Q&A with Jack Hamilton

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Our next author profile will focus on Jack Hamilton, author of Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the the Racial Imagination and an assistant professor of American studies and media studies at UVa. He is also the pop critic for Slate magazine, and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, NPR, Transition, and others. Here are his answers to our questions…

What author or book inspires you most, now and/or at any time in your career?

It’s really hard to choose a single book or author, so I guess I’ll just rattle off some names. In terms of style, the writers who are in my mind every time I sit down to construct a sentence are probably Joan Didion and James Baldwin. In terms of more general inspirations, I’m drawn to critics, since that’s really how I learned to write and it’s still the type of writing where I feel most at home. The late film critic Pauline Kael had a huge influence on the way I approach writing about art and culture generally, and in terms of contemporary critics I really love Wesley Morris, who’s currently at the New York Times. And of course there’s an enormous list of music writers who’ve inspired me: Greil Marcus, Greg Tate, Ellen Willis, Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, that list could go on pretty much forever.

What is your favorite part of participating in book festivals?

I’ve actually never taken part in a book festival as an author before, so this will be a new experience for me! I moderated a panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book back in 2015, and it was a lot of fun because the panelists were friends of mine and it was cool getting to hear a room full of people talk about my friends’ books.

When did you realize you wanted to write this book?

That’s a tough question. The book evolved out of my PhD dissertation, so I guess the literal answer would be when I first really formulated the topic, which was now about eight years ago. But in actuality I think it’s a book that I’ve been thinking about a lot longer, probably since I was a teenager, when I first started taking music really seriously, in terms of playing it, listening to it, and a little bit later writing about it.

Which part of the book are you most proud of?

That’s another tough question. In the book’s third chapter I got to write pretty extensively about Motown session bass player James Jamerson, who’s probably one of the most important musicians of the 20th century and someone whom the average person probably has never heard of, since he was largely anonymous during his lifetime and there’s been very little written on him since. So I’m proud of getting to shine a spotlight on him, even if he deserves so much more.

Similarly, in the first chapter I write a lot about Sam Cooke, who’s my favorite singer ever, and someone who, while certainly more famous than James Jamerson, also doesn’t get written about nearly as much as he should. And in the last chapter I write about the Rolling Stones, who are one of my favorite bands and obviously a band that’s been written about a ton, but in my opinion not always all that well. So that chapter means a lot to me, too.

What are you working on next?

I don’t want to tip my hand too too much, but I’m in the beginning stages of a book about music and technology over the last 45 years. So it’ll follow some of the threads of my last book, but will also allow me to write about some other stuff I love, like 1970s and 1980s R&B, and of course hip-hop.

At the festival in March, Jack Hamilton will appear in Pop Life: Cultural Influences of Media, with authors Camilla Fojas (Zombies, Migrants, and Queers) and Glenn Frankel (High Noon), to discuss elements of pop culture and how they help define social and political beliefs. You can also join him for Reading Under the Influence with Jack Hamilton where he will discuss his work, followed by a live deejay set by Grits and Gravy’s Robin Tomlin!