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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



American Music

Bad Boy of Gospel Music: The Calvin Newton Story by Russ Cheatham (American Made Music Series: University of Mississippi Press)

 “Calvin Newton is a charming person and a tremendous talent. In his prime, he was sheer magic onstage. After decades of ‘Wasted Years’ he has been welcomed back as gospel music’s ‘Prodigal Son.’” – Duane Allen, Oak Ridge Boys

“I messed up,” Calvin Newton lamented, after wasting thirty years and doing time in both state and federal prisons. “These were years of my life that I could have been singing gospel music.” During his heyday, he was super-handsome, athletic, and charged with sexual charisma that attracted women to him like flies to honey.

By his late teens he had been recruited by the Blackwood Brothers, the number-one gospel quartet in the world. In his mid-twenties while he was singing with the Oak Ridge Quartet, Newton ’s mighty talent and movie-star looks took him deep into hedonism – reckless driving, heavy romancing, and addictive pill popping.

As 1950s rock’n’roll began its invasion of gospel, he and two partners formed the Sons of Song, the first all-male gospel trio. The Sons of Song turned gospel upside down with histrionic harmony, high-styled tuxedos, and Hollywood verve. Their signature song “Wasted Years” foreshadowed Newton ’s punishing fall. This prodigal-son biography, Bad Boy of Gospel Music, written by Russ Cheatham, an associate professor and coordinator of the criminal justice program at Cumberland University , looks back at the destructive lifestyle that wrecked a sparkling career.

Listening to Classic American Popular Songs by Allen Forte, performance by Richard Lalli and Gary Chapman (Includes audio CD; Yale University Press) In the twenties, thirties, and forties, now-legendary American songwriters and lyricists created a repertoire of popular songs, songs that have captured the hearts of generations of music lovers. George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael and many others, along with such lyricists as Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, and Dorothy Fields, produced extraordinary songs of signal importance to the American musical heritage. In this book Allen Forte shares his love of American popular song. He discusses in detail twenty-three songs, ranging from Gershwin's "Fascinating Rhythm" (1924) to Irving Berlin's "Steppin' Out with My Baby" (1947), guiding readers and listeners toward a deeper appreciation of this vital and engaging music.

Forte writes for the general reader, assuming no background other than a familiarity with basic music notation. Each song is discussed individually and includes complete lyrics and simple leadsheet notation. Forte discusses the songs' distinctive musical features and their sophisticated, often touching and witty lyrics. Readers can follow the music while they listen to the accompanying compact disc, which was specially recorded for this volume by baritone Richard Lalli and pianist-arranger Gary Chapman, with Allen Forte, pianist-arranger for "Embraceable You" and "Come Rain or Come Shine".

Learn about these favorite songs and more:

"How Long Has This Been Going On?" "What Is This Thing Called Love?" "Embraceable You" "Autumn in New York" "I've Got You Under My Skin" "The Nearness of You" "That Old Black Magic" "Come Rain or Come Shine

About the Author
Allen Forte, Battell Professor of the Theory of Music at Yale University, has written extensively about twentieth-century classical and popular music. Richard Lalli and Gary Chapman have performed recitals of classic American popular songs at such venues as Lincoln Center in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and Wigmore Hall in London.

America's Musical Life: A History by Richard Crawford (Norton) tells the fascinating story of music in the United States, from the sacred music of its earliest days to the jazz and rock that enliven the turn of the millennium. Beginning with the music of Native Americans and continuing with traditions introduced by European colonizers and Africans brought here as slaves, the book reveals how this bountiful heritage was developed and enhanced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to produce the music we hear today.

As author Richard Crawford points out, American musical activity has taken place in three spheres: the traditional (folk music), which emphasizes continuity and the preservation of community custom; the popular, which seeks most of all to find paying audiences; and the classical (Western art music), which places priority on the musical works themselves. We observe American music making in each of these spheres and see, for the first time, how they have continually crossed over, interacted, and combined to shape the rich tapestry of sounds of the twenty-first century. Most important, the narrative is always set in its proper historical context-we cannot, for instance, truly understand Civil War music without knowing the social and political factors that precipitated the conflict. In juggling political, social, and musical history, the author strikes a happy balance between general background and specific accounts of individual composers, performers, and pieces of music.

For the earliest period, America's Musical Life records activity in all domains of music. We learn of attempts by Europeans to describe the songs they heard Native Americans perform, of sacred music making among the colonists that existed side by side with secular song and dance, of Spanish Catholic missionaries who brought their own music to the New World a full century before the Pilgrims landed, of the first book printed in New England, and of the robust theater and concert life that Colonial America nourished.

The nineteenth century saw commercial interests gain a strong foothold, with parlor music making money for performers and publishers, though not always for the composer. Stephen Foster wrote songs that became wildly popular while he himself was scratching out a meager living. There were idealists, such as the quirky Anthony Philip Heinrich, who moved to the "wilds" of Kentucky; show-offs, such as the enormously talented pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk; "serious" academic composers, including John Knowles Payne at Harvard and Horatio Parker at Yale; and talented women composer/performers, including Amy Marcy Cheney, who performed and published as Mrs. H. H. A. Beach. Thrown into the mix are ethnic musics, slave songs, American musical nationalism, band music, the advent of the phonograph, Tin Pan Alley, and a host of other influences.

However wide American tastes ranged before 1900, the twentieth century offered an even broader array of musical genres, encompassing blues, jazz, musicals, movie soundtracks, folk-revival music, swing, classical music, and rock, to name just a few. Musicians discussed in this section include Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, the Beatles, the Roberta Martin Singers, Philip Glass-the list is almost endless.
Bringing order to this cacophony, America's Musical Life gives us a highly readable and informative account of this country's rich musical traditions.


