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.