Spreadin' Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930

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Rock & Roll Books

Spreadin' Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930

by David A. Jasen and Gene Jones

Routledge, 437 pp., $24.95

Tracing fine lines through a history plagued by bold acts of repression, Spreadin' Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930 highlights the obscured successes of African-American music between Reconstruction and the Depression. Shackled by the stringent expectations of a white market driven by racist stereotypes, black talents often resorted to minstrelsy and "coon songs" as their only ways to make a reasonable living in show business. In the process, underlying African-American innovations including ragtime, blues, and jazz crept their way into the favor of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. Authors David A. Jasen and Gene Jones characterize artists including James A. Bland, James Reese Europe, Eubie Blake, and Fats Waller as not only vastly influential songwriters but also as performers and entrepreneurs navigating dynamic careers in hostile waters. While the book offers plenty of resourceful information on the compelling lives of these musical pioneers, its tone remains squarely academic to the point of a dry, listless read. Nonetheless, the emphasis placed on influential songs such as W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" and James P. Johnson's definitive stride version of "The Charleston" illustrates the tendency for black creativity to penetrate the furthest reaches of white society. Whether published as illustrated sheet music or as piano rolls, the songs of African-Americans stand right alongside those of their white counterparts as an integral facet of American pop culture.

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