February 2, 2006

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America’s Musical Life: A History, by Richard Crawford (W.W. Norton & Company, paperback 2005)

A

The hardcover version of this 976-page marvel came out in 2001, so the new and exciting thing is not the content so much as the fact that you can now get said content for the paperback price of $23.95.

Elvis is in here. The Beatles are in here. But so is the pre-Colonization music of the Blackfoot tribe and the early Christian tunes brought over on the Mayflower. Shape notes are in here, as are Hank Williams and the Carter family, but so is George M. Cohan, who penned the World War I hit “Over There.” There’s a paragraph or two on Run DMC and three pages dedicated to George Chadwick, a Boston-based turn-of-the-last-century composer who many claim created the American symphonic style.

Fans of modern music might be a little insulted to find that hip-hop merits only a brief reference and disco is ignored entirely. However, taken in the context of four centuries of recorded American musical history, those music forms are a flash in the pan, real Johnny Come Latelys. Even Johnny Cash, with his 50-year recording career, rates only a sentence, and only as part of larger passage on folk icon Bob Dylan.

It’s well-nigh impossible to read a page of this book without learning something. The text is clear and well written, if a little dense. America’s Musical Life is not a book you can read in one sitting and it is by no means a page-turner in the classical sense. However, it is a book that rewards you with each turn of the page.

Robert Greene

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