Books and Music: American Music Month

November is American Music Month, and WXXI has been playing music by American composers throughout the month. I only just discovered this celebration when I arrived here, and it has been wonderful to get to hear a lot of American music, and to choose some interesting examples to feature on my programs in the afternoons and evenings.

In addition to listening to music, I love reading (sometimes about music, sometimes about time travel and exploding alien spaceships...). I have a few recent books I've enjoyed that relate to American music. Here are my suggestions if you want to do a little reading, in addition to listening. I'd also love to hear if you have any suggestions that I should add to my reading list!

* Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture by Ken Emerson

Sure, you'll learn about Stephen Foster here, but what really got me into this book was learning so much about 19th century America at the same time. It's amazing to see how the country developed from the early part of the century (so soon after independence) through the Civil War. It was also engaging enough that I read the entire thing in one afternoon while sitting on a comfy chair in a coffee shop. And if you find you like Emerson's style, check out his book about the Brill Building era.

* To Stretch Our Ears: A Documentary History of America's Music ed. by J. Heywood Alexander

Jenny Lind's letters home. Antonin Dvorak and Amy Beach's polemic over the role of American music. Alan Lomax's essay Bluegrass: Folk Music with Overdrive. This book is full of reprinted primary source documents that take you throughout American music history, and the introductions before each section provide plenty of context. 

The collection goes with Richard Crawford's textbook An Introduction to America's Music, which is a good introduction, but if I could only have one of these books, I'd dig straight into the documents. Crawford has another good-looking survey, which I haven't had a chance to check out yet: America's Musical Life: A History.

 

* Blues People by LeRoi Jones

* The History of Jazz by Ted Gioia

Here are two very different books about jazz.

Reading Gioia's book finally gave me some understanding of the overall history of jazz -- people, places, styles, and lots of details. I sometimes got lost in the details and the names, but I appreciate having a framework around which I can place some of what I've heard. I also think that this book will reward re-reading (maybe I'll remember a few more details the second time around!)

I'm currently reading Blues People, and I'm completely engaged. I'm fascinated by the analysis and discussion of which aspects of African culture could persist and which were lost in isolation in America, and how other traditions developed.
He gets beyond a lot of simplifications that appear in other discussions of jazz and blues. I've also found that his writing has made some complicated ideas make sense through his very direct and clear writing.


Here's one last book I've been reading about American music, but I'm not completely sold on. In fact, I've put it down in favor of Blues People for the past few days.

* New World Symphonies: How American Culture Changed European Music by Jack Sullivan

So far, I've learned some interesting new things about Frederick Delius and read a few new quotes from contemporary responses to Dvorak's New World symphony, but overall, I've been caught more in repetitions of the author's critique of Dvorak's critics rather than new information. I also worry that a lot of details are being neglected (including things that I'd read in documents in To Stretch our Ears) that perhaps are being left out to not complicate the author's conclusions. To be fair, I haven't finished reading this yet. Perhaps I'll get back to it over the holidays (unless I get the new Murakami or Stephenson for Christmas...)

Finally, some online reading. Song of America is more than a cool radio series. The project also has a great website, with tons to read, lesson plans for teachers, and plenty to hear as well. Check it out.

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