Since 1987, the nationally syndicated NPR news show Fresh Air with Terry Gross has provided an engaging alternative to the stolid realms of journalism, world events, and arts and entertainment. And during that show’s run, rock and roll historian and music scholar Ed Ward has offered segments for listeners that dig deep into the wellsprings of American music. Generally clocking in at six-to-10 minutes, Ward’s combination of narration and sound clips have continually found favor with casual listeners and music obsessives alike. Recent offerings include everything from San Antonio, Texas’s doo-wop scene to lesser-known gospel, ’60s Texas acid rock overlords The Moving Sidewalks, and the phoenix-like tale of Little Feat. While Ward’s obvious knowledge of the deeper waters of American music is apparent, his love of esoteric sounds is never off-putting to the casual listener who might be tuning in.
“Well, they’re finished rereleasing all of the obvious shit now,” says Ward with a chuckle, from his home in Austin, Texas. “So now they’ve got to go for less obvious shit. And I do have this sort of holistic notion of how things are connected.” And if anyone is qualified to thread together those musical relations, Ward’s six decades as a highly respected rock writer surely make him a frontline contender.
While in his late teens, Ward began writing for what is acknowledged as the first “real” rock magazine, Crawdaddy! Not long after, Ward was in touch with Greil Marcus, the-then-record reviews editor for Rolling Stone. “You know, I never studied journalism. I was enrolled in an experimental program at Antioch College and I just found out that nobody knew how it worked; nobody — literally!,” says Ward. “It really wasn’t much of an education. I had dropped out in my last year.” But he continued to write for the ever-growing world of rock press.
Rather than succumbing to the gushy, saccharine pabulum approach that consumed most mainstream music magazines (i.e., “Win a Date with Tommy Roe!”), those earliest rock publications, with their essay-length articles and interviews, were driven by a style and tone that was more akin to literary journalism.
Over the course of the next decade-plus, Ward would write for, among others, both Rolling Stone and Creem. He helped cofound Austin’s South by Southwest Festival. In his pieces and reviews, he sang early praises of then-lesser-known acts like John Cale, Captain Beefheart, and Bob Marley. Ward also lived the life of a well-published and celebrated chronicler of the rock world, albeit a literary pioneer on a budget.
“We weren’t really thinking about being in the vanguard; we were thinking about staying alive. We weren’t getting paid any money at all to speak of. A feature in Creem paid like $100 and record reviews paid $10 and The Village Voice didn’t pay much more than that,” says Ward. “You had to constantly cobble together work. I mean, my rent was $175. And I had a helluva time making that. [Laughs.]”
Checking accounts aside, as the ’80s rolled forward, work remained steady, including the ongoing Fresh Air gig. During this time, Ward also co-wrote the well-received Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll (1986). Ward’s inquisitive mindset eventually rolled over into a peripatetic existence. In 1993, he expatriated to Berlin, Germany. Fifteen years later, Ward moved to Montpellier, France. The writing continued apace, with Ward working as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. The new environment was invigorating and the non-music work offered a chance to really dig deep into his craft.
“I always wanted to write about something else besides music. I didn’t really get the chance until I was in Europe and The Wall Street Journal needed someone in Central Europe to cover art shows and be a cultural correspondent.” Two years ago, Ward finally returned to Austin from Europe. Fresh Air is touching on its 30 year mark and he continues to publish, including the forthcoming first volume of a two-volume history of rock and roll. Ward is also a regular blogger (wardinfrance.blogspot.com.) However, for all of his storied relationship with language, there are two words he keeps out of his personal lexicon: “rock critic.”
“I hate that term and I refuse to allow anyone to refer to me by that term. It’s a denigration. It’s a way of saying, ‘you don’t work, you just do all this shit for free records.’ I’ve always felt that way. But I’ll stand behind some of the features I wrote as being excellent pieces of journalism that happened to be about music.”