Song of the Day #1,073: ‘Jazz at the Bookstore’ – Ron Sexsmith

Ron Sexsmith often writes about music. Not about the industry, but about the songwriting process, the power of songs to move people, music as a metaphor for life.

One of my favorite of his songs about music is the Time Being track ‘Jazz at the Bookstore,’ in which he bemoans the Starbucks culture that turns the work of classic jazz and blues musicians into a shrink-wrapped commodity.

I’m very much at home in a Barnes & Noble, and while I’m not a coffee drinker, I dig those chocolate biscotti you find in a glass jar at those places. But I agree that there’s something perverse about the songs of some hard-luck blues musician who spent a career in dingy bars and died with a needle in his arm playing as light background the crowd at one of those places.

Leadbelly’s in the background
Being drowned out by the grind
He’s singing about “Rock Island Line”
Nobody seems to pay him any mind

Bestsellers and bookshelves
Full of self-help printed word
Some faint elegance is heard
Now was that Ellington or Bird?

And has it really come to this?
Can ignorance be bliss?
I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop
Jazz at the bookstore
And blues in the coffee shop
Jazz at the bookstore
And blues in the coffee shop

There’s a man standing at the crossroads
With a dark roast in his hand
Livin’ in white yuppie land
Over by the milk and sugar stand

And have I really come for this
Cup of caffeinated bliss?

So we browse around
All over town
Sipping coffees that we can’t pronounce
And meanwhile in the blues cemetery
All the coffins commence to bounce

Leadbelly’s in the cold ground
Rolling over in his grave
The hard road where so many slaved
Is now so smooth and paved

And has it really come to this?
Can Ignorance be bliss?
I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop
Jazz at the bookstore
And blues in the coffee shop
Jazz at the bookstore
And blues in the coffee shop


6 thoughts on “Song of the Day #1,073: ‘Jazz at the Bookstore’ – Ron Sexsmith

  1. Amy says:

    First, Happy Father’s Day! My gift to you… I will comment on today’s Sexsmith SOTD 😉

    I like the sound of this song quite a bit, but I find the “message” worthy of an eye roll. The irony is thick, but it doesn’t seem as though Sexsmith recognizes that irony.
    As a Canadian singer songwriter, whose musical influences include Elivs Costello, John Hiatt, and Paul McCartney (or so Wikipedia would have me believe), and who named his two children Christoper and Evelyne (Happy Father’s Day, Mr. Sexsmith!), it seems as though he is a permanent resident of “white yuppie land,” yet finds no irony in the fact that HE is the one writing a song about the injustice of Lead Belly (Ledbetter’s preferred spelling, Wikipedia also informs me ;)) being played in the background of a coffee house or a bookstore.

    Meanwhile, I don’t think Lead Belly would be “rolling over in his grave” at all. Far from it.
    My brief bit of research tells me that his music was covered by everyone from Nirvana to Johnny Cash to The Beach Boys to Tom Petty. According to the fascinating Wikepedia entry ( – for those who would like to read all of it), the record company insisted on pushing his blues music, when he also considered himself a folk artist. Regardless, the Harlem audiences never warmed to him, while he “instead attained success playing at concerts and benefits for an audience of leftist folk music aficionados.” So… seems as though the Starbucks regulars are actually just the children and grandchildren of his original audiences!

    Still, I like the sound of this song, even if Sexsmith has added an unintended layer of irony to it!

  2. Dana says:

    Well, it looks like Amy really dug down into the research on this one.:)

    I’ve actually always been fascinated by all of the roles music plays in our lives and the means by which we access it – how some music seems to demand one’s attention while other music seems to have been made for the background, or maybe as a backdrop/soundrack for our everyday lives.

    I can see where the more “serious” musician would resent having his/her music played as background in a coffee shop or mall or wherever. Then again, I think that most musicians are just happy that their music is reaching an audience and being enjoyed, whether that enjoyment is passive or active.

    At this point, with the music industry in as much trouble as it is, artists should probably be kissing Starbuck’s corporate feet for playing their tunes or selling those shrink wrapped CDs next to the biscotties.:)

    Oh, and i agree, this is a good song…

  3. Clay says:

    I, too, am impressed by Amy’s research on this one. Eight weeks of silence and then she comes on like Alex Trebek. 🙂

    I don’t think there’s any irony in Sexsmith writing this song, anymore than if it were Costello or McCartney. I suspect all of them are glad to have their music on display in Starbucks.

    I think this is more bemoaning the idea of a scrappy, hard-luck musician having his music played in the background of such a modern, frivolously decadent setting. It’s sort of like a master painter who lived in poverty and now has his work sold as fridge magnets in a souvenir shop.

  4. Dana says:

    well, but I think Amy’s point (supported by citations) is that the artist referenced in teh song actually made his living by appealing to the yuppie crowd all along.

  5. Clay says:

    Yes, but “leftist folk music aficionados” would presumably be paying attention to the music, not to their coffee.

  6. Amy says:

    And now they get to pay attention to both 😉

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