If your music reading interests extend beyond the bounds of standard rock bios, the past year provided a rich array of choices. Here are 2017 books that explored the creation and meaning of music, and the lives and work of musicians outside the pop and rock mainstream.
Frankie and Johnny: Race, Gender, and the Work of African American Folklore in 1930s America
Stacy I. Morgan (University of Texas Press)
The song “Frankie and Johnny,” which appears to have its roots in an actual 1899 murder case, would have a life well beyond those of its protagonists, becoming one of the best known popular songs in America. Morgan’s book explores several iterations of the song in the 1930s: extended studies of Leadbelly’s iconic recording; Thomas Hart Benton’s Missouri State Capital mural; filmmaker John Huston’s theatrical adaptation; Mae West’s theater and film versions of the story; and a harrowing reworking of the tale in a poem from Harlem Renaissance writer Sterling Brown – along with briefer looks at a New Deal ballet by Ruth Page and Bentley Stone, and Ethel Waters recording (one of the only examples of the song done by an African-American woman at the time). The 1930s saw profound changes in America. The Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Age had already begun to challenge views of race and gender, and the social and economic cauldron of the Depression, combined with a new interest in folk culture, music and lore, would give the song a prominent new place in popular culture, reflecting meanings of race and gender then, and shedding light on how we understand both now.
When Genres Collide: Down Beat, Rolling Stone, and the Struggle between Jazz and Rock
Matt Brennan (Bloomsbury)
With shared music roots and contentious early histories, jazz and rock would seem to be musical siblings, as indeed they are. Yet, with the exception of a brief and equally contentious flirtation with jazz rock fusion, it is a relationship both have largely – and bitterly – disavowed: in audience, in popular culture studies, and in critical discourse. When Genres Collide explores the reasons for this through two influential publications – Down Beat and Rolling Stone. This is not a random choice, since Brennan persuasively argues that music critics helped shape the antagonistic dialog – jazz writers wanting to give their music ‘legitimacy’ by moving it into the realm of ‘high art’ and away from popular and pop music audiences, and rock writers wanting to emphasize their music’s revolutionary and rebellious character that owned no debt to earlier forms. It is a battle that plays to this day, as the 2017 NPR Jazz Critics Poll and even Rolling Stone’s Best Albums of 2017 (with the two jazz albums included firmly in the avant wing) compared to albums that appear on best seller lists or even jazz radio’s Most Played Albums of 2017. (Interestingly, Down Beat takes a much more eclectic approach in their Down Beat Best of 2017 list). Here too gender seems to play a role, as a largely male critical establishment erects genre walls, while a rare female critic and Down Beat’s first R&B columnist, Ruth Cage, whom Brennan celebrates here, makes the social, economic and musical arguments for tearing them down. Brennan ends with the intriguing question of how music debates will develop with the demise of the music press, but the underlying social, racial, and economic issues that influenced their narratives remain and will likely continue to shape how we understand different styles of music and their relationship to each other.
Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music
Ann Powers (Dey Street Books)
It’s not just race and gender, but also sexuality that shapes and energizes American popular music. So argues NPR Music Critic and Correspondent Ann Powers in Good Booty (which takes its title from the original uncensored version of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”). This is the lens she uses to view the history of American popular music from the rise of jazz and the classic blues queens, through gospel, teen heart throbs, psychedelic rock, the era of Prince and Madonna, and Brittany, Beyoncé and beyond. While such a focus in the end limits and to some degree distorts this history, it also sheds some intriguing light on how ideas of the erotic and their connection to race and gender shape American music and culture.
The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles
ed. John Kun (University of California Press)
The Tide (which takes its title from Blondie’s somewhat Latinized version of the Paragons rock steady hit from the ‘60s) was designed as a companion to a multi-venue, multi-media exhibition, Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA that ran from September 2017 through January 2018, and explored the artistic connections between Los Angeles and Latin America. Given the city’s outsized influence on American culture as a center of film and music production, however, the book considers and achieves far more. The collection of essays from different authors explores the melding of Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music with popular American forms, the role of Disney and films in the sharing and shaping of Latin American music in the U.S., and the work of particular artists like Juan Garcia Esquivel (whose centennial birthday is being celebrated throughout January in the Global Village), Carmen Miranda, and Yma Sumac. Jelly Roll Morton once famously said you couldn’t get the music right without putting tinges of Spanish into your songs. And though he was talking about jazz, the same actually is true for much of American popular music (see, for example, also John Storm Robert’s groundbreaking book, The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States). By digging into the specific, and sometimes little-known or hidden stories of Latin music and musicians in L.A, The Tide Was Always High powerfully reiterates and expands on that idea through the unique perspective of the city.
