, which goes on to add that "her silvery voice" is "most adaptable" and that her songwriting "display[s] a genuine gift for narrative verse and sparkling wit." Come on! I certainly agree that Dolly Parton is a great singer and songwriter. But what's behind the unexplained reference to her "outrageous appearance" Why praise her in such a backhanded way? The stilted language doesn't really get across the basic point: Dolly rocks.

If the Web site is successful, I suspect The Grove will rapidly lose a lot of its high-handedness. Grovemusic.com plans to add all sorts of new features over time, Macy says. For instance, online quarterly reviews of new developments in music are in the works. In the first one, to be posted in April, two musicologists will take on the 10-part Ken Burns public-TV documentary on jazz.

MORE GOODIES TO COME. Plus, "sound [on the site] is going to increase exponentially in the next few months," Macy promises. Grovemusic.com already has links to some 500 other Web sites where you can listen to music, and more are planned. Record-company deals, now in the works, will allow The Grove to post extracts from performances directly on the site. Educational clips to illustrate musical techniques such as arpeggio also are planned.

Macy says The Grove will continue to be a reference work aimed mainly at music professionals. But I believe the Web will pull the whole enterprise out of the clouds and into the real world. For one thing, the online entries will be updated as new information comes to light, so the site will gradually grow more authoritative than the print version. Avid readers likely will become very active in suggesting changes. Subscriptions are too expensive at this point for grovemusic.com to be widely popular. But my bet is that sections of it will eventually be opened up at much lower prices. Why not try to form informational hubs on different musical genres, such as opera, jazz, blues, and rap?

In the meantime, dipping into the site is great fun. Through the serendipity of Web searches, you end up making all sorts of unexpected discoveries. For instance, when I looked up "Little Walter," I was pleased to find an entry on the late blues-harmonica player. But the words "little" and "Walter" also happened to bring up the biography of Arnold Schoenberg, the Austro-Hungarian composer. Did you know that a lot of Jewish artists, including Schoenberg, took refuge in Santa Barbara during World War II? I certainly didn't -- at least not until I started perusing grovemusic.com. I don't know about you, but I love learning about stuff like that. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online


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