Rock & Roll Books

Summer reading

Rock & Roll Books

America's Musical Life

by Richard Crawford

W.W. Norton, 992 pp., $23.95

America's Musical Life isn't simply a history of music in the United States. It's a history of the country, with music as the central character. People and personalities take a backseat to art and entertainment, a business and form of worship. Author Richard Crawford demonstrates an incredible depth of knowledge while maintaining a well-distributed balance between the three main spheres of music he explores: classical or "art" music, popular music, and traditional music. Crawford's writing oozes passion for all three, the result of a lifetime's worth of research, begun in earnest in 1961. His scope is grand and all-encompassing, beginning with the music of America's native population at the time of the European encounter, to Stephen Foster, John Phillip Sousa, slave songs, rock & roll, and hip-hop. The reader gets to see the first sketch of Native American music, notated by an early European settler; learn of Charles Ive's double life as insurance salesman by day, seminal composer by night; and read why rap videos are about "posse, posse, and posse." Writing in neither the novelistic style of best-selling historians Robert Massie and David McCullough, nor with the tedium of typical academic books, Crawford tries to find a middle ground: substantial and authoritative but readable and engaging. While this attempt succeeds for the most part, the pacing over 900 pages bogs down occasionally. For anyone who wants a deeper understanding of American music, its roots and its evolution, there is no other single book to really compete with America's Musical Life.

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