Folk Song in England
Steve Roud (Faber & Faber)
What is folk music and does it even exist anymore in our globalized and commercialized world? Turns out that question was asked over two centuries ago, and again in different times and places over the years, most often with some colossally off base answers. Roud attempts to correct some of the mistakes and expand the thinking and knowledge about traditional music by exploring how traditional music was defined and collected in England. The search for traditional English music goes back at least as far as the mid-1700s, inspired by scholars like Johann Gottfried Herder and his disciples, the Brothers Grimm and their search for German folk culture. In fits and starts the hunt would continue in England and then take off during the Edwardian era when collectors like Cecil Sharp came onto the scene (a story repeated in many times and places, including here in the U.S. in the 1930s, as mentioned above, and again with the Fifties folk boom). This hunt for a “pure, undefiled, innocent, artless” Ur-Folk has been the Holy Grail for collectors and one variant of the endless argument over “authenticity” in art. Roud argues for a more expansive, flexible, and historically accurate definition of folk music, explores the agendas and blinders of early collectors that left wide swaths of traditional music untouched, examines other forms of music that interacted with folk, explores specific song traditions, and looks more carefully at how traditional musicians actually learn and practice their craft in this engaging and impressive door stop of a book.
The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums
Will Friedwald (Pantheon)
The album is dead, long live the album! So says Will Friedwald in a fascinating essay that opens this compendium of Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums. At a time when digital music is making the idea of a collection of songs obsolete, Friedwald celebrates over 50 of them spanning roughly a half century of recorded music. Any such collection is certain to draw rebuttals, and this particular one which skews toward jazz and jazz-influenced pop as seen through the author’s somewhat idiosyncratic tastes is no exception. Still, who’s to argue with the inclusion of the likes of Ella, Billie, Sarah, Louie and Frank – even if the specific titles are up for debate. And who also hasn’t at some point wondered about how and why some legendary album got put together in the way that it did, and what stories were behind such obviously intentional works. Friedwald, who has made a career writing about jazz singers and songs, is deeply knowledgeable and deeply committed to this music. Both come through here, as does the clear message that if the album is actually dead, it is indeed a terrible loss.
Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan
Elaine M. Hayes (Ecco)
One of the artists who merits two entries in Friedwald’s book and who crossed over from jazz to pop (among other styles) was Sarah Vaughan. Part of the original trinity of great jazz singers, Sarah never seemed to garner the fervor or the ink given over to Ella and Billie. Hayes seeks to redress that in this major new biography. There are problems with this book (starting with the title, which Hayes acknowledges but kept anyway), but long overdue was a serious, in-depth look at the life and music of The Divine One.
Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz
Fred Hersch (Crown Archetype)
Pianist and gay rights and AIDS activist Fred Hersch had a remarkable 2017. Widely regarded as one of the finest jazz pianists on the scene today, he was honored with two French jazz awards, saw his 2017 album, Open Book, nominated for two Grammys, and garnered critical acclaim for this memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly. The book follows both his musical and personal odyssey. The story of his own emerging career offers insights both into today’s jazz scene and how a jazz musician thinks, creates, and works. Paralleling that is Hersch’s coming out stories – first as gay and then as HIV positive. Perhaps the most compelling and harrowing section of the book comes as he recounts the health crisis that left him in a coma for two months and the vivid “coma dreams” he had during that time (later fashioned into the multi-media My Coma Dreams performance piece). The title of the book comes from a doctor’s assessment of Hersch’s condition during the period of his coma, saying that good things would happen slowly, but bad things would happen fast. Thanks to that slow and remarkable recovery Fred Hersch is here and able to create the work that brought him such acclaim in 2017. We hope for many more years of music to come from this remarkable talent.
Highlife Giants: West African Dance Band Pioneers
John Collins (Cassava Republic)
Africa offers a rich and varied array of musical styles, but a few found wider acceptance across the continent and around the world, including the sound called high life. A blend of influences from Africa, Europe and the Caribbean, high life took elements from brass bands, ballroom orchestras, and coastal guitar music. By the 1920s, an early form had emerged. It flowered in a glorious golden age in the ‘50s and ‘60s when influential bands from Ghana, Nigeria and Benin fashioned a popular and lively urban sound. Musician and professor John Collins follows the stories of the music and some of its most influential artists and bands (a number of whom he knew and worked with) from early developments to a recent revival. Highlife is not merely an historic artifact. It was influenced by and influenced American jazz; it was the music Afrobeat legend Fela played early in his career; and it has captured the attention of world music audiences through more recent reissues and the revival of careers of pivotal artists like Ebo Taylor. Collins’ necessary and entertaining book offers an important history of this music.
Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life
Jonathan Gould (Crown Archetype)
Six months after his breakthrough performance at the Monterey Pop Festival (fifty years ago in 2017) and before the release of his only Number One hit, "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding would die in a plane crash outside Madison, Wisconsin at the age of 26. One of the greatest soul singers of all time, Redding left behind only a small handful of albums (and an equal number of posthumous releases), a few interviews, and precious little information about his life. It is a testament to his talent that he remains such a major figure and powerful influence to this day. With access to family members, extensive research, and a wider view that takes in the evolution of American popular music and the racial, social, and music industry issues that helped shape it, Gould fashions a large tale from the all too small period of time that this magnificent talent was with us.