It only takes seconds to tour David Gilbert’s West Asheville home to learn he’s a ferocious music fan.
There are shelves of vinyl albums right past the front door. Toward the back is a long room with assorted music memorabilia and a complement of guitars, amps and a drum kit. This is where Gilbert’s bands rehearse.
“I love soul music, I love jazz, but I also really like creative, out-there improvised music and stuff with attitude,” Gilbert said. “The last few years, in Asheville, I’ve really embraced my love of rock. Skunk Ruckus is a punk rock, banjo, old-time band. I played in another band called Plank-Eyed Peggy that’s kinda on hiatus right now. It’s kind of a carnival band, hard rock.”
Gilbert is a first-time Grammy Award nominee—not as a musician, but as a writer and historian. He’s among the hopefuls in the obscure category of Best Album Notes, in recognition of his essays and social critiques accompanying the CD release of “The Product of Our Souls.” The CD is a companion to an academic book of the same title, authored by Gilbert.
The 61st annual Grammys Awards are Feb. 10 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“It’s about African-American musicians, and comedians and dancers in New York City in the decade prior to the Harlem Renaissance,” Gilbert said of his book. “There’s dozens of dozens of books out there about black culture in New York during the 1920s and Jazz Age, and my book is the pre-history of that.”
Gilbert is unmistakably white, but his credibility on this subject comes from his PhD in 20th Century American history. Gilbert is in his fourth year as a professor at Mars Hill University. His partner, Maya, has earned the same PhD.
“What my book does is it specifically puts African-Americans in the center of what I call Manhattan musical marketplace,” he said. “Broadway theater wasn’t Broadway until African-Americans got onto Broadway in 1898. It’s African-American ingenuity, their approach to dance, specifically ragtime rhythm that made Broadway what it became.
“I was really interested in this contradiction, this paradox as I see African-Americans’ role in popular American culture,” Gilbert continued. “On the one hand, music especially, but the culture allows AA an empowerment, an ennobling, a participation in mainstream United States culture. At the same time, the very idea that African-Americans create black music or culture is the logic of Jim Crow. It’s the logic of racial difference, that there’s white culture and black culture. And my book is my attempt to get to the origin of that.”
The liner notes for the CD, about 12,000 words in all, largely come from Gilbert’s book.
“I was begging presses to, like, consider, putting a CD out. I mean, that’s what music historians want is, like, hear the music.” Gilbert said. “So I was really wanting to do it, but they were saying ‘Nobody buys CDs, and we’re book publishers.’”
UNC Press published the book in 2015 and the record label Archeophone produced the CD last year.
“I was really pleasantly surprised Rich Martin at Archeophone wanted substantive arguments about race and commercial culture in the liner notes,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert laughs when asked about his hopes of bringing home a Grammy Award. His prediction: New Yorker magazine writer Amanda Petrusich for her notes on a series of Bob Dylan bootlegs.
Still, his book already claimed one national award, this from the American Library Association.
“And now it’s being totally reinvigorated because the CD came out and also because people are talking about the Grammys,” Gilbert said.