Admittedly the motley subject of American popular song is a tough one for academic overview--but this lopsided, often quite...


YESTERDAYS: Popular Music in America

Admittedly the motley subject of American popular song is a tough one for academic overview--but this lopsided, often quite wrongheaded attempt doesn't, finally, even rank as a Good Try. True, Harem has collected some intriguing data on pre-1900 U.S. song tastes--tunes from Britain, Germany, Italy--and he does demonstrate (sketchily) their influence on the period's native songwriters (the Bellini-esque quality of Foster's ""Beautiful Dreamer,"" for instance). But by didactically insisting on examining only the most commercial music, Harem finds himself steeped in poor songs, and, more crucially, he virtually ignores the period's non-""popular"" (largely black) music--work songs, gospels, etc. Moreover, Harem's enthusiasm for his research leads him to give more than half of his book to these curiosities (few of which are later convincingly shown to be continuing influences). And thus, when he reaches the 20th-century explosion of quantity and quality, he has a) severely limited space, and b) no preparation for discussing the black influence on pop music. So what does he do? He packs everyone from Charles K. Harris (""After the Ball"") to Perry Como into 70 pages; he vaguely characterizes Tin Pan Alley as a blend of Anglo-Irish forms with classical European and ethnic Jewish input (a dubiously limited thesis that surely needs a book of its own); and he tries hard to minimize the ""exaggerated"" black influence on Tin Pan Alley. This is a futile attempt, and Harem is soon contradicting himself, uncomfortably facing Gershwin and Arlen, grossly oversimplifying the period. Then--30 pages, on rock 'n' roll (with a sudden recognition of black musical forms) and on to the folk/rock '60s and '70s, as Harem endeavors to deny the continuing presence of ""Tin Pan Alley."" (To do this, he must ignore TV, not to mention musak, in computing popularity.) Spots of insight here and there, and scholars will value the pre-1900 research--but Hamm tries to do too much too haphazardly, an idiosyncratic hodgepodge of approaches. Add in the totally misleading subtitle (Hamm doesn't pretend to cover anything but songs--and most readers will turn to the many specialized volumes (like Alee Wilder's openly personal American Popular Song) or David Ewen's bland but even-handed and complete surveys.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 1979


Page Count: -

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1979