In 1969, ADDRESSING THE CADETS at West Point about the genesis of his novel invisible Man (1952), the African-American writer Ralph Ellison explained: "I wanted to tell a story. I felt that there was a great deal about the nature of American experience that was not understood by most Americans.

I felt also that the diversity of the total experience rendered much of it mysterious. And I felt that because so much of it which appeared unrelated was actually most intimately intertwined, it needed exploring." Counting myself among those whose grasp of the full implications of American diversity was deficient; I came to feel after reading Ellison's words in 1986 that his comment might well have been addressed to historians of American music. Years of studying the subject had taught me that standard musicological approaches left certain key issues unaddressed. It made sense to be told that an exploration of broader scope might illuminate parallels and intertwinings that give this country's music making its distinctive character.

America's Musical Life: A History seeks to conduct such an exploration by taking performance rather than composition as a starting point. Composers are by no means slighted here. But in a chronicle that begins in the 1500s and seeks at every point to portray the historical conditions in which music has been made, they share the stage with singers, players, conductors, teachers, entrepreneurs, and even writers, not to mention musical creators from overseas.

A historian grappling with the whole of American music cannot avoid encountering generic differences in the way that music has been created, performed, and transmitted-differences that explain why such terms as "classical," "popular," and "folk" music are part of the common vocabulary. While using these familiar labels, however, I have linked them not to an aesthetic hierarchy but to something more concrete and practical: the degree of authority wielded by musical notation.

We begin, for example, with Native American music, which circulated orally. The narrative moves on to trace the musical traditions, oral and written, brought to North America by European settlers, and the impact of the African diaspora. It persistently probes links between musical notation and economic opportunity.

And then, in Chapter 12 (on nineteenth-century home music making), I propose a categorical distinction between "composers' music," for works whose notation embodies the authority of the composer, and "performers' music," for works whose notation is intended as an outline to be shaped by performers as they see fit. The first category, ruled by the written directives of composers, is the classical sphere, a realm where works aspire to transcendence: to outliving the time and place of their creation. The second, ruled by performers who shape composers' scores to fit the occasion, is the popular sphere, a realm where works aspire to accessibility: to acceptance by the target audience. With written compositions split into two categories, music that circulates orally may then be considered a third: the traditional (or folk) sphere, often linked with particular customs and ways of life. Tending to preserve each culture's linguistic and musical practices, the traditional sphere is ruled by a belief in continuity.

From Chapter 20 on, then, this book offers an account of three spheres of musical activity, coexisting and sometimes interacting in a nonhierarchical continuum of time and space. The labels are not always crucial to the story: classical, popular, and folk examples are all described here simply as music. Yet the notion of categorical difference is built in to the consciousness of Americans. And because the three spheres have often been seen as hierarchically ordered (from high to low), the crossing of boundaries-as in George Gershwin's borrowing of jazz for concert hall works or the Beatles' use of a string quartet in the recording studio-has often carried a jolt of surprise and excitement. Moreover, as recordings have turned performances into permanent works, the classical sphere has lost its monopoly on the ideal of transcendence. Without such interplay among the categories, American music history-indeed, the experience of many American works would lose much of its eventful edge.

This story of America's musical life also pays close attention to economics. I trace my own interest in music and money back to the days of writing a dissertation on early American psalmody. After months of copying documents, reading about theological debates, and pondering how to use the tools of musical analysis on hymn tunes, I experienced a breakthrough when I realized that sacred tunebooks were not only religious and artistic artifacts but commercial ones, whose compilers cared about their economic success. Since that moment, early in the 1960s, I have always found it worthwhile to ask how the musicians I am studying have earned their living. Finally, I have grounded this story chiefly in U.S. history, paying particular heed to geographical and social conditions that have struck me as musically influential.

Historians of American music have not always agreed on where the heart of their subject lies. Those who wrote in the 18oos and early 1900s concentrated chiefly on performance. For them, keenly aware of the nation's cultural immaturity, the building of institutions that allowed the works of European masters to be sung and played outweighed other accomplishments. More recently, however, historians have shifted their emphasis toward the creation of music and heightened their interest in musical diversity.

In 1915, the composer Arthur Farwell, writing in the introduction to his Music in America, asked a fundamental question: What would a new world "do with the tractable and still unformed art of music?" What would arise from the contact of music with "our unprecedented democracy"? A decade and a half later, John Tasker Howard's Our American Music answered with a chronicle of music composed in the United States. For Howard, the encounter between democracy and Old World traditions had produced a wealth of composers and an outpouring of American works for the concert hall. But in the mid-1950s, Gilbert Chase, in America's Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present took a contrary view. Condemning Howard's approach as "genteel," Chase declared that America's most important styles were to be found outside the concert hall, where their difference from European music was most striking: in the folk and popular traditions and in the works of composers who borrowed from them.

Histories written since Chase have taken his view as their starting point. No recent historian has questioned the distinctiveness of America's music, nor has any disputed Chase's claim that in popular and folk traditions lie the wellsprings of the nation's truest creative achievements. What has not been widely noticed, however, is that Chase, in overturning Howard's aesthetic hierarchy, opened the door to an older idea that Howard had rejected: the belief of earlier writers that American music history had been shaped more by performance than composition. While Howard had proclaimed composers to be the primary agents of American music history, Chase took his stand with American genres-spirituals, blackface minstrelsy, folk songs and fiddle music, shape-note hymnody, Native American songs, ragtime, blues, and jazz-that relied on the way they were performed. As much as compositional types, these genres were performance traditions that took over and recast any music their practitioners played or sang. Thus, while staking out a fresh perspective, Chase also reaffirmed the judgment of earlier authors that a composer-centered history of America's music would miss the heart of the subject.


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